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   Chapter 12 THE SONG OF THE SIREN

The Honorable Percival By Alice Caldwell Hegan Rice Characters: 17883

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


By the time the Saluria anchored off Shanghai, the fires in Percival's bosom had assumed the proportions of a conflagration. No sooner were they seemingly conquered by the cold stream of reason that was poured upon them than they broke forth again with fresh and alarming violence.

On the launch coming up the Hwang-pu River he took the precaution of engaging Bobby Boynton's company not only for the day on shore, but for the evening as well. With hardened effrontery he bore the young lady away in exactly the high-handed manner so bitterly condemned in Andy Black at Yokohama.

The day on shore was one he was destined never to forget. The glamour of it suffused even material old China with a roseate hue. With gracious condescension he visited gaily decked temples and many-storied pagodas, he loitered in silk and porcelain shops, and wound in and out of narrow, ill-smelling streets, even allowing Bobby to conduct him through that amazing quarter known as Pig Alley. He not only submitted to all these diversions; he demanded more. He seemed to have developed an ambition to leave no place of interest in or about Shanghai unvisited.

Tiffin-time found them at a well-known tea-house in Nanking Road-a tea-house with golden dragons climbing over its walls and long wooden signs bearing cabalistic figures swinging in the wind like so many banners. Percival secured a table on the upper balcony, where they could look down on the passing throng, and here in the intimate solitude of a foreign crowd they had their lunch.

Bobby was too excited to eat; she hung over the balcony, exclaiming at every new sight and sound, and appealing to Percival constantly for enlightenment. Fortunately he had spent part of the previous day poring over a Shanghai guide-book, so he was able to meet her inquiries with the most amazing satisfaction.

"I don't see how any one human being can know as much as you do!" she exclaimed, with a look that Buddha might have envied.

"Even I make mistakes occasionally," said Percival, modestly. "Can't always be right, you know."

"But you are," she persisted; "you are always abominably right, and I am always wrong."

"Adorably wrong," amended Percival, assisting with the tea-things.

"Two, three, four?" she asked, holding up the sugar-tongs.

"Doesn't matter so long as I have you to look at."

Now, when an Englishman ceases to be particular about the amount of sugar in his tea, you may know he is very far gone indeed. By the time he had drained three cups of the jasmine-scented beverage and basked in the brilliance of Bobby's smiles through the smoking of two cigars, he was feeling decidedly heady.

"If we are going to the races, we really must start," declared Bobby when she found the situation getting difficult.

"What's the use of going anywhere?" asked Percival, blowing one ring of smoke through another.

"Why, we are seeing the sights of Shanghai. You said you were crazy about China."

"So I am. You are quite determined on the races?"

"Quite," said Bobby.

Their way to the track lay along the famous Bubbling Well Road, and as they bowled along in a somewhat imposing victoria, with a couple of liveried Chinamen on the box, Bobby sat bolt upright, her cheeks flushed, and her eager eyes drinking in the sights.

It was a scene sufficiently gay to hold the interest of a much more sophisticated person than the untraveled young lady from Wyoming. The whole of society, it appeared, was on route to the races. The road was thronged with smart traps full of brilliantly dressed people of every nationality. There were gay parties from the various legations, French, Russian, Japanese, German, English, American. In and out among the whirling wheels of the foreigners poured the unending procession of native life, unperturbed, unconcerned. A Chinese lady in black satin trousers and gorgeous embroidered coat, wearing a magnificent head-dress of jade and pearls, rode side by side with a coolie who trundled a wheelbarrow which carried his wife on one side and his week's provisions on the other. Water-carriers, street vendors, jinrikisha-runners, women with bound feet, children on foot, and children strapped on the backs of their mothers, crossed and recrossed, surged in and out.

But the Honorable Percival concerned himself little with these petty details. To him China was only a pleasing background for Miss Roberta Boynton; he saw no further than her eager, smiling eyes, and heard nothing more distant than the ripple of her laughter.

At the races they found an absorbing bond of interest. The love of horse-flesh was ingrained in both, and the merits of the various ponies provoked endless discussion. Lights were beginning to twinkle on the bund when they drove back to the hotel.

"Where shall we go to-night!" asked Percival, as eager at the end of this eight hours' tête-à-tête as he had been at the start.

"To the ball, of course," said Bobby. "The hotel is giving it in honor of the Saluria."

"Heavens! what a bore! Can't we dodge it?"

"You can if you want to. Andy'll take me. He's just waiting to see if you renig."

"Renig?" repeated Percival.

"Yes," said Bobby-"fluke, back out; you know what I mean."

That settled it with Percival. Five minutes before the hour appointed he was waiting impatiently in one of the small reception-rooms to conduct Miss Boynton to that most abhorred of all functions, a public ball. What possible pleasure he was going to get out of standing against the wall and watching her dance with other men he could not conceive. He assured himself that he was acting like a fool, and that if he kept on at the pace he was going, Heaven only knew what folly he might commit in the four days that must pass before he reached Hong-Kong.

