A Matter Of Friendship by Alice Hegan Rice

When a jovial young person in irreproachable pongee, and a wholly reproachable brown topi, scrambled up the lifting gang-plank of the big Pacific liner, setting sail from Yokohama, he was welcomed with acclaim. The Captain stopped swearing long enough to megaphone a greeting from the bridge, the First Officer slapped him on the back, while the half dozen sailors, tugging at the ropes, grinned as one man.

Three months before this good ship East India had carried Frederick Reynolds out to the Orient and deposited him on the alien soil, an untried youth of unimpeachable morals with a fatal facility for making friends.

The temporary transplanting had had a strange and exotic effect. The East has a way of developing crops of wild oats that have been neglected in the West, and by the end of his sojourn Mr. Frederick Reynolds had seen more, felt more, and lived more than in all of his previous twenty-four years put together. He had learned the difference between a "straight flush" and a "full house" under the palms at Raffles Hotel in Singapore; he had been instructed in the ways of the wise in Shanghai by a sophisticated attaché of the French Legation, who imparted his knowledge between sips of absinthe, as he looked down on the passing show from a teahouse on the Bubbling Well Road; he had rapturously listened to every sweet secret that Japan had to tell, and had left a wake of smiles from Nagasaki to Yokohama.

In fact, in three short months he was fully qualified to pass a connoisseur's judgment on a high-ball, to hold his own in a game of poker, and to carry on a fairly coherent flirtation in four different languages.

With this newly acquired wisdom he was now setting sail for home, having accomplished his downward career with such alacrity that he did not at all realize what had happened to him.

Nor did the return voyage promise much in the way of silent meditation and timely repentance. The Captain placed Reynolds next to him at table, declaring that he was like an electric fan on a sultry day; the Purser, with the elasticity of conscience peculiar to pursers, moved him from the inexpensive inside room which he had engaged, to a spacious state-room on the promenade deck, where sufficient corks were drawn nightly to make a small life preserver.

The one person who watched these proceedings with disfavor was a short, attenuated, bow-legged Chinaman, with a face like a grotesque brass knocker, and a taciturnity that enveloped him like a fog.

On the voyage out, Tsang Foo, the assistant deck steward, had gotten into a fight with a brother Chinaman, and had been saved from dismissal by Reynolds's timely intercession at headquarters. In dumb gratitude for this service, he had laid his celestial soul at the feet of the young American and sworn eternal allegiance.

From the day Reynolds reëmbarked, Tsang's silken, slippered feet silently followed him from smoking-room to bar, from bar back to smoking-room. Whatever emotion troubled the depths of his being, no sign of it rose to his ageless, youthless face. But whether he was silently performing his duties on deck, or sitting on the hatchway smoking his opium, his vigilant eyes from their long, narrow slits kept watch.

For thirteen days the sun sparkled on the blue waters of the Pacific, and favoring breezes gave every promise of landing the East India in port with the fastest record of the season. Bets went higher and higher on each day's running, and the excitement was intense each evening in the smoking-room when the numbers most likely to win the next day's pool were auctioned off to the highest bidder.

It was the afternoon of the fourteenth day, thirty-six hours out from San Francisco, that Mr. Frederick Reynolds, who had bet more, drunk more, talked more, and laughed more than any man on board, suddenly came to his full senses. Then it was that he went quietly to his luxurious state-room with its brass bed and crimson hangings, and took a forty-two caliber revolver from his steamer trunk. Slipping a cartridge into the cylinder, he sat breathing heavily and staring impatiently before him.

From outside above the roar of the ocean, came the tramp of the passengers on deck, and the trivial scraps of conversation that floated in kept side-tracking his thoughts, preventing their reaching the desired destination.

The world, which he had sternly resolved to leave, seemed determined to stay with him as long as possible. He heard Glass, the actor, inquiring for him, and in spite of himself he felt flattered; he heard the pretty girl whose steamer chair was next his, make a conditional engagement with the high-voiced army-officer, and he knew why she left the matter open; even a plaintive old voice inquiring how long it would be before tea, caused him to wait for the answer.

At last, as if to present his misery in embodied form, he produced a note-book and tried to concentrate his attention upon the items therein recorded. Line after line of wavering figures danced in impish glee before him, defying inspection. But at the foot of the column, like soldiers waiting to shoot a prisoner, stood four formidable units unquestionably pointing his way to doom.

As be looked at them Reynolds's thoughts got back on the main track and rushed to a conclusion. Tearing the leaf from the book, and crushing it in his hand, he jumped to his feet. Seized with a fury of self-disgust, he pulled off his coat and collar, and with the reckless courage of a boy put the mouth of the revolver to his temple.

