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

THE SPARE MAN

Beyond the scant greenery of Heywood’s garden a ropy little banyan, a low rank of glossy whampee leaves, and the dusty sage-green tops of stunted olives glared the river. Wide, savage sunlight lay so hot upon it, that to aching eyes the water shone solid, like a broad road of yellow clay. Only close at hand and by an effort of vision, appeared the tiny, quiet lines of the irresistible flood pouring toward the sea; there whipped into the pool of banyan shade black snippets and tails of reflection, darting ceaselessly after each other like a shoal of frightened minnows. But elsewhere the river lay golden, solid, and painfully bright. Things afloat, in the slumberous procession of all Eastern rivers, swam downward imperceptibly, now blurred, now outlined in corrosive sharpness.

The white men stood crowding along the spacious window. The dogs barked outrageously; but at last above their din floated, as before, the high wailing cries. A heaping cairn of round-bellied, rosy-pink earthen jars came steering past, poled by a naked statue of new copper, who balanced precariously on the edge of his hidden raft. No sound came from him; nor from the funeral barge which floated next, where still figures in white robes guarded the vermilion drapery of a bier, decked with vivid green boughs. All these were silent.

“No, above!” cried Rudolph, pointing.

After the mourners’ barge, at some distance, came hurrying a boat crowded with shining yellow bodies and dull blue jackets. Long bamboo poles plied bumping along her gunwale, sticking into the air all about her, many and loose and incoordinate, like the ribs of an unfinished basket. From the bow spurted a white puff of smoke. The dull report of a musket lagged across the water.

The bullet skipped like a schoolboy’s pebble, ripping out little rags of white along that surface of liquid clay.

The line of fire thus revealed, revealed the mark. Untouched, a black head bobbed vigorously in the water, some few yards before the boat. The saffron crew, poling faster, yelled and cackled at so clean a miss, while a coolie in the bow reloaded his matchlock.

The fugitive head labored like that of a man not used to swimming, and desperately spent. It now gave a quick twist, and showed a distorted face, almost of the same color with the water.

The mouth gaped black in a sputtering cry, then closed choking, squirted out water, and gaped once more, to wail clearly:

“I am Jesus Christ!”

In the broad, bare daylight of the river, this lonely and sudden blasphemy came as though a person in a dream might declare himself to a waking audience of skeptics. The cry, sharp with forlorn hope, rang like an appeal.

“Why look,” stammered Heywood. “He sees us heading here. Look, it’s Quick! let me out!”

Just as he turned to elbow through his companions, and just as the cry sounded again, the matchlock blazed from the bow. No bullet skipped. The swimmer, who had reached the shallows, suddenly rose with an incredible heave, like a leaping salmon, flung one bent arm up and back in the gesture of the Laocooen, and pitched forward with a turbid splash. The quivering darkness under the banyan blotted everything: death had dispersed the black minnows there, in oozy wriggles of shadow; but next moment the fish-tail stripes chased in a more lively shoal. The gleaming potter, below his rosy cairn, stared. The mourners forgot their grief.

Heywood, after his impulse of rescue, stood very quiet.

“You saw,” he repeated dully. “You all saw.”

The clutching figure, bolt upright in the soaked remnant of prison rags, had in that leap and fall shown himself for Chok Chung, the Christian. He had sunk in mystery, to become at one forever with the drunken cormorant-fisher.

Obscene delight raged in the crowded boat, with yells and laughter, and flourish of bamboo poles.

“Come away from the window,” said Heywood; and then to the white-haired doctor: “Your question’s answered, padre. Strange, to come so quick.” He jerked his thumb back toward the river. “And that’s only first blood.”

The others had broken into wrangling.

“Escaped? Nonsense Cat and mouse game, I tell you; those devils let him go merely to We’ll never know Of course! Plain as your nose To stand by, and never lift a hand! Oh, it’s Rot! Look here, why Acquitted, then set on him But we’ll never know! Fang watching on the spot. Trust him!”

A calm “boy,” in sky-blue gown, stood beside them, ready to speak. The dispute paused, while they turned for his message. It was a disappointing trifle: Mrs. Forrester waited below for her husband, to walk home.

“Can’t leave now,” snapped Gilly. “I’ll be along, tell her ”

“Had she better go alone?” suggested Heywood.

“No; right you are.” The other swept a fretful eye about the company. “But this business begins to look urgent. Here, somebody we can spare. You go, Hackh, there’s a good chap.”

