The Devil in the Jade
A strange tale of mysterious Burma and the lover who believed in the god that laughed
JORIK RANTA was second mate of the old clipper Ariel, and he stood at the gangway in blazing Akyab, following with sombre eyes the lightsome figure of Nancy Moore as she entered a canopied carriage beside the wharf sheds.
Nancy was the daughter of the Ariel’s master, and many a personable white exile in the eastern ports which she visited cast eyes as yearning as Ranta’s upon her. There was Loren Urquhart. the chief mate of the Ariel, for one: and to him Nancy waved a blithe hand from the shade of the carriage awning. That small gesture sent Ranta forward seething with a fury which he vented upon the shivering Burmese crew. Only a native could labor in that midday heat: only a vengeful man of any color would drive a native as the second mate drove the Ariel’s deck hands. When chipping hammers clattered busily on rusty cable links, Jorik smoked his pipe under the forecastle head and fixed his moody gaze upon the cool figure of the chief mate aft.
Nancy Moore was everybody’s friend. She ruled her father’s ship as she ruled merchants and bazaar stallkeepers, with her electric friendliness and disarming impartiality. The second mate's grievance was born of the unshakable evidence that in matters of the heart there is no impartiality. Nancy had a smile and a hand wave for both her father’s young officers, but it was as clear as tropic moonlight that there was a quality in her feeling for Loren Urquhart which was very different to that shown to Jorik Ranta. And Ranta was moody in such matters. He revealed his gypsy blood in every line of his scowl, every glint of his eyes, every hard breathed word of his grumble.
"It is because he is first mate and I am only second,” he muttered, smoke jetting sharply from his lips, the stem of his pipe trembling under the stress of his grip. “Unless something happens to him”—and he removed his pipe and spat— “he will command a ship before 1 do. And she is like all women. She will take the fattest purse.” He swore for a full minute, knocking out his pipe and reloading it. Then, between puffs, while the match flared up and almost went out to each stressed word that interrupted the lighting: “But maybe she will fall to the man able to sweep her from her feet with passion, too. And what does Urquhart know of passion? Phew ! His idea of making love is to look like a seasick goat when she smiles at him, and say ba-aa!"
The mate disappeared below. The second mate sprang down from the windlass and barked a sharp order to his lascar bo’s’un to keep the men at their work. Then he hurried over the gangway and ashore, warning the gangway watchman against admitting strangers aboard the ship. He took a familiar path along the shady side of the sheds, and through a devious alley behind, to the chaotic and apparently purposeless shop of the stevedore who loaded the ships of the Ariel’s company.
In the rear of the shop was a cool, secluded groggery much favored by second mates. Jorik gruffly ordered a gin and tonic, and swallowed it at a gulp, disappointed because no other sailorman was there to join him. He ordered another drink, and the boy left the bottle with him, placing by the table a bucket of sawdust-pocked ice with round-bottomed bottles of tonic water in it. The hour seemed unpropitious. Jorik drank rapidly and frequently, his gaze growing darker,
his scowl more deeply lined as an hour passed and he must return to his ship without having unburdened himself to a living soul. He flung down money for his gin and lurched out into the white blaze of the sun. The shadows had passed on. He swung along, head down, biting on a cold pipe, cursing his luck in love and living. If he had been chief mate and Urquhart second, Nancy would never have looked at Urquhart.
Midway along the alley he stopped, glaring darkly at the ground. Something glittered there. He stooped and picked up a thin gold chain, attached to which was a green something which sent a shiver through him. It looked to be valuable, yet it was not the possible value of the thing that arrested Ranta’s notice. It was the sheer striking ugliness of it; the strange, fleshly feel of it against his hot palm. He had drunk a lot of gin. The heat poured upon him in the silent alley. He glanced about him, saw that nobody could have seen him pick the thing up, and hurried toward the ship.
Somewhere in Jorik Ranta’s ancestry was a strong strain of mysticism. The thing he had found started his blood effervescing. He ran on board and went straight to the chartroom to examine his find. All work aboard the ship had ceased when he went ashore. The ship lay like something dead under the withering heat. The water held a glare like molten glass. But neither heat nor glare could torment him while he peered at that appallingly grotesque thing salved from the fetid dust of the alley.