As he did so the room darkened. He involuntarily looked up. Framed in the circle of the port-hole were the head and shoulders of Tsang Foo. Not a muscle of the yellow face moved, not a tremor of the slanting eyelids showed surprise. The right hand, holding a bit of tow, mechanically continued polishing the brass around the port-hole, but the left—long, thin, and with claw-like nails, shot stealthily forward and snatched the pistol.

For a full minute the polishing continued, then face and figure vanished, and Reynolds was left staring in impotent rage at the empty port-hole.

When the room steward appeared in answer to an imperative summons, he was directed to send Tsang Foo to room No. 7 at once.

Tsang came almost immediately, bearing tea and anchovy sandwiches, which he urbanely placed on a camp-stool.

"Where's my pistol?" demanded Reynolds hotly, holding to the door to steady himself.

Tsang's eyes, earnest as a dog's, were lifted to his:

"He fall overboard," he explained suavely, "me velly solly."

Reynolds impulsively lifted his arm to strike, but a second impulse, engulfing the first, made him turn and fling himself upon his berth, struggling to master the heavy sobs that shook him from head to foot.

The Chinaman softly closed the door and slipped the bolt, then he dropped to a sitting posture on the floor and waited.

When the squall had passed, Reynolds addressed his companion from the depths of the pillows in language suited to his comprehension.

"Me belong large fool, Tsang!" he said savagely. "Have drink too much. No good. You go 'long, I'm all right now."

Tsang's eye swept the disordered room and returned to the figure on the bed. "Suppose me go," he said, "you makee one hole in head?"

"That's my business," said Reynolds, his wrath rekindling. "You go 'long, and get my pistol; there's a good chap."

Tsang did not stir; he sat with his hands clasped about his knees, and contemplated space with the abstract look of a Buddha gazing into Nirvana.

Reynolds passed from persuasion to profanity with no satisfactory result. His language, whether eloquent or fiery, beat upon an unresponsive ear. But being in that condition that demands sympathy, he found the mere talking a relief, and presently drifted into a recital of his woes.

"I'm up against it, in the hole, you know, much largee trouble," he amplified with many gestures, sitting on the side of his berth, and pounding out excited, incoherent phrases to the impassive figure opposite. "Company sent me out to collect money. My have spent all. No can go back home. Suppose my lose face, more better die!"

Tsang shifted his position and nodded gravely. Out of much that was unintelligible, the last statement loomed clear and incontrovertible.

"I'm a thief!" burst out Reynolds passionately, not to Tsang now, but to the world at large, "a plain, common thief. And the worst of it is there isn't a man in that San Francisco office that doesn't trust me down to the ground. Then there's the Governor. O God! I can't face the Governor!"

Tsang sat immovable, lost in thought. Stray words and phrases helped, but it was by some subtle working of his own complex brain that he was arriving at the truth.

"Father, him no can lend money?" he suggested presently.

"The Governor? Good heavens, no. There's not enough money in our whole family to wad a gun! They put up all they had to give me a start, and look where I have landed! Do you suppose I'd go back and ask them to put up a thousand more for my rotten foolishness?" He knotted his hands together until the nails grew white then, seeing the unenlightened face below, he added emphatically: "No, no, Tsang, no can askee!"

"How fashion you losee money!" asked Tsang.

"The money? Oh, belong gamble. Bet on ship's run. First day—win. Second day—win. Then lose, lose, keep on losing. Didn't know half the time what I was doing. To-day my settle up; no can pay office. A thousand dollars out! Lord! All same two thousand Mex', Tsang!"

An invisible calculation was made on the end of the steamer trunk by a long, pointed, fingernail, but no change of expression crossed the yellow face. For an incalculable time Tsang sat, lost in thought. All his conserved energy went to aid him in solving the problem. At last he reached a decision: this was clearly a case to be laid before the only god be knew, the god of Chance.

"Me gamble too," he said; "me no lose."

"But s'pose you had lost? S'pose you lose what no belong you? What thing you do?"

"You do all same my talkee you?" asked Tsang, for the first time lifting his eyes.

It was a slender straw, to be sure, but Reynolds grasped at it.

"What thing you mean, Tsang? What can I do?"

"Two more night' to San Flancisco," said Tsang softly; "one more bet, maybe!"

"Oh, I've thought of that. What's the good of throwing good money after bad? No use, I no got chance."

"My have got chance," announced Tsang emphatically, "you bet how fashion my talkee you, your money come back."

Reynolds studied the brass knocker of a face, but found no clue to the riddle. "What you mean, Tsang?" he asked. "What do you know? For the Lord's sake don't fool with me about it!"

"Me no fool," declared Tsang. "You le' me talkee number, him win big heap money."

"But how do you know?"

"Me savey," said Tsang enigmatically.

Again Reynolds studied the impassive face. "It's on the square, Tsang? You don't stand in with anybody below decks? The thing is on the level?" Then finding further elucidation necessary, he added, "No belong cheat!"

