Read CHAPTER VIII of Dragon's blood, free online book, by Henry Milner Rideout, on ReadCentral.com.

THE HOT NIGHT

Rudolph paced his long chamber like a wolf, a wolf in summer, with too thick a coat. In sweat of body and heat of mind, he crossed from window to window, unable to halt.

A faintly sour smell of parched things, oppressing the night without breath or motion, was like an interminable presence, irritating, poisonous. The punkah, too, flapped incessant, and only made the lamp gutter. Broad leaves outside shone in mockery of snow; and like snow the stifled river lay in the moonlight, where the wet muzzles of buffaloes glistened, floating like knots on sunken logs, or the snouts of crocodiles. Birds fluttered, sleepless and wretched. Coolies, flung asleep on the burnt grass, might have been corpses, but for the sound of their troubled breathing.

“If I could believe,” he groaned, sitting with hands thrust through his hair. “If I believe in her But I came too late.”

The lamp was an added torment. He sprang up from it, wiped the drops off his forehead, and paced again. He came too late. All alone. The collar of his tunic strangled him. He stuffed his fingers underneath, and wrenched; then as he came and went, catching sight in a mirror, was shocked to see that, in Biblical fashion, he had rent his garments.

“This is bad,” he thought, staring. “It is the heat. I must not stay alone.”

He shouted, clapped his hands for a servant, and at last, snatching a coat from his unruffled boy, hurried away through stillness and moonlight to the detested club. On the stairs a song greeted him, a fragment with more breath than melody, in a raw bass:

“Jolly boating weather,
And a hay harvest breeze!”

“Shut up!” snarled another voice. “Good God, man!”

The loft was like a cave heated by subterranean fires. Two long punkahs flapped languidly in the darkness, with a whine of pulleys. Under a swinging lamp, in a pool of light and heat, four men sat playing cards, their tousled heads, bare arms, and cinglets torn open across the chest, giving them the air of desperadoes.

“Jolly boating weather,” wheezed the fat Sturgeon. He stood apart in shadow, swaying on his feet. “What would you give,” he propounded thickly, “for a hay harvest breeze?”

He climbed, or rolled, upon the billiard-table, turned head toward punkah, and suddenly lay still, a gross white figure, collapsed and sprawling.

“How much does he think a man can stand?” snapped Nesbit, his lean Cockney face pulled in savage lines. “Beast of a song! He’ll die to-night, drinking.”

“Die yourself,” mumbled the singer, “‘m goin’ sleep. More ’n you can do.”

A groan from the players, and the vicious flip of a card, acknowledged the hit. Rudolph joined them, ungreeting and ungreeted. The game went on grimly, with now and then the tinkle of ice, or the popping of soda bottles. Sharp cords and flaccid folds in Wutzler’s neck, Chantel’s brown cheeks, the point of Heywood’s resolute chin, shone wet and polished in the lamplight. All four men scowled pugnaciously, even the pale Nesbit, who was winning. Bad temper filled the air, as palpable as the heat and stink of the burning oil.

Only Heywood maintained a febrile gayety, interrupting the game perversely, stirring old Wutzler to incoherent speech.

“What’s that about Rome?” he asked. “You were saying?”

“Rome is safed!” cried the outcast, with sudden enthusiasm. “In your paper Tit-bit, I read. How dey climb der walls op, yes, but Rome is safed by a flook of geeze. Gracious me, der History iss great sopjeck! I lern moch. But iss Rome yet a fortify town?”

Chantel rapped out a Parisian oath.

“Do we play cards,” he cried sourly, “or listen to the chatter of senility?”

Heywood held to the previous question.

“No, Wutz, that town’s no longer fortified,” he answered slowly. “Geese live there, still, as in many other places.”

Dr. Chantel examined his finger-tips as though for some defect; then, snatching up the cards, shuffled and dealt with intense precision. The game went on as before.

“I read alzo,” stammered Wutzler, like a timid scholar encouraged to lecture, “I read zo how your Englishman, Rawf Ralli, he spreadt der fine clock for your Queen, and lern your Queen smoking, no?” He mopped his lean throat with the back of his hand. “In Bengal are dere Rallis. Dey handle jute.”

“Yes?” Heywood smiled a weary indulgence. Next instant he whirled on Rudolph in fury. “Is this a game, or Idiot’s Joy?”

