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   Chapter 6 BETWEEN THE LIGHTS

The Second Class Passenger: Fifteen Stories By Perceval Gibbon Characters: 25480

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


There was but the one hotel in that somber town of East Africa, and Miss Gregory, fronting the proprietor of it squarely, noted that he looked at her with something like amusement. She was a short woman of fifty, grey-haired and composed, and her pleasant face had a quiet and almost masculine strength and assurance. In her grey flannel jacket and short skirt and felt hat, with a sun-umbrella carried like a walking-stick, she looked adequate and worthy. Hers was a presence that earned respect and deference in the highways of travel; she had the air of a veteran voyager.

"I have managed to lose the boat," she said evenly; "and my luggage, of course, has been carried on to Zanzibar."

The hotel proprietor had not risen from his chair. He shrugged and smiled as he looked up at her.

"Vat you vant?" he asked.

Miss Gregory frowned. "I want a room for the night," she answered. "A room and dinner, please."

The man smiled again and bit his nails. He was a lean creature, unshaven and sidelong, and he had the furtive and self-conscious air of one who perpetrates a practical joke. Miss Gregory watched him with some impatience; she had yet to learn that a Portugee of the Coast will even lose money to inconvenience an English man or woman.

"You got money?" he asked.

Miss Gregory squared her shoulders. "I shall pay in the morning," she said. "You need have no fear; the Consul will be back to-morrow; I inquired at the Consulate." She paused; he wore still his narrow grin of malice. "Man!" she said contemptuously; "do you keep an hotel and not know a lady when you see one?"

"No money?" he suggested insinuatingly.

Miss Gregory sank a hand in her big pocket and brought forth her purse. There was a slight flush on her healthy broad face, but she governed her voice admirably.

"Here are three English shillings," she said, tilting them into her hand. "You can take these as a-as a deposit; and the rest will be paid in the morning. Now show me to my room."

The landlord uncoiled himself and rose from his chair to look at the money. He peered at it in her hand, then straightened up and faced her. Suddenly he had become hostile, lividly vicious; he laughed a shrill cackle in her face, his nose wrinkled like a dog's.

"No good to me," he said. "T'ree shillin'-poof! For free shillin' here you buy-a free drink. For room-an' dinner-you pay-a one pound. Take-a your t'ree shillin' away; I don't vant-a you an' your free shillin'. You get out-go walk-a in da street."

His eyes traveled swiftly about the place, as though to make sure that no one overheard; then he spat a foul epithet at her. His lean, unbuttoned body writhed as he babbled; his hands whirled in gestures; he seemed to be seeking courage to be violent. Miss Gregory, with a little frown of consideration, watched him. She buttoned the flannel jacket across her breast and restored her three shillings to her pocket. It was all done very deliberately, and through it all her formidable gaze held the Portugee at arm's length, till his gabbled insults died out and left him armed only with scowls. Miss Gregory waited, but he had no more to say.

"I will call on you to-morrow, my man," she said significantly, and walked at a leisurely rate through the door to the grave street without, where the quick evening was already giving place to night.

The sky overhead was deep blue and clear, powdered with a multitude of stars, and over the sea to the east a crescent of moon floated low. The night was fresh, but not cold. Miss Gregory, pacing tranquilly along the cobbled street, found it agreeable after the sterile heat of the afternoon. A faint breeze stirred the acacias which were planted along the middle of the way, and they murmured secretly. The prospect of a night without shelter did not greatly disturb her; she was already conscious that when she came to look back on it, it would take a high rank among her experiences.

A turning brought her to the Praca, the little square of the town, its heart and centre. Here there were lights, the signal that the place had waked up for the evening. Two or three low-browed cafes abutted on the pavement, each lively with folk who drank and talked; the open doors of a church showed an interior faintly luminous with candles; and men and a few women stood about in groups or moved here and there at their ease. With her deliberate step, Miss Gregory passed among them, looking about her with the ready interest of the old traveler who sees without criticizing. There was a flavor in the place and its people that struck her like something pungent; they had individuality; they belonged to each other. There was a sinister character in the faces and bearing of the men, a formidable directness in the women; not one but had the air of carrying a hidden weapon. It was the commonplace evening population of an East African town which has never lived down the traditions of its pirate- founders, and Miss Gregory marked its fine picturesqueness with appreciation. Every one turned to look at her as she passed; she, clean, sane, assured, with her little air of good-breeding, was no less novel to them than they to her. A thin dark woman, with arms and breasts bare, took a quick step forward to look into her face; Miss Gregory paused in her walk to return the scrutiny. The woman's wide lips curled in a sudden laughter; Miss Gregory smiled patronizingly, nodded to her and passed on.