Tsang Foo shook his head positively. "No belong cheat, all belong ploper. No man savey, only me savey, this side," and he tapped his head significantly.

Reynolds gave a short, unpleasant laugh. "All right," he said, thrusting his hand in his pocket. "I'll give myself one more chance. There'll be time to-morrow to finish my job. I'll make a bargain with you, Tsang! Bet this, and this, and this, on the next run for me. You win, I no makee shoot; you lose, you promise bring back pistol, then go way. My can do what thing my wantchee, see?"

Tsang Foo looked at him cunningly: "I win, you belong good boy? Stop whisky-soda, maybe?"

Reynolds laughed in spite of himself: "Going to reform me, oh? All right, it's a bargain."

Tsang allowed his hand to be shaken, then he carefully counted over the express checks that had been given to him.

"My go now," he announced as eight bells sounded from the bridge.

As the door closed Reynolds sighed, then his eyes brightened as they fell upon the sandwiches. Even a desperate young man on the verge of suicide if he is hungry must needs cheer up temporarily at the sight of food. Reynolds had taken an early breakfast after being up all night, and had eaten nothing since. After devouring the sandwiches and tea with relish, he ordered a hot bath, and in less than an hour was wrapped in his berth sleeping the sleep that is not confined to the righteous.

It was high noon the next day when he awoke. His first feeling was one of exhilaration: the long sleep, the fresh sea air pouring in at the port-hole, and a sense of perfect physical well-being had made him forget, for a moment, the serious business the day might have in store for him.

As he lay, half dozing, he became dimly aware that something was wrong. The throb of the engines had ceased, and an ominous stillness prevailed. He sat up in bed and listened, then he thrust his head out of the port-hole, only to see a deserted deck. The passage was likewise deserted save for a hurried stewardess, who called back, over her shoulder, "It's a man overboard, sir, on the starboard side—"

Reynolds flung on his clothes. The boy in him was keen for excitement, and in five minutes he was on deck, and had joined the crowd of passengers that thronged the railing.

The life-boat was being lowered, groaning and protesting as it cleared the davits and swung away from the ship's side. Far behind, in the still shining wake of the steamer, a small black object bobbed helplessly in the gray expanse of waters.

"What's the matter?" "Did he fall overboard!" "Did he jump in?" "Was it suicide?" The air buzzed with questions. The sentimental contingent clung to the theory that it was some poor stoker who could no longer stand the heat, or a foreign refugee afraid to come into port. The more practical argued that it was probably one of the seamen who, while doing outside painting, had lost his balance and fallen into the sea.

A smug, well-dressed man, with close-cropped gray beard, and a detached gaze that seemed to go no further than his rimless glasses, turned and spoke to Reynolds:

"It has gotten to be quite the fashion for somebody in the steerage to create this sort of sensation. It happened as I went over. If a man sees fit to jump overboard, all well and good; in nine cases out of ten it's a good riddance to the community. But why in Heaven's name should the steamer put back? Why should several hundred people be delayed an hour or so for the sake of an inconsiderate, useless fool?"

Reynolds turned away sickened. From a point, apart from the rest, he strained his eyes to keep in sight the small black object now hidden, now revealed, by the waves. A fierce sense of kinship for that man in the water seized him. He, too, perhaps had grappled with some unendurable situation and been overcome. What if he was an utterly worthless asset on the great human ledger? He was a fellow-being, suffering, tempted, vanquished. Was it kind to bring him back, to go through with it all again?

For answer Reynolds's muscles strained with those of the sailors rowing below: all the life and youth in him rose in rebellion against unnecessary death. He watched with teeth hard set as the small boat climbed to the crest of a wave, then plunged into the trough again, crawling by imperceptible inches toward the bobbing spot in the water. He longed to be in the boat, in the water even, helping to save that human life that only on the verge of extinction had gained significance. What if the man wished to die? No matter, he must be saved, saved from himself, given another chance, made to face it out, whatever it was. Not until then did Reynolds remember another life that be had dared to threaten, that even now he meant to take if the wheel of chance swung against him. Suddenly he faced the awful judgment of his own act, and shuddered back as one who, standing upon a precipice, trembles in terror before the mad desire to leap.

"I'll stick it out!" he said half aloud as if in promise. "Whatever comes, I'll take my medicine, I'll—"

An eager murmur swept through the crowd. A sailor with a rope about him was being lowered from the life-boat.

For five tense minutes the two men rose and fell at the mercy of the high waves, and the distance between them did not lessen by an inch.

Then a passenger with a binocular announced that the sailor was swimming around to the far side to get the man between him and the boat.

With long, steady, overhand strokes, the sailor was gaining his way, and when at last he reached the apparently motionless object and got a rope under its arms, and the two were hauled into the life-boat, a rousing cheer went up from the big steamer above.