TT LAY in his nervous hand, a misshapen thing no bigger
than a greatcoat button. It had the devil’s cleverness in its lines. It grinned up at him, glowered at him, winked at him. It seemed as if the thing had life, as if it squirmed against his skin. His palm burned under it. It laughed like an elf, it laughed like a fiend. Merriment and fat chuckles gleamed in its fat belly and wrinkled face: Satanic triumph and ogreish greed, glowing kindliness and obscene threat, were there.
“That’s a rum-looking thing !” He swore, suddenly aware of a chill sweeping over him. He had an uncanny feeling that this bit of carven ugliness was in some manner closely concerned with him. Too much gin, and too much bravado about exposure to the sun-—these helped to heat his mind to a point where his native mysticism and superstitious half beliefs could sway his thoughts. He was a strong believer in luck, good or bad. This bit of jade, or whatever it was, might be one of those Eastern charms. Who could tell? He had heard much of them. Somebody had lost it. He had found it. Was it good luck that had been lost and found? Or bad?
The heavy silence was shattered almost at the chartroom door. There were native oaths, the clash of a stick on a bony body, a shrill threatening scream. Ranta stepped outside. Then he stepped back. His gangway watchman, a tall lascar, returned from the chase, looking behind him as he mounted the gangway, yelling threats. Into the alley behind the sheds vanished a lithe, white-robed native, and
his shrill invective streamed behind him like a thin jet of acid. The watchman came to Ranta.
“I catch him on the ladder, sahib. He lookin’ for you. He verry angree, I think. I beat him now. He will n)t come back. He say bad things, sar. He say he catch you night time in the alley.”
Perhaps the lascar made matters as bad as possible. Ranta was no friend of any native. He was too hard in his dealings with them. He believed that the white man’s prestige was something tangible which must be maintained through overbearing mastership.
“You keep him off, understand?” he snapped. ‘T don’t want him or any nigger aboard here. I’ll work you up and stop your ghee if you let any stranger over that gangway, savvee? You tell all your gang, too.”
Ranta went below to his own room, locking the door. He was sweating. He drank a carafeful of water, cursing the emptiness of his whisky bottle. He sat on the settee, mopping his face. The crimson curtain of his porthole fluttered as he looked at it. A brown hand gripped the brass rim.
Dropping the empty carafe, Ranta leaped up with a choking cry and fumbled with the heavy port glass. Before he could unhitch it and drop it upon the intruding fingers, the brown hand had silently slipped from its hold. The port fell with a clang, and Ranta darted from his room and on to the poop again, peering over the seaward side. A lighter moved sluggishly away.
A solitary naked figure manned the lighter, lazily handling a long sweep. Ranta shouted after it, but the naked native paid no attention to him. The lighter was empty. Who could have business with it? The waterside hummed with heat. Insects were too scorched to bite. That naked figure went on its lazy way with the sun polishing its skin to copper hue, as indifferent to heat and glare as the Ariel’s figurehead.
That indifference played strange tricks on Jorik Ranta. He shouted again, savagely. He snatched a brass belaying pin from the rail and hurled it after the lighter. He swore like a good second mate when he saw the valuable bit of gear blunk into the shimmering sea and the naked lighterman drift indifferently on.
A carriage drew up to the gangway, and Nancy alighted. Ranta pulled himself together and ran to meet her. Urquhart, who had been as invisible as a ghost until then, magically appeared from nowhere and was at the gangway before the second mate had stepped off the poop ladder. It was always like that. A rotten sailor was Urquhart—leaving the ship to the second mate and bobbing up like a counter jumper when a pretty girl appeared !
Ranta lurched forward. Nancy smiled at him, offering him a bundle of Burmese cheroots. But it was Urquhart who took her arm and helped her up the ladder. It was Urquhart who forestalled any attempt at joining the party by ordering him in strictly business tones to knock off the men and let them get their supper.