Chantel dropped the helmet he had caught up. Bowing stiffly, Rudolph marched across the room and down the stairs. His face, pale at the late spectacle, had grown red and sulky, “Can spare me, can you? I’m the one.” He descended, muttering.

Viewing himself thus, morosely, as rejected of men, he reached the compound gate to fare no better with the woman. She stood waiting in the shadow of the wall; and as he drew unwillingly near, the sight of her to his shame and quick dismay made his heart leap in welcome. She wore the coolest and severest white, but at her throat the same small furbelow, every line of which he had known aboard ship, in the days of his first exile and of his recent youth. It was now as though that youth came flooding back to greet her.

“Good-morning.” He forgot everything, except that for a few priceless moments they would be walking side by side.

She faced him with a start, never so young and beautiful as now her blue eyes wide, scornful, and blazing, her cheeks red and lips trembling, like a child ready to cry.

“I did not want you” she said curtly.

“Nor did they.” Pride forged the retort for him, at a blow. He explained in the barest of terms, while she eyed him steadily, with every sign of rising temper.

“I can spare you, too,” she whipped out; then turned to walk away, holding her helmet erect, in the poise of a young goddess, pert but warlike.

This double injustice left Rudolph chafing. In two strides, however, he had overtaken her.

“I am under orders,” he stated grimly.

Her pace gradually slackened in the growing heat; but she went forward with her eyes fixed on the littered, sunken flags of their path. This rankling silence seemed to him more unaccountable and deadly than all former mischances, and left him far more alone. From the sultry tops of bamboos, drooping like plants in an oven, an amorous multitude of cicadas maintained the buzzing torment of steel on emery wheels, as though the universal heat had chafed and fretted itself into a dry, feverish utterance. Once Mrs. Forrester looked about, quick and angry, like one ready to choke that endless voice. But for the rest, the two strange companions moved steadily onward.

In an alley of checkered light a buffalo with a wicker nose-ring, and heavy, sagging horns that seemed to jerk his head back in agony, heaved toward them, ridden by a naked yellow infant in a nest-like saddle of green fodder. Scenting with fright the disgusting presence of white aliens, the sleep-walking monster shied, opened his eyes, and lowered his blue muzzle as if to charge. There was a pause, full of menace.

“Don’t run!” said Rudolph, and catching the woman roughly about the shoulders, thrust her behind him. She clutched him tightly by the wounded arm.

The buffalo stared irresolute, with evil eyes. The naked boy in the green nest brushed a swarm of flies from his handful of sticky sweetmeats, looked up, pounded the clumsy shoulders, and shrilled a command. Staring doubtfully, and trembling, the buffalo swayed past, the wrinkled armor of his gray hide plastered with dry mud as with yellow ochre. To the slow click of hoofs, the surly monster, guided by a little child, went swinging down the pastoral shade, ancient yet living shapes from a picture immemorial in art and poetry.

“Please,” begged Rudolph, trying with his left hand to loosen her grip. “Please, that hurts.”

For a second they stood close, their fingers interlacing. With a touch of contempt, he found that she still trembled, and drew short breath. Her eyes slowly gathered his meaning.

“Oh, that!” She tore her hand loose, as though burned. “That! It was all true, then. I forgot.”

She caught aside her skirts angrily, and started forward in all her former disdain. But this, after their brief alliance, was not to be tolerated.

“What was all true?” he insisted. “You shall not treat me so. If anybody has a right ”

After several paces, she flashed about at him in a whirl of words:

“All alike, every one of you! And I was fool enough to think you were different!” The conflict in her eyes showed real, beyond suspicion. “He told me all about it. Last evening. And you dare talk of rights, and come following me here ”

“Lucky I did,” retorted Rudolph, with sudden spirit; and holding out his wounded arm, indignantly: “That scratch, if you know how it came ”

“I know, perfectly.” She stared as at some crowning impudence. “He was chicken-hearted. You came off cheaply. I know all you said. But the one thing I’ll never understand, is where you found the courage, after he struck you, at the club. You’ll always have that to admire!”

“After he struck” A light broke in on Rudolph, somehow. “Chantel? Oh, that liar!”

He wheeled and started to go back.

“Wait, stop!” she called, in a strangely altered voice, which brought him up short. “They’re all with him now. You can’t What did you mean?”

He explained, sulkily at first, but ending in a kind of generous rage. “So I couldn’t even stand up to him. And except for Maurice Heywood Oh, you need not frown; he’s the best friend I ever had.”