“I’m playing my best,” explained Rudolph, sulkily.

“Then your best is the worst I ever saw! Better learn, before sitting in!”

Chantel laughed, without merriment; Rudolph flung down his cards, stalked to the window, and stood looking out, in lonely, impotent rage. A long time passed, marked by alarming snores from the billiard-table. The half-naked watchers played on, in ferocious silence. The night wore along without relief.

Hours might have lapsed, when Dr. Chantel broke out as though the talk had but paused a moment.

“So it goes!” he sneered. “Fools will always sit in, when they do not know. They rush into the water, also, and play the hero!”

Again his laughter was brief but malignant. Heywood had left his cards, risen, and crossing the room, stood looking over Rudolph’s shoulder into the snowy moonlight. On the shoulder his hand rested, as by accident.

“It’s the heat, old chap,” he said wearily. “Don’t mind what we say to-night.”

Rudolph made no sign, except to move from under his hand, so that, with their quarrel between them, the two men stared out across the blanched roofs and drooping trees, where long black shadows at last crept toward the dawn.

“These heroes!” continued the mocker. “What is danger? Pouf nothing! They make it for the rest of us, so easily! Do you know,” his voice rose and quickened, “do you know, the other end of town is in an uproar? We murder children, it appears, for medicine!”

Rudolph started, turned, but now sat quiet under Heywood’s grasp. Chantel, in the lamplight, watched the punkahs with a hateful smile.

“The Gascons are not all dead,” he murmured. “They plunge us all into a turmoil, for the sake of a woman.” He made a sudden startling gesture, like a man who has lost control. “For the sake,” he cried angrily, “of a person we all know! Oh! we all know her! She is nothing more ”

There was a light scuffle at the window.

“Dr. Chantel,” began Heywood, with a sharp and dangerous courtesy, “we are all unlike ourselves to-night. I am hardly the person to remind you, but this club is hardly the place ”

“Oh, la la!” The other snapped his fingers, and reverting to his native tongue, finished his sentence wildly.

“You cad!” Heywood advanced in long strides deliberately, as if gathering momentum for a collision. Before his blow could fall, he was sent spinning. Rudolph, his cheeks on fire, darted past and dealt, full force, a clumsy backhand sweep of the arm. Light and quick as a leopard, Chantel was on foot, erect, and even while his chair crashed on the floor, had whipped out a handkerchief.

“You are right, Mr. Heywood,” he said, stanching his lips, in icy composure. His eyes held an odd gleam of satisfaction. “You are right. We are not like ourselves, at present. I will better ask Mr. Sturgeon to see your friend to-morrow morning. This morning, rather.”

Not without dignity, he turned, stepped quickly to the stairs, saluted gravely, and went down.

“No, no!” panted Nesbit, wrestling with Rudolph. “Easy on, now! Let you go? No fear!”

Heywood wrenched the captive loose, but only to shake him violently, and thrust him into a chair.

“Be quiet, you little ass!” he scolded. “I’ve a great mind, myself, to run after the bounder and kick him. But that sort of thing you did enough. Who’d have thought? You young spitfire! Chantel took you on, exactly as he wanted.”

The fat sleeper continued to snore. Wutzler came slinking back from his refuge in the shadows.

“It iss zo badt!” he whined, gulping nervously. “It iss zo badt!”

“Right you are,” said Heywood. With arms folded, he eyed them sternly. “It’s bad. We might have known. If only I’d reached him first! By Jove, you must let me fight that beast. Duels? The idiot, nobody fights duels any more. I’ve always His cuffs are always dirty, too, on the inside!”

Rudolph leaned back, like a man refreshed and comforted, but his laugh was unsteady, and too boisterous.

“It is well,” he bragged. “Pistol-bullets they fly on the wings of chance! No? All is well.”

“Pistols? My dear young gentleman,” scoffed his friend, “there’s not a pair of matched pistols in the settlement. And if there were, Chantel has the choice. He’ll take swords.”

He paused, in a silence that grew somewhat menacing. From a slit in the wall the wheel of the punkah-thong whined insistently, rise and fall, rise and fall of peevish complaint, distressing as a brain-fever bird.

“Swords, of course,” continued Heywood. “If only out of vanity. Fencing, oh, I hate the man, and the art’s by-gone, if you like, but he’s a beautiful swordsman! Wonderful!”