She made a tour of the square, and even explored the mouth of a dark lane that led out of it. But it seemed to lead nowhere; it was a mere burrow between high silent houses, twisting abruptly among them with no purpose of direction, and she turned back to the lights. She was conscious by now that she had been on her feet since early in the afternoon, and she crossed to one of the cafes, where a tinkling band added its allurements to the yellow lights, and sat down at a small table. With one accord the customers at the place turned to look at her. A barefoot waiter received her order for coffee; she found herself a cigarette, lit it and looked about her. The cafe was a low whitewashed room, open to the pavement at one side; it was crowded with little tables, and at one end an orchestra of four sallow girls smoked and fiddled and strummed. All about her were the hard, keen men and women she had seen in the square, more men than women. They talked to each other earnestly, in guarded voices, with eyes alert for eavesdroppers; nearly every one had an air of secrecy and caution. They were of all the racial types she had ever seen. Teuton, Latin and Slav, and variants and mixtures of these, murmured and whispered among themselves; only one of them was unmistakably English.

Miss Gregory had noticed him as soon as she entered, and her table was next to the one at which he sat with three others, who watched him while he talked, and said little. He was a fair youth, with a bland, rather vacant face, and a weak, slack mouth. Miss Gregory knew such faces among footmen and hairdressers, creatures fitted by their deficiencies to serve their betters. He had evidently been drinking a good deal; the table before him was sloppy and foul, and there was the glaze of intoxication in his eyes. But what arrested her was a touch of exaltation in him, a manner as of triumph. For some reason or other he seemed radiant and glad. The cause soon became apparent, for he fixed his unsure gaze on her, smiled ingenuously and attempted a bow.

"Pardon me," he said, leaning carefully towards her. "Pardon me, but the sight of an English lady--"

Miss Gregory nodded. "All right," she said.

He hitched his chair closer to her; his three companions exchanged glances, and one of them made as though to nudge him, but hesitated and finally forbore.

"In. a general way," said the youth confidentially, "I wouldn't venture to speak to you. But "-and he broke into smiles-"I'm on me way home myself."

"I see," answered Miss Gregory.

He beamed at her, fatuous and full of pride. "On me way home," he repeated. "For good. No more Africa for me. I've 'ad just upon eight years of it-eight years of sun an' bugs an' fever, and now I'm going home." He paused and looked at her impressively. "I've made my pile," he said.

"That's good," said Miss Gregory. She saw the three others exchange another glance.

The English youth was rapt; for some moments his eyes were unseeing, and his lips moved without sound. It was not difficult to see what home meant for him, a goal achieved at hazard, something familiar and sympathetic, worth all the rest of the world. He came back to his surroundings with a long sigh.

"You don't happen to know Clapham Junction, ma'am?" he suggested. "Not the station, I don't mean, but the place? No? Well, that's where I'm off to. I 'aven't seen a tramcar for eight years; it'll be queer at first, I expect." He looked round him slowly at the low bare room and the men in white clothes and the whispering night without. "My mother takes lodgers," he added inconsequently.

"She will be glad to see you," said Miss Gregory.

"She will that," he agreed. He dropped his voice to the tones of confidence. "I got an idea," he said. "Give her a surprise. I'll go along to the house just about dark and say I'm lookin' for a room. Eh? And she'll begin about terms. Then I'll begin. 'Never you mind about terms,' I'll say. ''Ere's the price of eight years sweatin', and God bless you, old lady!'" He blinked rapidly, for his eyes were wet. "What do you think of that for a surprise?"

"Capital!" agreed Miss Gregory. "Are you going down the Coast by the boat to-morrow?"

"That's it," he cried. "I'm going second-class, like a gentleman.

Home, by gosh!"

"Then," suggested Miss Gregory, eyeing his sullen companions, "don't you think it would be best if you went and got some sleep now? You wouldn't care to miss the boat, I suppose?"

