THE SING-SONG GIRL
Men who go down to the sea in ships tell strange stories of the loves of graceful craft for those who can master them. Little did Habdi, the dancing girl of Korea, guess, that in offering herself to Great Jorn she was rousing a jealous fury that would compass their destruction.
NORMAN REILLY RAINE
THE night wind blew out of the China Sea, rippled the black waters of the Pe-chili Gulf until anchored vessels moved uneasily in their sleep, and swept over the bare Manchurian hills to rattle the windows of the hotel upon the height that overlooked the sprawling roofs of Dalny. Within the hotel were lights, and music, and the laughter of women in the crowded lounge; but the babbling tongues of Asia suddenly were hushed as a giant seaman barged through the door.
His great frame was clothed in shore-going gear of quiet blue, with shirt of speckless linen and a flowing crimson tie, loose-knotted about his tawny throat, a peaked cap set, with a faint, gay rake, athwart his hair of mopped spun-gold, and eyes as vivid as a young spring sky. His white teeth gleamed with joy at the swing of the land beneath his legs, after one hundred and forty days at sea, and the sloe eyes of Eurasian girls followed him as he rolled across the room and came to a mooring at a table on the far side.
The undertone of talk swelled up. Questions ran like needles through the fabric of resumed conversation. "Who is he?” asked the women, and again their eyes sought him; careless eyes, appraising eyes. But he laughed back at them like a boy, keen for life, and they turned away, only to look again.
A fat shipping agent chuckled.
"He is not for you, little birds,” he said, an undercurrent of mockery in his voice. "That is Great Jorn Skalka, master of the Puritan Maid, the swiftest windbag in the Orient seas. Did you not see him come in this morning? Ah, what a sight! One hundred and forty days out from Bremen, and she sailed up the Gulf like a swan. He wants no other sweetheart, that man. Let me tell you. His heart is as cold as the ice in his own Norwegian fjords. He knows but one love, and that for his ship. He belongs to the sea.
“His baby eyes did their first little blink under the snowing sky of the Skagerack; his playmates were the wet grey wolves of the Dogger Bank. At twelve years he was articled to a Greenland whaler. Know what that means, my pretty ones? Well, no matter. I knew him in San Francisco ten years ago. He was twenty-one then, and Mister Mate of a Liverpool-Cape Horner. Then he was given the Puritan Maid. She was a vicious ship in those days; a she-devil of a ship.
But he tamed her —it was love at first sight, they say — and he changed her name from the Termagant to the Puritan Maid, and her evil nature died. He drives her through the monsoons, and talks love words to her. And she responds.”
But they ignored his words and watched the huge sailor, who ordered a meal and ate with the gusto which shore food brings to those fresh in from a long sea passage; and at the foot of the steep hill street the riding-lights of his anchored sweetheart rippled in amber to the whispering, murmuring beach.
Midway through the meal he was joined by an old ship-mate, a captain, cordial with brandy, and the joy of a meeting long-deferred.
“Jorn, my boy.
this is splendid,” he roared. “We’ll do the town—”
Heads were turned, and interested tongues commented on the boisterous greeting; there was true comradeship for you—the tremendous friendship of the sea. Grest Jorn Skalka got to his feet and surged through the room like a seventy-four-gun ship-of-the-line through a herring fleet, with the eyes of men on his stature, and the mothering eyes of women on his Viking face.
Down the hill toward the sea they went; through narrow, coolie-crowded streets; amid the smells and colorsplashes and hiccoughing cries of an Orient night. They passed blaring brasses and squeaking strings, the hard rattle of tiny sticks, a shuffle of sailor dancing from a score of dives, and drowsy glances from behind grated windows. There were drinks for his friend in noisy gin shops, and shipmates to greet. Great Jorn Skalka drank but little. He did not care for this sort of thing, yet he was glad to be ashore, glad of company, and he was enjoying himself after so long at sea, as he would tell the mate to-morrow.
DAST crumbling Russian churches, with double crosses A askew against a jewel-powdered sky, and rat-infested go-downs they wandered, until they came to the stench of the beach and the winking colored lights of Sampan Town, where marvellously carved and lacquered junks were moored close to the shingle, and a scouring of empty heads and jingling pockets hall-marked the seafarers of the world.
They stopped before a frame building trimmed with red. Over the doorway was a small sign in English; scarlet letters on blue glass; ‘The Dance House of Korea,’ it said. With wide-open eyes and simple heart, in wake of his playful friend. Great Jorn Skalka stepped from the
reek of the crowded, noisy street.