Rudolph still lay back, but now with a singular calm.

“It’s just as well,” he declared quietly.

Heywood loosed a great breath, a sigh of vast relief.

“My word!” he cried, grinning. “So you’re there, too, eh? You young Sly-boots! If you’re another expert Bravo! We’ll beat him at his own game! Hoist with his own what-d’-ye-call-it! I’d give anything” He thumped the table, and pitched the cards broadcast, like an explosion of confetti, in a little carnival of glee. “You old Sly-boots! But are you sure? He’s quick as lightning.”

“I am not afraid,” replied Rudolph, modestly. He trained his young moustache upward with steady fingers, and sat very quiet, thinking long thoughts. A quaint smile played about his eyes.

“Good for you!” said Heywood. “Now let him come, as the Lord Mayor said of the hare. What sport! With an even chance And what a load off one’s mind!”

He moved away to the window, as though searching for air. Instead of moonlight, without, there swam the blue mist of dawn.

“Not a word must ever reach old Gilly,” he mused. “Do you hear, Nesbit?”

“If you think,” retorted the clerk, stiffly, “I don’t know the proper course of be’aviour! Not likely!”

The tall silhouette in the window made no reply, but stood grumbling privately: “A club! Yes, where we drink out of jam-pots dead cushions, dead balls no veranda fellow that soils the inside of his cuffs first! We’re a pack of beach-combers.”

He propped his elbows on the long sill, and leaned out, venting fragments of disgust. Then of a sudden he turned, and beckoned eagerly. “Come here, you chaps. Look-see.”

The others joined him. Gray vapors from river and paddy-field, lingering like steam in a slow breeze, paled and dispersed in the growing light, as the new day, worse than the old, came sullenly without breath or respite. A few twilight shapes were pattering through the narrow street a squad of Yamen runners haling a prisoner.

“The Sword-Pen remains active,” said Heywood, thoughtfully. “That dingy little procession, do you know, it’s quite theatrical? The Cross and the Dragon. Eh? Another act’s coming.”

Even Rudolph could spare a misgiving from his own difficulty while he watched the prisoner. It was Chok Chung, the plump Christian merchant, slowly trudging toward the darkest of human courts, to answer for the death of the cormorant-fisher. The squad passed by. Rudolph saw again the lighted shop, the tumbled figure retching on the floor; and with these came a memory of that cold and scornful face, thinking so cruelly among the unthinking rabble. The Sword-Pen had written something in the dark.

“I go find out”; and Wutzler was away, as keen as a village gossip.

“Trouble’s comin’,” Nesbit asserted glibly. “There’s politics afloat. But I don’t care.” He stretched his arms, with a weary howl. “That’s the first yawn I’ve done to-night. Trouble keeps, worse luck. I’m off seek my downy.”

Alone with the grunting sleeper, the two friends sat for a long time and watched the flooding daylight.

“What,” began Rudolph, suddenly, and his voice trembled, “what is your true opinion? You are so kind, and I was just a fool. That other day, I would not listen. You laughed. Now tell me, so as you were to die next. You were joking? Can I truly be proud of of her?”

He leaned forward, white and eager, waiting for the truth like a dicer for the final throw.

“Of yourself, dear old chap. Not of the lady. She’s the fool, not you. Poor old Gilly Forrester slaves here to send her junketing in Japan, Kashmir, Ceylon, Home. What Chantel said well, between the two of us, I’m afraid he’s right. It’s a pity.”

Heywood paused, frowning.

“A pity, too, this quarrel. So precious few of us, and trouble ahead. The natives lashing themselves into a state of mind, or being lashed. The least spark Rough work ahead, and here we are at swords’ points.”

“And the joke is,” Rudolph added quietly, “I do not know a sword’s point from a handle.”

Heywood turned, glowered, and twice failed to speak.

“Rudie old boy,” he stammered, “that man Preposterous! Why, it’s plain murder!”

Rudolph stared straight ahead, without hope, without illusions, facing the haggard light of morning. A few weeks ago he might have wept; but now his laugh, short and humorous, was worthy of his companion.

“I do not care, more,” he answered. “Luck, so called I it, when I escaped the militar’ service. Ho ho! Luck, to pass into the Ersatz! I do not care, now. I cannot believe, even cannot I fight. Worthless dreamer! My deserts. It’s a good way out.”