Hong-Kong! The word had but one association for him. It was the home of his eldest and most conservative sister, a lady of uncompromising social standards, who recognized only two circles of society, the one over which her mother presided in London, and the smaller one over which she reigned as the wife of the British diplomatic official in the land of her adoption.

At the mere thought of presenting Bobby to this paragon of social perfection, Percival shuddered. He could imagine Sister Cordelia's pitiless survey of the girl through her lorgnette, the lifting of her brows over some mortal sin against taste or some deadly transgression in her manner of speech. Of course, he assured himself it would never do; the idea of bringing them together was wholly preposterous. And yet-

A Chinese youth, with a handful of trinkets, slipped into the room, and furtively proffered his wares.

"Very good, number-one jade-stone. Make missy velly plitty. Can buy?"

Percival motioned him away, only to have him return.

"Jade-stone velly nice! Plitty young missy wanchee jade-stone."

"Did she say she wanted it?" demanded Percival, with sudden interest.

The boy grinned. "Oh, yes. Wanchee heap! No have got fifty dollar'. Master have got. Wanchee buy?"

Percival tossed him the money and lay the pendant on the table. Then he resumed his pacing and his disturbed meditations. If he could only keep himself firmly in hand during those next four days, all would be well. Once safely anchored in the harbor of his sister's eminently proper English circle, the song of the siren would doubtless fade away, and he would thank Heaven fervently for his miraculous escape. Meanwhile he listened with increasing impatience for the first flutter of the siren's wings,

"Wanchee Manchu coatt?" whispered an insidious voice at his elbow, and, looking down, he saw the enterprising lad with a pile of gorgeous silks over his arm and cupidity writ large in his narrow eyes.

"No, no; go away!" commanded Percival.

"Velly fine dragon coat. Him all same b'long mandarin. How much?"

Percival turned away, but at every step was presented with another garment for inspection. Despite himself, his artistic eye was caught and held by the beauty of the fabrics.

"How much?" he asked, picking up a marvelous affair of silver and gray, lined with the faintest of shell pinks. It was the exact tone and sheen to set Bobby's beauty off to the greatest advantage. The argument over the price was short and fierce, and Percival laid the coat beside the pendant on the table.

He promised himself to offset the effect of these gifts by a more detached and impersonal manner than he had shown Bobby during the day. So far, he congratulated himself, he had given her no occasion for false hopes. On the contrary, he had gone out of his way on several occasions to express his bitter disapproval of international marriages. When the hour came for them to part, his heart might be mortally wounded, but his conscience, save for a few scratches, would be uninjured.

A quick step in the corridor made him look up. Standing in the doorway was a

vision of girlish beauty that had the acrobatic effect of sending his blood into his head and his heart into his eyes. She wore the diaphanous gown of white that he liked best, her hair was coiled at the exact angle he had prescribed, and at her belt were the orchids he had sent up half an hour before. No rhinestones in her hair, no gold beads on her slippers, nothing to mar the simplicity that her all too vivid beauty required. Percival's eyes appraised her at her full value. Even Sister Cordelia would have been propitiated by the sight.

"What's this lovely thing?" cried Bobby, pouncing upon the coat.

"Something I bought to be rid of a troublesome lad. Don't know what I shall do with it, exactly."

"Take it to your sister, of course,"

"She probably has heaps of them."

Bobby slipped her round, bare arms into the loose sleeves, and surveyed herself in the long mirror.

"Isn't that the prettiest thing you ever saw?" she asked, glancing at him over her shoulder.

"Isn't that the prettiest thing you ever saw?" she asked, glancing at him over her shoulder

"It is," said Percival, emphatically. His judgment about the becomingness of the color had, us usual, been unerring.

"I should be no end grateful," he said, "if you'd take it off my hands. My trunks are fearfully stuffed now."

"But I haven't any money," said Bobby, with characteristic frankness; "besides, we don't need things like that in Cheyenne."

"Silly girl! Do you think I have turned merchant, and have got wares for sale? The coat is for you."

Bobby gave a cry of delight, then she looked up dubiously.

"But is it all right for me to take a present like this? I never had anything so big given me-yes, I did, too!" She laughed. "A fellow from Medicine Bow sent me a barrel of mixed fruit once, with nuts and raisins in between, and ten pounds of candy on top!"

"Then why scruple at my gift?"

Her brow clouded. "But you said girls oughtn't to take things from men they weren't engaged to. You remember that day on deck you got me to give back Andy's scarf-pin?"

Percival cleared his throat.

"Quite a different matter," he said; "now, between you and me-"

Bobby shook her head as she took off the coat.

"No, I guess not. I want it so bad I can taste it, but I think you'd better keep it for somebody in the family."

Percival slipped the jade pendant into his waistcoat pocket, and tossed the coat on a chair.

"As you like," he said. "Shall we go to the ball-room?"

In his secret soul he was inordinately gratified. Of course she should not have accepted the coat, and he should not have tempted her. She had done exactly right in firmly adhering to his former instructions. Altogether she was a remarkable little person indeed.