Within were rose-dimmed lights and rose-madder hangings .panelled in black and gold. There was incense, and perfumed women of the Orient swaying to music; such music as only Asia knows.
Doors opened and slammed and men came in. Fo’castle voices crackled.
Jack of all nations was ashore. There was turmoil, and the roar of deep-sea chanteys transferred for a night from the streaming decks of laboring ships to the quaking floor boards of the Dance House. Men shouted and pounded with bare, dancing feet, and held heated argument in between. An incipient fight was quelled in a roar of laughter. Great Jorn Skalka restrained his friend from bearing a hand, and sat back in his corner enjoying the din.
A sweeping exit left the place strangely quiet in the short lull before another group gained entry. They were a quieter lot this time; mates and engineers off a big “Red Pennant” liner. They drank by the bottle, and sang not a note. Trouble hunters.
One pounded suddenly with suppressed frenzy upon the table until his tumbler smashed in his hand.
“We’re going to see some fun,” Jorn’s companion said with a laugh,
“Habdi! Habdi!” the steamship man yelled, and Mama-san, the wrinkled old Japanese proprietress, appeared cringing before him.
“Where is Habdi? We want Habdi!” he demanded. “Makee sing . . . makee dance . . . number one, chop-chop!”
Mama-san scuttled away.
After an interval there stirred before them a black velvet curtain, with dragons of scarlet and gold, and through it slipped a girl; a girl whose limbs were smooth as ivory tusks, whose slender body swayed with the grace of spider silk weaving in the wind. Her face was white with rice powder, her hair dead black, and her lips were curved in the allure of wild Tartary blood. Lips scarlet and sweet. She was Habdi . . . Number One sing-song girl of the Dance House of Korea.
Music sighed from the lips of Habdi like the breath of an autumn wind through the fringing saw-grass of the great Pinsk marshes; notes fluttered, like the petals of
falling plum-blossoms in the garden of Hung Wu; rhythm, like the drip of secret pools on to the sacred stone of Lhabba, on the Kahn Tengri. Habdi danced—and there was the shimmer of moon-lit river waters; she was all softness and allure, and fire, like the rip of lightning over the jungle heights of Sumatra. She was Asia—an enigma; breathing the life of the sun-lit lands, yet cool, and with a vast disdain. Habdi, man-hater.
Habdi’s lips were curved to scorn that matched her shadowed eyes. Habdi’s eyes, curtained with jet, cold as black ice with disdain of men, swept the room and met the cold blue eyes of Great Jorn Skalka. There was union, instant and inexplicable. A spark, a flame was born in the soul of Habdi, the halfcaste sing-song girl Movement died from her supple limbs; trembled to stillness her body. They stared—speechless. The music, wavering, stopped.
Continued on page 50
Continued from page 9
Drunken anger flared at the cessation of the entertainment, and the men in steam bellowed ugly protest. There was the smash of a bottle and red wine splashed, then, before she could avoid him, the slender golden wrist of Habdi was twisted in the wrenching grasp of a tin-barge navigator.
To his feet, like a soaring Norway pine, loomed Great Jorn Skalka. The flying body of the steamship man smashed through a splintered door, and his fellows scattered in rodent panic before the sweep of the Nordic’s arm. Words, unintelligible even to himself, broke from his lips; words used by his sea-roving ancestors, whose deeds of might had quickened the song of many an ancient bard.
Jorn’s companion grasped his arm, but was shaken off. Too untutored in ways of women to be diffident, the deep wellings in the heart of him melting the ice in his veins, he stood, great legs apart, and gazed into the flaming eyes of the singsong girl. The mar-and-sea defying bigness of him filled the room; his voice was hoarse and grim.
“I want you,” he said, and the steelcased heart of the sing-song girl melted
under an elemental flame. Muscles cracked under speckless linen. The crimson tie loose-knotted about his corded throat marked the rise and fall of the mighty chest. His arms went tight around her.
Out in the night the black waters of the Gulf swirled uneasily with the changing tide. Have ships a spiritual entity? Do they know? Through all the centuries men of the sea have sworn it. The Puritan Maid, discarded favorite of Great Jorn Skalka, tugged secretly at her anchor and swung seaward, as though anxious to be gone.
/^REAT JORN SKALKA drew his savings, in the currency of many nations, from the porcupine-quill box in his cabin. Seven hundred yen was the price of Habdi’s release from the clutches of Mama-san; seven hundred yen, and three yen for a marriage fee. Habdi the unknown, child of a Seoul jintsan tender and a Tartar colonel of cavalry, released from the yellow claws of Mama-san, became Habdi with a name-—Habdi Skalka. And the great, expanding heart of Jorn was filled to breath-quickening with love for Habdi, his wife, blind, benumbing love, speechless, wellnigh, through transcendence, such a love as would live through all the ages.
