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

KAU FAI

At the top of the nunnery stairs, Rudolph met them with awkward ceremony, and with that smiling air of encouragement which a nurse might use in trying cheerfully to deceive a sick man. Heywood laughed, without mercy, at this pious fraud.

“Hallo, you Red-Bristled Ghost!” he cried. “We came early straight from our walk. Are the rest coming? And did my cook arrive to help yours?”

Their host, carried by assault, at once became less mournful.

“The cook is here,” he replied, “by the kitchen-sounds. They disagree, I think. I have asked everybody. We should have a full dinner-table.”

“Good,” said his friend; and then whispering, as they followed Miss Drake to the living-room, “I say, don’t act as though you expected the ghost of Banquo.”

In the bare, white loft, by candle-light, Sturgeon sat midway in some long and wheezy tale, to which the padre and his wife listened with true forbearance. Greetings over, the stodgy annalist continued. The story was forgotten as soon as ended; talk languished; and even by the quaking light of the candles, it was plain that the silence was no mere waiting solemnity before meat, but a period of tension.

The relief came oddly. Up from the road sounded a hubbub of voices, the tramp of feet, and loud halloos.

“By Jove!” cried Sturgeon, like a man who fears the worst; and for all his bulk, he was first at the window.

A straggling file of lanterns, borne by some small army, came jogging and crowding to a halt under the walls. Yellow faces gleamed faintly, bare heads bobbed, and men set down burdens, grunting. Among the vanguard an angry voice scolded in a strange tongue. “Burra suar!” it raged; then hailed imperiously, “Ko hai?

Where the lanterns clustered brightest, an active little figure in white waved a helmet, crying,

“On deck! Where the devil does Maurice Heywood live?”

“I’m up here,” called that young man.

For reply, the stranger began to skip among his cohorts, jerking out his white legs like a dancing marionette. Then, with a sudden drop-kick, he sent the helmet flickering high into the darkness over the wall.

“Here we come!” he shouted, in hilarious warning. The squabbling retinue surged after him through the gate, and one by one the lanterns disappeared under the covered way.

“It’s the captain!” laughed Heywood, in amazement. “Kneebone ashore! He can’t be sober!”

All stared; for Captain Kneebone, after one historically brief and outspoken visit, had never in all these years set foot in the port. The two young men hurried to the stairs.

Chinamen and lanterns crowded the courtyard, stuffed the passage, and still came straggling in at the gate. By the noise and clatter, it might have been a caravan, or a band of half-naked robbers bringing plunder. Everywhere, on the stone flags, coolies were dumping down bundles, boxes, jute-bags crammed with heavy objects. Among them, still brawling in bad Hindustani, the little captain gave his orders. At sight of Heywood, however, he began once more to caper, with extravagant grimaces. By his smooth, ruddy face, and tunic of purest white, he seemed a runaway parson gone farther wrong than ever.

“I’ve come to stay a month!” he cried; and dancing up, caught Heywood’s hands and whirled him about. “I was fair bursting to see ye, my boy! And here we are, at last!”

Though his cheeks were flushed, and eyes alarmingly bright, he was beyond question sober. Over his head, Heywood and Rudolph exchanged an anxious glance.

“Good! but this is Hackh’s house the nunnery,” said the one; and the other added, “You’re just in time for dinner.”

The captain found these facts to be excruciating. He clapped Rudolph on the arm, and crowed:

“Nunnery? We’ll make it a bloomin’ chummery! Dinner be ’anged! A banquet. What’s more, I’ve brought the chow” he swept the huddled boxes with a prodigal gesture, “lashin’s o’ food and drink! That’s what it is: a banquet!”

He turned again to his sweating followers, and flung the head coolie a handful of silver, crying, “Sub-log kiswasti! Divide, and be off with ye! Jao, ye beggars! Not a pice more. Finish! I’ll not spend it all on you!” Then, pouncing on the nearest crate, he burst it open with a ferocious kick. “Stores? The choicest to be ’ad in all Saigong! Look here” He held up a tin and scanned the label triumphantly: “Chow de Bruxelles, what? Never saw chow spelt with an ‘x’ before, did ye? French, my boy. Bad spellers, but good cooks, are the French.”

Heywood lost his worried frown. Something had happened, evidently at Calcutta, for the captain always picked up his vernacular where he dropped his latest cargo; but at all events these vagaries were not the effect of heat or loneliness.