When at last ship’s work was finished and the saloon supper gong boomed, Jorik Ranta appeared at table dressed
in his best whites and with a steely glitter in his eyes. He had opened a new bottle of whisky, and was resolved to match his wooing powers against those of the mate in a do or die encounter. He found Nancy and Urquhart at the table, apparently oblivious to the meal, engrossed in a close inspection of Nancy’s purchases. They chattered and laughed, leaving the dishes entirely to him. That was queer, too. Nancy had a healthy appetite, Urquhart had never before allowed the second mate to take the pick of any favorite dish, and tonight there was crab curry.
When Ranta managed to catch Nancy’s eye, she blushed. That too was strange. Nancy was not of the blushing kind.
He left the table hurriedly, half fed, and snatched up his hat. At the outer companionway door he waited. He would catch Nancy alone when she came up, and invite her ashore. He would take her for a drive. That would give him his chance.
It was not Nancy but Urquhart who appeared.
“If you want to go ashore, Ranta, I’m staying aboard,” said the mate. “Everything all right?”
Ranta answered shortly, and the mate glanced hard at him, sniffing suspiciously. Men who drank heavily out there flirted with danger, and he knew that Ranta was drinking too much. But Loren Urquhart was too pleased with himself just then to be critical.
Ranta lingered on deck after Urquhart returned to the saloon. Soon Nancy must come up, then she would have to listen to a real wooer. But Nancy remained below. Soft murmurings came up to Ranta through the open skylight.
He peeped down. Nancy’s head was on Urquhart’s shoulder. Urquhart’s arm was about Nancy. They kissed.
TYA.NTA turned with a strangled curse and dashed ashore. At the entrance to the alley a brown arm reached out toward him from the blackest shadow. He plunged headlong in panic, and never paused until he burst into the groggery. He was sweating when he fell into a chair. The place was full of young officers now ; the air was appalling. A lazy punkah only stirred the fog so that everybody got a full share of it. A boy brought a full bottle of gin and some tonic water unasked. Jorik Ranta was an old patron.
“Hullo, Ranta! What’s eatin’ you? Nancy been unkind to you?” roared a boisterous young third mate from a coaster.
Ranta hated steamer men. He hurled the tonic bottle he had just emptied. It struck the rash steamer man between the eyes and felled him. Ranta was over him, murder in his eyes, and all the boisterous humor was scared out of the stunned victim. Older men stepped in and eased Ranta from his foe.
“If anybody else wants any—” snorted Ranta. Nobody wanted any. He returned to his table, still snorting, and started upon a drinking test against time. The punkah
had stopped when the bottle flew; it was not started again. The atmosphere took on a stupendous frost. Only sailors could stand it. Not until Ranta had drunk himself half silly, and the rest had imbibed courage again, did the groggery resume its customary air of hilarity. Ranta repented his outburst. He was lonely. These were friendly men of the sea.
“Set out drinks for all hands, on me!” he growled, and peace was restored.
“Take a look at this, lads,” Ranta invited, “the drink's down.” He laid on the table the little green devil.
“One of them sharms, aindt id?” rumbled a Javaman. “No goot!”
“What d’ye mean, no good?” snapped Ranta. “If it’s a good luck charm it’s good, isn’t it?”
“No goot efer gomes vrom dose t’ings. I bin t’irty years in der East, mine friendt. Dot’s a bad vun. I seen vun like dot taken vrom a man dot died vit’out marks.”
“This is a bad-luck piece?” Ranta demanded.
The Javaman nodded, puffing hard on his pipe. The red-
headed mate of a Belfast barque picked up the charm. His blue eyes gleamed with mischief. He turned it about gingerly and abruptly laid it down, shoving it over to Ranta.