The Puritan Maid discharged he cargo, and closer drew sailing day. Habdi shivered, hating the cold, sheer, taper beauty of the Puritan Maid. The hours quickened as the ship was made ready for sea.
Sailing day came, and the Blue Peter, a fleck of blue and white, was bent to the halliard and whipped aloft. The black eyes of Habdi Skalka were hot with tears, and the deep throat of the Viking filled.
“Only to Mulmein for teak, Habdi, sweetheart, and when I return,” he murmured, “the Puritan Maid will carry us home; home to my own people—our own!” and the heart of his wife was warm again, because she belonged. Can the souls of ships hear mortal words?
The Puritan Maid, with swarming seamen out on the yards, shook down her lingerie like any fine lady, poised like a butterfly on the blue, sailed for Mulmein for a cargo of teak, then stretched her stunsails to an Indian Ocean breeze.
But, it was Mulmein to London, and the passing of long sea months. Great Jorn Skalka paced the poop, his eyes aloft, or on the horizon, in search of wind, and he carried sail as never before. In glistening oilskins, on gale-swept nights, he coaxed his ship with fair sweet words, and the foam curled aft from the lovely bows —but it was twisted with spite. London to Cape Town for orders, and the seagrass was long on the slender hull. Capetown to Freemantle in far-away Australia, where the surf beats white upon a golden shore: and there at last the heart of Great Jorn Skalka beat with gladness in his barrel chest. The Puritan Maid was to sail for Antwerp around the Horn with a cargo of hides, discharge, and load for North China—and Dalny. What of the thoughts of the Puritan Maid?
Leaving Freemantle they rammed and sank a lighter, and had to put back for repairs. Great Jorn Skalka fumed, and for the first time cursed his ship in his rage. After seemingly endless delay the voyage was resumed. The South Pacific gave them calms, and damp, hot squalls, then silky calms again. The Puritan Maid rolled sulkily, and again picked up the long sea grass. The fretting crew, sullen and bad-tempered, damned her for a wayward hussy, and swore she’d been crossed in love. Wise are the ancient legends of the sea, and eternal truths, too simple for landsmen’s credence, are bandied as thoughtless fo’castle jests.
Seventy-five west, fifty south, and the hoary breath of old Cape Stiff whitened the new-rove rigging. Top-masts were sent down, storm canvas bent, and the slop-chest was bared of its winter gear, for all hands looked for weather. Let them but round the Horn, though, and the way was clear. Let chem but round the Horn.
For sixty days the Puritan Maid battled the giant seas that rolled off the Horn, in endless desolation from the barrier ice of the Antarctic. Days of wildness, and nights of terror; not a dry spot nor a dry stitch on the ship; cursing seamen, eternally tailing on to braces hard as iron bars, crawling out like flies on the swooping, soaring yards, and making futile grabs, with fingers split to the bone, at board-stiff canvas in the screaming dark, black as the belly of Sheol. Tophamper was carried away, and men carried with it. Ice-laden rope-ends flayed like knouts. The seamen’s cheeks went numb with the whip of the wind, their eyes filled with frozen spindrift, their flesh beaten to insensibility: brains beaten to dumb despair, in the grip of the howling blizzards.
Sixty days off the Cape, with the wrath of Neptune tossing the huge green combers, and the mad songs of the Valkyries screaming through the chafed and rotting rigging. The tall sticks of the Puritan Maid were stark against a saffron sunset; weaving in insane circles against a powder of frozen stars; showing black and quivering against a blood-red dawn. She would soar like a bird, pause, sickeningly, on the lip of a murderous crest, then plunge into the trough, rising with a bridal veil of white over her lovely bows, to have it snatched away in the jealous grasp of the gale. Through it all, Great Jorn Skalka, indomitable, divided his courage with the frightened crew, pacing the poop in oilskins, mufflers, jersey and high sea-boots, and with a happiness of heait that warmed him through the coldest of boarding seas, for he was thinking of Habdi, his wife, at the journey’s end.
Sixty days of wildness, sixty nights of terror, and on the sixty-first night the Puritan Maid, a dismasted hulk, with the crew plucked off into the moaning dark, opened her decks to the might of the soaking billows and forever buried her jealous heart in the cold green deeps of the sea.