“What’s up, Captain?” he laughed.

But now that the coolies had gone, Captain Kneebone’s heels were busy, staving open boxes right and left. A bottle rolled out, and smashed in a hissing froth of champagne.

“Plenty more,” he cried, rejoicing. “That shows ye how much I care! Oho!” Suddenly he turned from this destruction, and facing Heywood, began mysteriously to exult over him. “Old fool and his earnings, eh? Fixed ideas, eh? ‘No good,’ says you. ‘That cock won’t fight,’ says you. ’Let it alone.’ Ho-ho! What price fixed ideas now?”

The eyes of his young friend widened in unbelief.

“No,” he cried, with a start: “you haven’t?”

The captain seized both hands again, and took on for his height a Roman stateliness.

“I have.” He nodded solemnly. “Bar sells, I have. No more, now. We’ll be-George, we’ll announce it, at the banquet! Announce, that’s the word. First time in my life: announce!”

Heywood suddenly collapsed on a sack, and laughed himself into abject silence.

“Awfully glad, old chap,” he at last contrived to say, and again choked. The captain looked down at the shaking body with a singular, benign, and fatherly smile.

“A funny world, ain’t it?” he declared sagely. “I’ve known this boy a long time,” he explained to Rudolph. “This matter’s We’ll let you in, presently. Lend me some coolies here, while we turn your dinner into my banquet. Eh? You don’t care? Once in a bloomin’ lifetime.”

With a seafaring bellow, he helped Rudolph to hail the servants’ quarters. A pair of cooks, a pair of Number Twos, and all the “learn-pidgin” youngsters of two households came shuffling into the court; and arriving guests found all hands broaching cargo, in a loud confusion of orders and miscomprehension.

The captain’s dinner was the more brilliant. Throughout the long, white room, in the slow breeze of the punkah, scores of candles burned soft and tremulous, as though the old days had returned when the brown sisters lighted their refectory; but never had their table seen such profusion of viands, or of talk and laughter. The Saigon stores after daily fare seemed of a strange and Corinthian luxury. The captain’s wine proved excellent. And his ruddy little face, beaming at the head of the table, wore an extravagant, infectious grin. His quick blue eyes danced with the light of some ineffable joke. He seemed a conjurer, creating banquets for sheer mischief in the wilderness.

“There’s a soup!” he had proclaimed. “Patent, mind ye! Stick a knife into the tin, and she ’eats ’erself!”

Among all the revelers, one face alone showed melancholy. Chantel, at the foot of the table, sat unregarded by all save Rudolph, who now and then caught from him a look filled with gloom and suspicion. It was beside Rudolph that Mrs. Forrester laughed and chattered, calling all eyes toward her, and yet finding private intervals in which to dart a sidelong shaft at her neighbor. Rudolph’s ears shone coral pink; for now again he was aboard ship, hiding a secret at once dizzy, dangerous, and entrancing. Across the talk, the wine, the many lights, came the triumph of seeing that other hostile face, glowering in defeat. Never before had Chantel, and all the others, dwindled so far into such nonentity, or her presence vibrated so near.

Soon he became aware that Captain Kneebone had risen, with a face glowing red above the candles. Even Sturgeon forgot the flood of bounties, and looked expectantly toward their source. The captain cleared his throat, faltered, then turning sheepish all at once, hung his head.

“Be ’anged, I can’t make a speech, after all,” he grumbled; and wheeling suddenly on Heywood, with a peevish air of having been defrauded: “Aboard ship I could sit and think up no end o’ flowery talk, and now it’s all gone!”

He stared at his plate miserably. It was Miss Drake who came to his rescue.

“Tell us the secret,” she begged. “How do you manage all these nice things?”

The captain’s eyes surveyed the motley collection down the length of the bright table, then returned to her, gratefully:

“This ain’t anything. Only a little bloomin’ ”

“Impromptu,” suggested Heywood.

“That’s the word!” Captain Kneebone eyed them both with uncommon favor. “That’s it, ye know. I just ’opped about Saigong like a jackdaw, picking up these impromptus. But I came here all the way to break the news proper, by word o’ mouth.”

He faced the company, and gathering himself for the effort,

“I’m rich,” he declared. “I’m da I’m remarkable rich.”

Pausing for the effect, he warmed to his oratory.