“If I had that, Ranta, d’ye know what I’d do? I’d put it in a strong box, and the strong box in another strong box. Then I’d lash it up with wire, and make it fast to the anchor; and when the anchor was let go I’d slip the chain on top of it. Yes, my lad. T is a bad, bad bit o’ worrk, is that.” The steamer man, with a black bump between his eyes, impelled perhaps by a human urge to pay something for the bump, said very quietly:
“That’s the dead double of one they found on a Chink picked out of the river tied up in a sack full of snakes. The
police recognized him as the chap they wanted for growing bamboo shoots through an old jeweller in Moulmein Bazaar. The old man once owned that charm. Stole it from a priest. Damned if I don’t believe it’s the same one! There was a mark—Ah!” Solemnly the steamer man handed the thing to Ranta, wiping his fingers on his trousers and gazing compassionately across the table.
“It is the same! I’d know it anywhere. They were seeking a clue aboard my steamer, and showed it to me and the Old Man. You’d better chuck it into the tank, Ranta. You’re a dead sailor if you don’t. Nobody ever carried that thing more than twentyfour hours and lived.” “Ach! Don’d make id vorse’n id is !” gurgled the Javaman. “Somedimes id is fordy-eight hours. Haf a drink, fellers. I must go."
Ranta sat peering at the green devil, turning it over and over, scrutinizing every tiny scratch and wrinkle. It seemed to cling to his flesh. The ugly face, which had seemed so sinister while others handled it. appeared actually to beam up at him. He patted it and tenderly placed it in his pocket. He took his drink with a laugh.
“It depends who has it, my lads. It may bring bad luck to those who deserve it. I’ll bet it brings good luck to me. You, Irish, go lash yourself to the anchor as you suggest. I’ll be glad to let go for you. Here’s luck !” “You’ll have good luck as soon as you pass that thing on to somebody else, old socks,” the Belfast man said, never a flicker in his blue eyes. "It’s none o’ my affair, laddie, but I wouldn’t dare go as far as the Ariel with that thing on me. No, sir, I would not chance it for the value of the ship! Here’s hoping you get aboard safely. None of us ’ll risk seeing you home.”
“Go to blazes! Who’s asking for an escort?” snarled Ranta. The boy who served him was regarding him queerly. The old Chinaman who ran the groggery for the stevedore stood over by the bar, both hands hidden in his sleeves, gazing broodingly at Ranta, shaking his head slowly.
“You’re all drunk and foolish!” snapped Ranta. Everybody drank up in silence and passed out. He alone sat there. And now that they had gone, he felt the need of just one
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The Devil in the Jade
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more drink. Not that he took any stock in their silly yams, but he needed that one extra. He felt a bit chilly. It was a hellish climate anyhow.
When he left, his feet seemed to be possessed of seven devils of perversity. The heavy night air smote him like a sandbag. The alley was full to the brim with black fetor and was surely a mile long. There were no shadows. All was Black. He chuckled over some racy thought. Perhaps luck was not going so badly after all.
HE SIGHTED the gangway lantern, dimly glimmering. That was good. The alley was elastic. Ten miles long. At the comer a dim white shape swiftly moved toward him, long arm outstretched, gleaming eyes . . . Ranta yelled, suddenly incapable of control. He broke into a shambling ran, reached the gangway and clattered over it to safety. Dimly he heard behind him the uproar of an encounter with the watchman. He heard the clash of a stick, and a thin trickling stream of invective like a jet of acid.
In his cabin he tugged clumsily at the screws of his closed port. He had shut that after the brown hand of a lighterman had entered by mischance, frightening him. Now his nervousness would not let him open the port to hurl into the black waters that devilish thing burning in his palm. The check sobered him. He lighted his lamp, poured himself whisky, and sat down on the settee, the green devil held close to his eyes.
“You damned near got yourself into trouble that time, you ugly devil!” he chuckled. “You’re too ruddy anxious to get to work. Wait ’til morning, old son. You got fooled with me, didn’t you? You grin. I'll see what you can do tomorrow.” He put the thing under his pillow and slept heavily. He kept the port shut through the blazing night and dreamed accordingly. It was a nightmare he had, yet it was a pleasant experience, for he saw a man tied up in a sack with snakes, and the face was Urquhart’s.