Mrs. Forrester had walked on, with the same cloudy aspect, the same light, impatient step. He felt the greater surprise when, suddenly turning, she raised toward him her odd, enticing, pointed face, and the friendly mischief of her eyes.

“The best?” she echoed, in the same half-whisper as when she had flattered him, that afternoon in the dusky well of the pagoda stairway. “The very best friend? Don’t you think you have a better?”

Rudolph stared.

“Oh, you funny, funny boy!” she cried, with a bewildering laugh, of delight and pride. “I hate people all prim and circumspect, and you You’d have flown back there straight at him, before my before all the others. That’s why I like you so! But you must leave that horrid, lying fellow to me.”

All unaware, she had led him along the blinding white wall of the Forrester compound, and halted in the hot shadow that lay under the tiled gateway. As though timidly, her hand stole up and rested on his forearm.

“So sorry.” The confined space, narrow and covered, gave to her voice a plaintive ring. “That’s twice you protected me, and I hurt you. You are different. This doesn’t happen between people, often. When you did that, for me, yesterday, didn’t it seem different and rather splendid, and like a book?”

“It seemed nonsense,” replied Rudolph, sturdily. “The heat. We were fools.”

She laughed again, and at close range watched him from under consciously drooping lashes that almost veiled a liquid brilliancy. Everywhere the cicadas kept the heat vibrating with their strident buzz. It recalled some other widespread mist of treble music, long ago. The trilling of frogs, that had been, before.

“You dear, brave boy,” she said slowly. “You’re so honest, too. I’m not ungrateful. Do you know what I’d like Oh, there’s the amah!"

She drew back, with an impatient gesture.

“That stupid, fat Mrs. Earle’s waiting for me. I hate to leave you.” The stealthy brightness of her admiration changed to a slow, inscrutable appeal. “Don’t forget. Haven’t you a better friend?” And with an instant, bold, and tantalizing grimace, she had vanished within.

To his homeward march, her cicadas shrilled the music of fifes. He, the despised, the man to spare, now cocked up his helmet like fortune’s minion, dizzy with new honors. Nobody had ever praised him to his face. And now she, she of all the world, had spoken words which he feared and longed to believe, and which even said still less than her searching and mysterious look.

On the top of his exultation, he reached the nunnery, and entered his big, bare living-room, to find Heywood stretched in a wicker chair.

“Hallo, Rudie! I’ve asked myself to tiffin,” drawled the lounger, from a little tempest of blue smoke, tossed by the punkah. “How’s the fair Bertha? Mausers all right? And by the way, did you make that inventory of provisions?”

Rudolph faced him with a sudden conviction of guilt, of treachery to a leader.

“Yes,” he stammered; “I I’ll get it for you.”

He passed into his bedroom, caught up the written list from a table, and for a moment stood as if dreaming. Before him the Mausers, polished and orderly, shone in their new rack against the lime-coated wall. Though appearing to scan them, Rudolph saw nothing but his inward confusion. “After all this man did for me,” he mused. What had loosed the bond, swept away all the effects?

A sound near the window made him turn. An imp in white and red livery, Peng, the little billiard-marker from the club, stood hurling things violently into the outer glare.

“What thing you do?” called Rudolph, sharply.

Some small but heavy object clattered on the floor. The urchin stooped, snatched it up, and flung it hurtling clean over the garden to the river. He turned, grinning amiably. “Goo-moh? ning-seh. How too you too,” he chanted. “I am welly? glat to-see you.” A boat-coolie, he explained, had called this house bad names. He, Peng, threw stones. Bad man.

“Out of here, you rascal!” Rudolph flicked a riding-whip at the scampering legs, as the small defender of his honor bolted for the stairs.

“What’s wrong?”

Heywood appeared promptly at the door.

From the road, below, a gleeful voice piped:

“Goat-men! Baby-killers!”

In the noon blaze, Peng skipped derisively, jeered at them, performed a brief but indecorous pantomime, and then, kicking up his heels with joy, scurried for his life.

“Chucked his billet,” said Heywood, without surprise. “Little devil, I always thought What’s missing?”

Rudolph scanned his meagre belongings, rummaged his dressing-table, opened a wardrobe.

“Nothing,” he answered. “A boat-coolie ”

But Heywood had darted to the rack of Mausers, knelt, and sprung up, raging.

“Side-bolts! Man,” he cried, in a voice that made Rudolph jump, “man, why didn’t you stop him? The side-bolts, all but two. Young heathen, he’s crippled us: one pair of rifles left.”