Reynolds drew in his breath sharply and turned away from the railing. As he did so he was hailed by a group of friends who were returning to their cards, waiting face downward on the small tables in the smoking-room.

"Behold His Nibs!" shouted Glass, the actor, "the luckiest duffer that ever hit a high-ball!"

"How did you happen to do it?" cried another.

Reynolds lifted his hand to his bewildered head. "Do what?" he asked dully. "I'm not on."

"Oh, come!" said Glass, shaking him by the shoulder; "that bet you sent in last night! When the Chink said you wanted to buy the low field for all six pools, and to bet five hundred to boot that you'd win, I thought you were either drunk or crazy. Yesterday's run was four-fifty-one, a regular corker, and yet with even better weather conditions, you took only the numbers below four-thirty-one. I argued with the Chinaman 'til I was blue in the face, but he stood pat, said, you were all right, and had told him what to do. Nothing but an accident could have saved you, and it arrived. You've won the biggest pool of the crossing, don't you think it's about time for you to set 'em up? Say Martini cocktails for the crowd, eh?"

Reynolds was jostled about in congratulation and good-humored banter. Everybody was glad of the boy's success, he was an all round favorite, and some of the men who had won his money felt relieved to return it.

"Here's your cocktail, Freddy," cried Glass, "and here's to you!"

Reynolds stood in the midst of the crowd, his face flushed, his hair tumbled. With a quick movement he sent the glass and its contents spinning out of a near-by port-hole.

"Not for Frederick!" he said with emphasis, "I've been that particular kind of a fool for the last time."

Some hours later when the crowd went below to dress for dinner, Reynolds dropped behind to ask the Second Officer about the man who had been rescued.

"He is still pretty full of salt water," said the Officer, "but he is being bailed out."

"How did it happen?" asked Reynolds.

"Give it up. He hasn't spoken yet. It looks as if he were getting ready to do some outside cleaning, for he had on a life-preserver. Funny thing about it, though, that's not his work. He's not even on duty during the starboard watch. The man in the lookout saw him climb out on the bow, shout something up to him, then fall backward into the water. I'll be hanged if I can make it out. Tsang Foo is one of the steadiest sailors on board."

"Tsang Foo!" shouted Reynolds. "You don't mean that man was Tsang?"

With headlong haste he seized the bewildered officer and made him pilot him below decks. Stumbling down the ladders and through dark passages, he at last reached the bunk where Tsang Foo lay with the ship's surgeon and a steward in attendance.

The Chinaman's lips were drawn tightly back over his prominent teeth, and his breath came in irregular gasps. Across the pillow in a straight black line lay his dripping queque. As his eyelids fluttered feebly, the doctor straightened his own tired back.

"He'll come round now, all right," he said to the steward. "Give him those drops and don't talk to him. He's had a close call. I'll be back in ten minutes."

Reynolds crowded into the narrow apace the doctor had left. The fact that he was saved from disgrace was utterly blotted out by the bigger fact that this ignorant, uncouth, foreign sailor had fearlessly risked his life to save him from facing a merited punishment. Reynolds's very soul seemed to grow bigger to accommodate the thought.

"Tsang!" he whispered, seizing the yellow hand, "You are a brick! Number one good man. But my no can take money,—I—"

The steward in attendance, who had stepped aside, made a warning gesture and laid his finger on his lips.

For five minutes the man in the bunk and the one beside it looked silently into each other's eyes, then the drawn lips moved, and Reynolds, bending his head to listen, heard the broken question:

"You—no—blake—bargain?"

Reynolds's mind dashed at two conclusions and recoiled from each. Should be follow his impulse to explain the whole affair, serious consequences would result for Tsang, while the other alternative of accepting the situation made him a party, albeit an innocent one, to a most reprehensible proceeding. It was to his credit, that of the two courses the latter was infinitely the more intolerable. He got up nervously, then sat down again.

"No—blake—bargain!" repeated Tsang anxiously.

Still Reynolds waited for some prompting from a conscience unaccustomed to being rusty. Any course that would involve the loyal little Chinaman, who had played the game according to the rules as he knew them, was out of the question. The money must be paid back, of course, but how, and when? If he cleared himself at the office it might be years before he could settle this new debt, but he could do it in time, he must do it. Then at last, light came to him. He would accept Tsang's sacrifice but it should stand for more than the mere material good it had purchased. It should pledge him to a fresh start, a clean life. He would justify the present by the future. He drew a deep breath of relief and leaned forward:

"Tsang," he said, and his voice trembled with the earnestness of his resolve, "I no break bargain. From now on my behave all same proper. It wasn't right, old fellow, you oughtn't—" then he gave it up and smiled helplessly, "you belong my good friend Tsang, what thing you wantchee?"

A slow smile broke the brass-like stillness of Tsang Foo's face:

"Pipe," he gasped softly, "opium velly good,—make land and sea—all same—by an' by!"