He did not go on deck in the morning but sent up orders for the day’s work. He peered
along the wharf through the bathroom port His head ached furiously; a million imps drilled at his skull. His throat was dry, red flashes blinded him. His legs were full of water. Any other man might foolishly put all this down to too much whisky, but not Jorik Ranta. He knew better. He had caught sight of a lurking lithe figure at the alley entrance. He knew! How well he knew. For all his torments he grinned. He could afford to grin.
He took the little green devil from under his pillow and rubbed it against his face, almost willing to kiss it. Very soon now it would be put to work. The gong sounded for breakfast, and he went to the table, smiling. His sunny smile contrasted so sharply with his heavy-eyed appearance that Captain Moore glanced sharply at him. He greeted everybody cheerfully and still smiled. He smiled even when the skipper opened his morning mail and made the one announcement that should have wiped the smile from him.
“Some young fellows are lucky,” the Old Man exclaimed with a dry grimace, handing a letter to Urquhart. While Nancy slipped from her chair to read over Urquhart’s shoulder, Captain Moore said for Ranta’s benefit:
“Nancy is to marry Urquhart, Ranta. I was going to say wish ’em luck, but they don't need it. Urquhart’s to go to Chittagong right away and take the Undine home.”
“Oh, father! Then we can—?” Nancy stopped, wide-eyed.
“No hurry, my lass,” the skipper said. “One responsibility at a time is plenty for any young shipmaster. You’ll be waiting for him in Liverpool. That’ll be time enough.”
“I’ll be waiting for her, you mean, sir,” Urquhart laughed.
It was only a youthful boast, good to hear. The skipper nodded at Ranta. “You’ll get a step, too. Ranta.”
“Thank you, sir,” smiled Ranta. “I’m glad somebody’s got the luck. I wish you happiness, Nancy. I’m sure you’re getting the man who deserves you.”
“That’s a very pretty speech, Jorik, and
I thank you,” laughed Nancy. She wanted no breakfast. Urquhart had to pack his gear. Something about Ranta’s appearance struck the captain queerly.
“Not getting a touch o’ fever, are you, my lad?” he asked.
“I didn’t sleep well, sir. Too hot,” muttered Ranta, and left the table.
Urquhart was packing his gear when the second mate entered his room.
“I’m glad it means a boost for you, Ranta,” smiled Urquhart.
“I was thinking all the luck was tumbling into your lap,” returned Ranta. “I want to wish you all the luck you deserve. Cash is short, or I’d give you both a real present. Until we get home, I hope you’ll take this— it’s a good-luck piece—and wear it night and day until good fortune comes to you. Don’t laugh. I know all about these things. This is the real stuff, Urquhart.”
He offered the little jade devil, with its slender gold chain neatly repaired. He had spent a tedious hour over that, and never had he noticed the tedium. Urquhart laughed, turning the thing in his hand.
“It’s ugly enough at any rate,” he said. He caught Ranta’s gaze fixed burningly upon him and believed the man was in earnest. “Thanks, Ranta. I’ll keep it in remembrance.”
“You must wear it. The luck will not come if you do not wear it.”
Urquhart fastened the clasp about his neck, tucked the image inside his shirt, and went on with his packing. He hummed a song. Ranta leaped up the companionway, scanned the wharf from end to end, and he too hummed a song. There was no lithe, furtive native visible now. Proof of the charm’s power? Here was proof. He had parted with it, and the lurking devil had vanished. Wait until Urquhart stepped on to the wharf !
Ranta slipped below and fortified himself with a stiff peg of whisky. When Urquhart stepped over the gangway to the carriage awaiting him, Ranta was busily driving the crew about some work, and called out his so-long with a grand hand wave from the forecastle head.
“Excitable chap,” remarked Urquhart to the skipper. “I hope he’ll do well, sir.”
“He’d better,” growled Moore. “I don’t much care for excitable chaps in windjammers. Hurry along, now. Good luck !”
“See you in Liverpool, sir,” grinned Urquhart, and hurried off. He was glad now' that Nancy had said her good-bys in the saloon. The carriage moved away, and a lithe, white-clad native watched it impassively.