He stared at her. "No," he said, as if the contingency had just occurred to him. He sat back; his mild, insignificant face wore a look of alarm. "No, I shouldn't. It wouldn't do." His voice dropped again. "It wouldn't do," he repeated. "I've got it on me, an' this ain't what you call a moral place."

Miss Gregory nodded comprehendingly. "I know," she said. "So wouldn't it be as well on all accounts to get to bed behind a locked door?"

"You've hit it," he said. "That's what I got to do-and lock the door. That's common sense, that is." He stared at her for an instant, then rose with care and deliberation to his feet. He had altogether forgotten his companions; he did not even see them.

"That is, if it'll lock," he added, and held out his hand to Miss

Gregory.

"Good-bye," she said, taking it heartily. "I'm glad to hear of your good fortune."

He gulped and left her, walking forth through the little tables with the uncanny straightness of the man "in liquor." Miss Gregory drank up her coffee and sat where she was.

She could see the men at the next table out of the corner of her eye; their heads were together, and they were whispering excitedly. The whole affair was plain enough to a veteran of the world's byways like Miss Gregory; the plan had been to make the youth drunk, help him forth, and rob him easily in some convenient corner. He was the kind of man who lends himself to being robbed; the real wonder was that it had not been done already. But, mingled with her contempt for his helplessness, Miss Gregory felt a certain softening. His homing instinct, as blind as that of a domestic animal, his rejoicing in his return, his childish plan for taking his mother by surprise, even his loyalty to the tramcars and all the busy littleness of Clapham Junction-these touched something in her akin to the goodness of motherhood. It occurred to her that perhaps he had been better off under the lights of the cafe than alone on his way to his bed; and at that moment the three men at the next table, their conference over, rose and went out. She sat still till they were clear; then, on an impulse of officiousness, got up and went out after them.

Their white clothes shone in the darkness to guide her; they cut across the square and vanished in one of those dark alleys she had already remarked. Miss Gregory straightened her felt hat, took a fresh grip of the stout umbrella, and followed determinedly. The corner of the alley shut out the lights behind her; tall walls with scarce windows fast shuttered hemmed her in; the vast night of the tropics drooped its shadow over her. Through it all she plodded at the gait familiar to many varieties of men from Poughkeepsie to Pekin, a squat, resolute figure, reckless alike of risk and ridicule, an unheroic h

eroine. There reached her from time to time the noises that prevail in those places-noises filtering thinly through shutters, the pad of footsteps, and once-it seemed to come from some roof invisible above her-the sound of sobbing, abandoned, strangled, heart-shaking sobs. She frowned and went on.

A spot where the way forked made her hesitate; the men she was following were no longer in sight. But as she pondered there came to guide her a sudden cry, clear and poignant, the shout of a startled man. It was from the right-hand path, and promptly, as though on a summons, she bent her grey head and broke into a run in the direction of it. As she ran, pounding valiantly, she groped in her pocket for a dog-whistle she had with her; she took it in her lips, and, never ceasing to run, blew shrill call upon call. Her umbrella was poised for war, but, rounding a corner, she saw that her whistling had done its work; three white jackets were making off at top-speed. It takes little to alarm a thief; Miss Gregory had counted on that.

It was not till she fell over him that she was aware of the man on the ground, who rolled over and cried out at the movement. She put a steady hand on him.

"Are you hurt?" she asked eagerly.

He groaned; his face was a pale blur against the earth.

"They've got me," he said. "They stuck a knife in my back. I'm bleeding; I'm bleeding."

"Get up," bade Miss Gregory. "Bleeding or not, we must get away from here. Up you get."

She pulled him to a sitting position, and he screamed and resisted, but Miss Gregory was his master. By voice and force she brought him upright; he could stand alone, and seemed surprised to find it out.

"Take my arm," she ordered him. "Lean on it; don t be afraid. Now, where are your rooms?"

"On this way," he sobbed.

Evidently he had an ugly wound, for at each few steps he had to stop and rest, and sometimes he swayed, and Miss Gregory had to hold him up. His breath came hastily; he was soft with terror. "They'll come back! they'll come back!" he gabbled, tottering on his feet.

"They're coming now; I can hear them," replied Miss Gregory grimly. "Here, lean in this doorway behind me, man. Stop that whimpering, will you! Now, keep close."