Great Jorn Skalka, master mariner, a broken derelict, with head of sopping tow, was cast up, flotsam of the Southern Ocean, upon the bleak, volcanic rocks of Tierra del Fuego; dragged from the whitefanged breakers and brought to life in the greasy murk of a native hut. Long months passed, and he returned on a Mission steamer to the swarming seaports of the world. Jorn Skalka, the great frame of him whole; in the lion head of him, nothing. Mad Jorn Skalka.
NUMBER the months, from that last sobbing kiss of Habdi, to the loss of the Puritan Maid. Count, then, the years, on through the cruel Odyssey of Jom the Mad. In his blood lived the undying instinct of a seaman. He was a sailor without peer in the dank fo’castles of the world’s ships—but that was all. Low and hesitant of speech, or speaking not at all, with a slow, non-comprehending smOe, and those wistful eyes that yet saw farther than the eyes of other men, he was left much alone. He was the Balmy Squarehead, and a Congo witch hunt is not more heartless than the superstitions of a fo’castle. Oh, the dumb ache of those wandering years and the eternal question on his trembling lips! A longing, and a searching-—without knowing where to search for ease of that heart-sickness, Ever a small voice called, in the chokedup well of memory, and the gnarled brown fists gripped the hem of a split stays’l—none so skilful a “sails” as he—as his blue eyes scanned unceasingly the heaving skyline for a landfall that never came.
Beating up the Baltic; surging through Dover Strait; breasting the tide rips of Shimonoseki; coaxing the cat’spaws in the furnace of the Persian Gulf; around the world and back again, combing the farthest seas. Plumbing the depths, the beating heart; searching the blue, the dreaming eyes. Mad Jorn Skalka, seventeen years on his aimless quest.
GILVE RED caressingly by time, too ^ deep in his musings, now, for a sailmaker’s berth and too gentle of speech for a bosun’s, Mad Jorn Skalka sat in the fo’castle of the Clyde-built barkentine Semj.er Fidelis as she snored up the Yellow Sea, one-hundred and sixty days out from Christiania, with a deckload of spruce for the Japanese occupation of Tsing-tao. Lights twinkled along Maizurur-machi; the winking beacon of Tuantao drew abeam, then danced astern, a ripple of phosphorus washed to the feet of the sleeping forts on the point, and then dust flew in clouds, as the great anchor links thundered through the hawse-pipes into the sable depths of Kiao-chou Bay. In the morning the tall sheer of the Semper Fidelis drew alongside in the dust-filmed sunlight, for discharge of cargo.
Mad Jorn Skalka sat on a bitt on the fo’castlehead after nightfall, alone beneath the Manchurian sky, listening with dulled ears to the faint murmur of the town. A land breeze came off, carrying with it, in intermittent swellings, a breath of Asia—ancient smells and sounds of the land of the Manchus, that woke dim, far knocking echoes in the caverns of his mind. Suddenly to his heart came a surge of uncontrollable longing, that left him white and shaking with the unsatisfied intensity of it. Heart and brain groped
blindly for each other across the abyss
of forgotten things.
The breeze freshened, bringing a hint of the colorful uproar of the native town along the shelving strand; a dimness of elfin laughter; the stamping and boisterous song of sea-wanderers; and a frail, and wraithlike thought was bom—• the first clear thought in seventeen racking years.
The Viking lifted his bulk against the stars and stood, mute, great arms flung wide, chest filling in a rising arc, a dawning light in the clouded eyes: stood thus, with blanched knuckles and then, wheeled suddenly, and rolled to the gangway at the waist. The night watchmen, lounging near the galley, stared in astonishment as the shadow of the Norseman fell across the moon-whitened deck.
“Here, Jorn! Where are ye gom’ lad? Blimey! The balmy squarehead’s roiakin' for the beach,” he croaked.
Mad Jorn Skalka spoke no word, but clambered down the gangway and on to the wharf. An electric globe at thecomer of a go-down touched his bleached; euris, and ricksha coolies clamored for æ faire. He shook them off and followed a wiüWthe-wisp along the broad paved wuy toward the town.
Long rolling strides brought him under the viaduct, past the post office, and then, unsuspecting, smack into a crowd of his shipmates, drunk as owls. Their boisterous greeting blew to shreds his dawning thought, and the light in his eyes went out. Perplexed, gently smiling, the centreof his jostling mates, he was carried along.
Down to the native quarter they swept, and through a score of dens, until at length they reached the dingiest of them all.
THERE were bellowing songs and clinking glasses as on that other night in Dalny up the coast, seventeen years before. Women laughed and chattered. Twoseamen off a Swedish bark did a rude fo’eastle-head shuffle to the accompaniment of a rousing stamp-and-go-chantey, and at the end one of them ground Mis lighted cigar butt with his bare heel. Mad Jorn Skalka sat in a corner seat out of the din, aborning light in his vague blue eyes. Glasses clattered for silence. A bleareyed. wastrel whose ragged jacket held a scrap of faded ribbon—tribute to genius from his Czar—spun a squeaking piano stool, tossed his lank hair from his eyes and a wine of melody poured from bis slender finger tips across the yellowed keys.