“Curse him! He can’t be u'earing it!” swore Ranta, looking on in a fever of expectation. He feared just for a moment that it might be necessary for the possessor to w'ear the charm visibly. Yet that could not be. How had that slinking native kept tabs on himself so easily? He didn’t like that very much. Urquhart had promised to w'ear it, and he had lied. Lied about a gift. Ranta went to his room and took a drink. He took two. By noon, when the decks were shimmering with heat waves, he was heedless of heat and all else. That cursed Urquhart had lied to him. Lied about his gift!
AT FOUR o’clock Nancy w'ent ashore to 4*. meet her father for a visit to friends. In the blasting heat she was like a cool breath of spring. Ranta gasped at the sheer loveliness of her. In a simple frock of fine linen and a big hat and w'hite shoes and stockings, she passed across the hot decks happily smiling, seemingly impervious to the murderous sun. She waved her parasol in friendly way to Ranta as she stepped down the gangway. As she turned to enter the carriage, something gleamed at her throat. Against the shed a white-clad figure moved stealthily toward the carriage. Ranta almost fell in his frenzied haste to get ashore. He ran madly toward Nancy, hands outstretched.
“Stop!” he screamed. “Nancy! Take that thing off!”
He reached the carriage, w'here Nancy stood with one foot on the step in uncer-
i tainty. She saw the man stumbling toward her, hatless, wild of eye, teeth gleaming and his whole body quivering. She knew he was drinking too much, but she felt a mild compassion for the man because she had been unable to avoid the realization that in his queer way he had loved her. He wasn’t strong enough to bear defeat; that was all. All she hoped was that her father would not notice it. He was at her side, his blazing eyes glancing this way and that, seeking that white-clad native, who had apparently vanished again.
“What is it, Jorik?” she asked quietly.
He thrust his face closer, his hand was at her breast.
“Give it to me! It is death to wear it!” he stuttered, and gripped the thing she wore. She clutched his hand in anger.
“Go on board and take some quinine,” she said. “You hurt me. I cannot give you this. It belongs to Mr. Urquhart. Please go on board.”
The white-clad figure crept into view again. Ranta uttered a growl, snatched the green devil away and plunged blindly for the gangway. Near it, the native reached out a long arm toward him, and Ranta turned, dodged, and sped down the alley with the native after him. Nancy watched him out of sight, then shrugged her shoulders and ordered the gharry wallah to drive on. She would have to write to Urquhart and tell him the fate of his keepsake. Poor Jorik Ranta was undoubtedly on the ragged edge of a breakdown.
She did not tell her father. That would have broken Ranta just when his luck seemed to be turning. But when they drove back to the ship in the cool of the evening, her father had something to tell her. He took from his pocket and handed to her the little green devil.
“Father! How did you—?” she cried. Her reticence was wasted after all. Poor Ranta’s luck was out. Her father seemed grave, yet not angry as she might have expected.
“I’ll have to get two new mates instead of one, Nancy,” he said. “A message came while we were at tea. Ranta was picked up in the alley behind the sheds, dead of heat stroke. Running about without a hat. His dhobi wallah, who had been shadowing him for days trying to get a trifling laundry bill out of him, found him and reported to the police. This thing was found in Ranta’s hand. The dhobi wallah said he saw Ranta snatch it from you. He must have been crazy.”
Nancy thoughtfully regarded the ugly image. It seemed to smile benevolently at her. Ranta had given it to Urquhart for good luck. Urquhart had given it to her for a keepsake. It had brought little luck to anybody.
At the gangway a white-clad lithe figure stood patiently, salaaming as the carriage drove up.
“See how much this laundry bill is, Nancy. I’ll pay it for Ranta’s account,” the captain said, and went to get the money.
Nancy took the bill. She was still thinking of that ugly green devil.
“Have you got babies?” she suddenly asked the man.
He smiled happily. “One small chokra, mem sahib. One verry small chokra.”
“You give him this?” she smiled. She proffered the green devil, keenly watching the man’s face. He took the thing, fingered the thin gold chain, and again his black face lit up with parental pride and happiness.
“My small chokra verry rich now,” he smiled, and salaamed deeply. “It is verry good luck, this god.”