She propped him against the nail-studded door, and placed herself before, him, and the three robbers, bunched together in a group, stealing along the middle of the way, might almost have gone past without seeing them. But it was not a chance to trust to. Miss Gregory let them come abreast of her; her whole honest body was tense to the occasion; on the due moment she flung herself forward and the brandished umbrella rained loud blows on aghast heads; and at the same time she summoned to her aid her one accomplishment-she shrieked. She was a strong woman, deep-chested, full-lunged; her raw yell shattered the stillness of the night like some crazy trumpet; it broke from her with the suddenness of a catastrophe, nerve-sapping, ear-scaring, heart-striking. Before it and the assault of the stout umbrella the robbers broke; a panic captured them; they squealed, clasped at each other, and ran in mere senseless amaze. The Latin blood, when diluted with Coast mixtures, is never remarkable for courage; but braver men might have scattered at the alarm of that mighty discordancy attacking from behind.

Fortunately the door they sought was not far off; through it they entered a big untidy room, stone-floored as the custom is, and littered with all the various trifles a man gathers about him on the Coast. Miss Gregory put her patient on the narrow bed and turned to the door; true to his fears, it would not lock. The youth was very pale and in much fear; blood stained the back of his clothes, and his eyes followed her about in appeal.

"You must wait a little," Miss Gregory told him. "I'll look at that wound of yours when I've seen to the door. No lock, of course." She pondered frowningly. "It's a childish thing at the best," she added thoughtfully; "but it may be a novelty in these parts. Have you ever arranged a booby trap, my boy?"

"No," he answered, wonderingly.

Miss Gregory shook her head. "The lower classes are getting worse and worse," she observed. She put a chair by the door, which stood a little ajar, and looked about her.

"As you are going away you won't want this china." It was his ewer and wash-hand basin. "I don't see anything better, and it'll make a smash, at any rate."

"What you goin' to do, ma'am?" asked the man on the bed.

"Watch," she bade him. It was not easy, but with care she managed to poise the basin and the ewer in it on top of the door, so that it leaned on the lintel and must fall as soon as the door was pushed wider.

"Now," she said, when it was done, "let's have a look at that cut."

It was an ugly gash high in the back, to the left of the spine-a bungler's or a coward's attempt at the terrible heart-stab. Miss Gregory, examining it carefully, was of opinion that she could have done it better; it had bled copiously, but she judged it not to be dangerous. She washed it and made a bandage for it out of a couple of the patient's shirts, and he found himself a good deal more comfortable. He lay back on his bed with some of the color restored to his face, and watched her as she moved here and there about the room with eyes that were trustful and slavish.

"Well," said Miss Gregory, when she had completed an examination of the apartment, "there doesn't seem to be much more one can do. They'll come back, I suppose? But of course they will. How much money have you got about you?"

"About two thousand pounds, ma'am," he said, meekly.

"H'm!" Miss Gregory thought a moment. "And they know it? Of course." She added her little sharp nod of certainty. "Well, when they come we'll attend to them."

There was a tiny mirror hanging from a nail, and she went to it, patted her grey hair to neatness, and re-established her felt hat on top of it. The place was as still as the grave; no noise reached it from without. The one candle at the bedside threw her shadow monstrously up the wall; while she fumbled with her hatpins it pictured a looming giantess brandishing weapons.

She was still at the mirror, with hatpins held in her mouth, when the steps of the robbers made themselves heard. The man on the bed started up on his elbow, with wide eyes and a sagging mouth. Miss Gregory quelled him with a glance, then crossed the floor and blew the candle out. In the darkness she laid her hat down that it might not come to harm, and put a reassuring hand on the youth's shoulder, it was quaking, and she murmured him a caution to keep quiet. Together, with breath withheld, they heard the men in the entry of the house, three of them, coming guardedly. Miss Gregory realized that this was the real onslaught; they would be nerved for shrieks this time. She took her hand from the youth's shoulder with another whispered word, and stepped to the middle of the room and stood motionless. The noise of breathing reached her, then a foot shuffled, and on the instant somebody sprang forward and shoved the door wide.

The jug and basin smashed splendidly; whoever it fell on uttered a little shrill yell and paused, confounded by the darkness. Miss Gregory, her eyes more tuned to it, could make out the blur of white clothes; with noiseless feet she moved towards them. She was all purpose and directness; no tremor disturbed her. As calmly as she would have shaken hands with the Consul she reached forward, felt her enemy, and delivered a cool and well-directed thrust. An appalling yell answered her, and she stepped back a space, the hatpin held ready for another attack. There was a tense instant of inaction, and then the three rushed, and one bowled her over on the floor and fell with her.