In the sudden hush a dirty eurtain swelled, then parted, and a shrinking figure appeared in a gown of pale sea green. Dead black hair, dead white face, lips of crimson sweetness. Eyes of scorn, and lips of scorn, and slow dancing to thatwonderful.tinklingfountain of sound; grace exquisite, born of the perfumed loveliness of ancient Asia, grace of a cold, green iceberg, in a deep Norwegian fjord. She moved her head, and her eyes, fringed with jet, and blue as a young spring sky, looked full into the staring eyes of Mad Jorn Skalka.
The soul of Jorn the Mad rose, stark, triumphant, the incoherent ache of seventeen vagrant years focussed upon that dead white face. Memory, strong and certain, bridged the abyss, and time melted in that white-hot flood as though it had never been. Drowning the music, the deep, exultant roar of Great Jorn Skalka filled the room. “Habdi! . . . Habdi!” and the crowd scattered to the rude surge of him, as he swept the girl into his arms.
The dancing girl’s white teeth sank into his wrist, flecking them both with quick scarlet, and her nails, like the talons of a budding panther, slashed across his face.
“He’s mad! . . . he’s drunk!” she panted. “He’s mad, I tell you! Take him away!”
A sudden rush of cursing, smashing men, fighters of thundering gales and leaping seas, made to separate the two in the centre of the floor. Jorn, blind to all but the fact that he held, tight in his arms the answer to the riddle of his dreams, turned to face them, one arm free and flailing with the strength of a walking beam. Chairs were split to kindling; tables smashed, men battered to senselessness, amid the crash of bottle ends, screams, and the tread of quick pounding feet. It was such a fight as Tsing-tao had never seen. Nathale, the dancing girl, bit, scratched, kicked, in white faced terror, the centre of a maelstrom, her squirming young body trapped in the crook of his great, sea toughened arm.
“Habdi! . . . Ha-abdi!”
There was a quick gleam of a seaman’s blade, and the giant frame of the Norseman wilted. A dozen arms to raise him; a dozen arms to pitch him out, and the bleeding form of Great Jorn Skalka writhed in the filthy gutter of Ko-mitsumachi, under the cold Manchurian stars.
'^’ATHALE fled, with sobs and terrible J ' shaking, from the steaming room to the seclusion of her sleeping-place and flung herself upon her bed. Before her constantly arose a vision of that stark, mad giant with the silver hair and the sea-blue eyes, who had rushed upon her like a battering-ram of inevitability and called her Habdi. Habdi—of the abiding faith, the steadfast love. What was her constant litany? ‘He will come back, my lotus ... he will come back,’ and Nathale, wise with the wisdom of the children of the Orient comforted, but did not believe. He had not come, and Habdi, her mother, had died of bubonic after thirteen years of waiting, leaving Nathale alone, with the last few yen of her savings,
to fight the cruel world of the Asiatic coast. The child, Nathale, preternaturally wise in the ways of life, penniless and starving, drifted down the coast from Dalny to Tsing tao. Was she to know of the fate of men, in the cruel blanket-toss of circumstance? Why believe in a love undying, with never a sign to show?
Bitter, young Nathale’s thoughts as she lay on her bed, racked by doubt and longing, yet her heart had been caught by that poignant cry. Again and again it recurred, a delirium of longing, which resolved doubt and washed bitterness away. Slipping the dancing costume from her slender white shoulders she donned a street wrap and left by a side door, searching, now, as Mad Jorn Skalka had searched, through seventeen barren years. In the street she stopped and listened. Silence, and the paling stars—then her ears caught the faint echo of a sigh. She found him, crouched like a wounded lion in the grotesque shadow of a joss house.
No longer doubt for little Nathale. Great Jorn Skalka, his head raised from the gutter and laid upon her lap, opened the flood-gates of his heart, and at last she knew. Her slim fingers wove between the salt-cracked, calloused palms.
“Habdi,” he whispered, and her lips rested on his hair. The fever-brilliant eyes were curtained, and the wild-murmuring tongue was soothed to rest. The yellow dawn of Asia crept over the curved eaves of the joss house, and rested upon the bowed form of Nathale, earthly treasure cask of her father’s love, while the cherry-blossoms sprinkled the sleeping hillsides with flakes of melting pink.