The moment they appeared in the ballroom she was confiscated, and he had a miserable quarter of an hour watching her whirl from one masculine arm to another. For the first time dancing struck him as pernicious. He declared that the clergy had something on its side when it denounced the amusement as evil. He doubted gravely if he should ever permit a wife of his to dance.

"Mr. Hascombe, aren't you going to ask me to dance?" It was Bobby who had stopped before him, flushed and breathless.

"I don't dance at public balls," he said disapprovingly.

"Why not?" asked Bobby, in surprise.

"Hardly the thing. A person in my position, you know-"

"You mean because of the Honorable? How stupid! Let's pretend you aren't one just for to-night!"

"But I don't dance these dances, you see."

"That doesn't matter; I'll teach you."

"Really, now, I can't make a spectacle of myself."

"Nobody wants you to. We'll practise out here in the loggia. Come ahead!"

He was seized by two small, determined hands and drawn this way and that, apparently without the slightest method.

"But I haven't the vaguest idea what to do with my feet," he protested helplessly.

"Don't do anything with them; let them do something with you. Shut your eyes and listen to the music; let it get into your bones, and the first thing you know you will be doing it."

With British solemnity Percival closed his eyes and tried to feel the music. Suddenly he was aware that he was moving in rhythm to the insistent beat of the drum.

"That's it!" cried Bobby, excitedly. "You are doing the Grape-Vine; let yourself go. That's it!"

So intent was he upon keeping out of time instead of in it, that he was guided from the loggia into the ball-room before he knew it. His awakening came when a firm hand was laid upon his shoulder. He stopped indignantly. The ship's doctor had not only arrested the development of his new-found talent, but was actually dancing off with his partner!

"Most unwarrantable impertinence!" he stormed to the Scotchman, whom he joined at the door. "Clapped me on the shoulder quite as if I had been under suspicion for felony. Almost expected to hear him say, 'My man, you're wanted.' I shall demand satisfaction of the cub the instant the dance is over."

The Scotchman laughed. "He meant ye no harm. It's a trick they have in the States of changing partners. Watch the game; ye'll see."

"And I can take any man's partner away by simply laying my hand on his shoulder?"

This changed the complexion of things considerably. The Honorable Percival spent the remainder of the evening laying his hand upon the shoulder of whosoever claimed Bobby for a dance.

It was remarkable with what facility he acquired the new steps. He knew that he had a good figure and that he carried it with distinction. The admiring glances that followed his entrance into any public assembly made him pleasantly aware of the fact. To-night, however, if any of his thoughts turned upon himself, they were but stragglers from the main army that marched in solid file under Bobby's banner.

During the intervals when he could not dance with her he retired to the loggia, and thought about her. She was not only the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, but the most adorably responsive. He likened her poetically to an ?olian harp and himself to the wind.

No one, not even his fond mother, had accepted him so implicitly at his own valuation as Bobby. Other women frequently insisted upon their own interpretations. He looked upon this as a form of disloyalty. Lady Hortense had once decried his taste for Tennyson; that, and her persistent use of a perfume which he disliked had been symbolic to him of a difference in temperament. Bobby had no predilections for perfumes or poets. She blindly accepted his judgment of all things, and if she sometimes failed to conform to his wishes, it was through forgetfulness and not opposition. He gloried in her plasticity; after all, was it not among the chief of feminine virtues?

While he paced the loggia and thus recounted her charms, he became increasingly intolerant of the fact that his ?olian harp was being swept by various winds. He thirsted for a complete monopoly of her smiles, of all her glances, grave and gay, of the thousand and one little looks and gestures that he had quite unwarrantably come to look upon as his own.

After all, why should he consider his family before himself? Why should he ever go back to England at all? It was the most daring thought he had ever had, and for a moment it staggered him. Lines from "Locksley Hall" began ringing in his ears:

"... Oh for some retreat

Deep in yonder shining-Orient when; my life began to heat:

Larger constellations burning, mellow moons and happy skies,

Breadths of tropic shady, and palms in clusters, Knots of Paradise.

There the passions, cramp'd no longer, shall have scope and breathing space;

I will take some savage woman-"

Of course, he told himself, Bobby wasn't exactly a savage woman; but then again she was, you know, in a way. She was from the point of view of Sister Cordelia. But why consult Sister Cordelia at all? Why not seek some "blossomed bower in dark purple spheres of sea"? Not in China; it was too beastly smelly. Not in Japan; mosquitos. Not in America; never! It should be some South Sea Island, where they would dwell, "the world forgetting, and by the world forgot."

Once an Englishman slips the leash of his sentiment and quotes even a line of poetry, it carries him far afield. In this case it led Percival a headlong chase over walls of tradition and barriers of pride. He begrudged every moment that must elapse before he had Bobby to himself, and told her of his great decision.

"But isn't it too late to be taking a walk?" she protested when the last dance was over, and he was urging a turn on the bund.

"Just a breath of fresh air. Won't take five minutes. Where's your wrap?"

"I haven't any but my steamer-coat. I don't suppose you could stand that."

"You will wear the Manchu coat," said Percival, with tender authority; "there's every reason why you should."

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