Miss Gregory fell on her side, and before she was well down the steel hatpin, eight inches long of good Paris metal, plunged and found its prey. The man roared and wallowed clear, and she rose. The big room was wild with stamping feet and throaty noises such as dogs make. The bedside chair, kicked aside struck her ankles; she picked it up and threw it at the sounds. It seemed to complicate matters. The place was as dark as a well, and she moved groping with her hands towards the bed. Some one backed into her-another yell and a jump, and, as she stepped back, the swish of a blow aimed towards her that barely missed her. Then she was by the bed, feeling over it; it was empty.

She had some moments of rest; every one was still, save for harsh breathing. But she dared not stand long, lest their eyes too should adapt themselves to the dark. It was evident that nobody had firearms; there was that much to be thankful for. She gathered herself for an attack, a rush at the enemy with an active hatpin, when something touched her foot. She bent, swiftly alert for war, but arrested the pin on its way. It was a hand from under the bed; her protege had taken refuge there. She took his wrist and pulled; he whimpered, and there was a grunt from the middle of the room at the sound, but he came crawling. She dared not whisper, for those others were moving already, but with her cool, firm hand on his wrist, she sank down on all-fours and drew him on towards the door. It was impossible to make no noise, but at any rate their noise was disconcerting; the robbers could not guess what it betokened. Each of them had his stab, a tingling, unaccountable wound, a hurt to daunt a man, and they were separately standing guard each over his own life.

They encountered one half way across the room. He felt them near him, and sent a smashing blow with a knife into the empty air. Miss Gregory, always with that considered and careful swiftness that was so like deliberation, reared to her knees, her left hand still holding the youth's wrist, and lunged. Another yell, and the man, leaping back, fouled a comrade, who stabbed and sprang away. They heard the man fall and move upon the floor like a dying fish, with sounds of choking. Then the door was before them, and, crawling still, with infinite pains to be noiseless, they passed through it. From within the room the choking noises followed them till they gained the open air.

The tortuous alley received them like a refuge; they fled along it with lightened hearts, taking all turnings that might baffle a chase, till at last Miss Gregory smelt acacias and they issued again into the little square. To Miss Gregory it was almost amazing that the cafes should still be lighted, their tables thronged, the music insistent. While history had paced for her the world had stood still. She stood and looked across at the lights thoughtfully.

The youth at her side coughed. "The least I can do," he suggested inanely, "is ask you to 'ave a cup of coffee, ma'am."

Miss Gregory turned on him sharply.

"And then?" she asked. "After the coffee, what then?"

He shuffled his feet uneasily. "Well, ma'am," he said; "this hole in my back is more'n a bit painful. So I thought I'd get along to the hotel an' have a lie down."

She looked at him thoughtfully. Her head was bare, and the night breeze from the sea whipped a strand of grey hair across her brow. She brushed it away a little wearily.

"Unless there's anything more I can do for you," suggested the young man smoothly.

Anything more he could do for her! She smiled, considering him. The events of the night had not ruffled him; his blonde face was still mild, insignificant, plebeian. Of such men slaves are made; their part is to obey orders, to be without responsibility, to be guided, governed, and protected by their betters. Miss Gregory, sister of a Major-General, friend of Colonial Governors, aunt of a Member of Parliament, author of "The Saharan Solitudes," and woman of the world, saw that she had served her purpose, her work was done.

"Thank you," she said; "there is nothing more. You had better go to bed at once."

There was a broken fountain in the middle of the square, overgrown with sickly lichen, and round it ran a stone bench. The acacias sheltered it, and a dribble of water from the conduit sounded always, fitting itself to one's thoughts in a murmuring cadence. Here Miss Gregory disposed herself, and here the dawn found her, a little disheveled, and looking rather old with the chill of that bleak hour before the sun rises. But her grey head was erect, her broad back straight, and the regard of her eyes serene and untroubled always. She was waiting for the hour when the Consul would be accessible; he was the son of her dearest friend.

"And I must not forget," she told herself-"I really must not forget to attend to that hotel man."

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