“It ain’t for me to boast. Sailormen as a rule are bad hands to save money. But I’ve won first prize in the Derby Sweepstake Lott’ry, and the money’s safe to my credit at the H.K. and S. in Calcutta, and I’m retired and going Home! More money than the old Kut Sing earned since her launching so much I was frightened, first, and lost my sleep! And me without chick nor child, as the saying is to go Home and live luxurious ever after!”

“Ow!” cried Nesbit, “lucky beggar!” “Sincerely glad,” said Mr. Forrester. And a volley of compliments went round the board. The captain plainly took heart, and flushing still redder at so much praise and good will, stood now at ease, chuckling.

“Most men,” he began, when there came a lull, “most men makes a will after they’re dead. That’s a shore way o’ doing things! Now I want to see the effects, living. So be ’anged, here goes, right and proper. To Miss Drake, for her hospital and kiddies, two thousand rupees.”

In the laughter and friendly uproar, the girl sat dazed.

“What shall I say?” she whispered, wavering between amusement and distress. “I can’t accept it ”

“Nonsense!” grumbled Heywood, with an angry glance. “Don’t spoil the happiest evening of an old man’s life.”

“You’re right,” she answered quickly; and when the plaudits ended, she thanked the captain in a very simple, pretty speech, which made him duck and grin, a proud little benefactor.

“That ain’t all,” he cried gayly; then leveled a threatening finger, like a pistol, at her neighbor. “Who poked fun at me, first and last? Who always came out aboard to tell me what an old ass I was? Fixed ideas, eh? No go? Look you here. What did I come so many hundred miles for? To say what I always said: half-shares.” The light-blue eyes, keen with sea-cunning and the lonely sight of many far horizons, suffered an indescribable change. “My boy, the half’s yours. There’s two rich men here to-night. I’ve come to take you Home.”

It was Heywood’s turn to be struck dumb. He grew very pale.

“Oh, I say,” he stammered at last, “it’s not fair ”

“Don’t spoil the happiest evening ” whispered the girl beside him.

He eyed her ruefully, groaned, then springing up, went swiftly to the head of the table and wrung the captain’s brown paw, without a word to say.

“Can do, can do,” said Captain Kneebone, curtly. “I was afraid ye might not want to come.”

Then followed a whirlwind; and Teppich rose with his moustache bristling, and the ready Nesbit jerked him down again in the opening sentence; and everybody laughed at Heywood, who sat there so white, with such large eyes; and the dinner going by on the wings of night, the melancholy “boy” circled the table, all too soon, with a new silver casket full of noble cigars from Paiacombo, Manila, and Dindigul.

As the three ladies passed the foot of the table, Rudolph saw Mrs. Forrester make an angry signal. And presently, like a prisoner going to his judge, Chantel slipped out of the room. He was not missed; for already the streaming candle-flames stood wreathed in blue layers, nor was it long before the captain, mounting his chair, held a full glass aloft.

“Here,” he cried in triumph, “here’s to every nail in the hoof ”

The glass crashed into splinters and froth. A flying stone struck the boom of the punkah, and thumped on the table. Through the open windows, from the road, came a wild chorus of yells, caught up and echoed by many voices in the distance.

“Shutters!” called Heywood. “Quick!”

As they slammed them home, more stones drummed on the boards and clattered against the wall. Conches brayed somewhere, followed by an unaccountable, sputtering fusillade as of tiny muskets, and then by a formidable silence. While the banqueters listened in the smoky room, there came a sullen, heavy sound, like a single stroke on a large and very slack bass-drum.

Kau fai!” shrilled the voices below; and then in a fainter gabble, as though hurrying off toward the sound, “kau fai!

“The Black Dog,” said Heywood, quietly. “He has barked. Earlier than we figured, Gilly. Lucky the scaffolding’s up. Gentlemen, we all know our posts. Guns are in the first bedroom. Quietly, now. Rudie, go call Chantel. Don’t frighten the women. If they ask about that noise, tell ’em anything Dragon Boat Festival beginning. Anything. We can easily hold this place, while the captain gets ’em out to his ship.”

The captain wheeled, with an injured air.

“What ship?” he inquired testily. “Told ye, plain, I was retired. Came the last bit in a stinking native boat, and she’s cleared by now. Think I carry ships in my pocket?”

Outside, the swollen discord of shouts, thunder of gongs, and hoarse calling of the conches came slowly nearer, extending through the darkness.