The week of anticipation passed slowly. After the first shock was over, after the first sense of imposition had passed away, and he found himself with a week for consideration, he became more decided than ever on his course of action. Mentally, he began many letters to his brother, usually beginning, "I regret exceedingly," from which beginning he launched out into well balanced, well phrased excuses, of admirable logic, by means of which he proved the imperative necessity of finding other anchorage for this stray and apparently very frail bark. Of necessity these letters were vague, since he did not know what particular form of frailty he had to contend with. Of one thing, however, he was sure—the Colony offered opportunities for the indulgence of every form known to man, with none of those nice restrictions which are thrown round such opportunities in more civilized parts of the globe. He would explain all this at length, as soon as he knew upon which points to concentrate his argument. But, take it by and large, there were no safeguards of any sort, and only the strongest and most upright could walk uprightly amidst such perils.
The coming of the next liner was awaited with much anxiety. The Bishop had gone so far as to confide to a few friends that a young nephew would arrive with her, for a week's stay—on his way elsewhere. He remembered the boy, his namesake. Rather a handsome little chap as he recalled him—perhaps under more auspicious circumstances it might have been a pleasure to have had a visit from him. But this suddenly becoming endowed with him for weeks or months—it might be years, perhaps—quite another matter.
When the mailboat arrived one afternoon, the Bishop's rickshaw stood at the jetty, while the Bishop himself, in his immaculate gaiters, with his sash blowing in the soft wind, stood at the end of the jetty anxiously regarding the tender making its way inshore. She was crowded with a miscellaneous throng of passengers, among whom were many young men, all strange, new, expectant young men coming out for the first time, but among them he saw no face that resembled the one he was searching for. Which might possibly be, he reflected, since the face, as he recalled it at the time of their last meeting many years ago, was very childish and immature. The tender made fast to the steps, and amidst much luggage, much scrambling of coolies and general disorder, the passengers came off. The Bishop standing on the steps scrutinised each one carefully. Not there. Nor was there a second trip to the liner, since the tender had fetched ashore all who were to disembark at that port. The Bishop turned away with mingled feelings, part relief, part indignation. Another week of suspense to be gone through with, and after that, another week before he could release himself of his burden. It was all exceedingly trying and unreasonable—the feeling of irritation against his brother mounted higher—it was outrageous, keeping him upset this way.
Then a thought suddenly came into his mind. That name on the passenger list a week ago, the name slightly different yet curiously alike—could it have been altered slightly on purpose? Ashamed to face him, ashamed to come to him? Bundled off in disgrace from home, willy-nilly, and now here,—hiding?
A wave of sick apprehension came over the Bishop. Agonising fear. He must see Walker at once. Walker, his old friend, who would know what to do, what to advise. If only he were in town.
Walker was in town as it happened, and the Bishop found him at his hotel, and poured out to him all his wretched anxieties, the whole miserable business, not sparing himself in describing his attitude of unwelcome and unwillingness to receive the boy, and concluding with his sick fears concerning his safety. Walker listened gravely and attentively, and was troubled. It was very possible indeed—more than possible. A search must be begun at once. Fortunately, in that small community, it was not easy for a foreigner to disappear, and a stranger could not go inland, into the interior, undetected. Therefore, if he was here at all, he would soon be found—somewhere. He would set in motion the machinery immediately. First the hotels; that was easy. Then the other places. It would doubtless be necessary to call in the police.
The Bishop begged for secrecy—no publicity. Walker promised. That, too, would be easy. Leave it to him. The Bishop might rest easy on that score—no publicity. Walker would do everything himself, as far as possible. Only, he might have to send for the Bishop, if it became necessary, to identify——
Two nights later, the Bishop was reclining on the long chair on his verandah, while overhead the heavy punkah fans swayed to and fro, stirring the moist, warm air. Out in the harbour the lights gleamed fitfully, the lanterns on the bobbing sampans contrasting with the steadier beams of the big ships anchored in the roadway. The ships of the Orient, congregated from the Seven Seas, full of the mystery and romance of the East. He had left it to Walker—as he had been told. In the darkness, with one hand clasped behind his head and the other holding a glowing cigar, he contemplated the scene, his favourite hour of the day. Each moment another and another light flitted across the heavy blackness, showing red or green, while the lights on the moving sampans darted back and forth in the darkness, restless and alert. He had left it to Walker. He had stopped thinking of his impending nephew for a few moments, and his mind had relaxed, as the mind relaxes when an evil has been postponed from time to time, and normal feeling reasserts itself after the reprieve. There was a quiet footfall on the verandah, and the Bishop was aroused from his meditations. His Chinese servant approached deferentially. "Man want see Master," he explained laconically, with the imperturbability of the East.
"What like man?" enquired the Bishop, in pidgin English. "China man," came the response. "Must see Master. All belong velly important."
A quick foreboding possessed the Bishop, even in this hour of his tranquillity.
"Show him here," he replied, after a second's consideration. A tall figure appeared before him, bowing. A lean, very dirty Chinese, who bowed repeatedly. In spite of the Oriental repression of feeling, it was plain that he was troubled. He extended a lean, claw-like hand, with a long and very dirty nail on the little finger, and offered a soiled letter to the Bishop.
"Velly important. All belong much tlouble," he explained, and tucked his hands well inside his long blue sleeves, and stood by impassively, while the Bishop received the letter, crumpled and soiled, as if carried for a long time in a pocket. He turned it over and found it addressed to himself. There was no stamp. The handwriting was Walker's. The Bishop started erect in his long chair, and then sprang up, straddling it as usual.
"Where get this?" he asked excitedly. The impassive Chinese bowed once more.
"Say come quick. Letter velly important. Letter belong you. No police. My savee you want letter now." He backed away, still bowing. With a sweep of his arm he indicated the dark night outside.
"You come quick," he repeated, "or call police." By the light of a lamp which his obsequious but curious Chinese servant carried in, the Bishop tore open Walker's letter, read it, then crushed it hurriedly into his pocket.
"Come quick," reiterated the unknown Chinese, "I got lickshaw." The Bishop strode forward across the verandah, snatching at his hat as he went, and then hastened across the lawn with hurried steps, followed by the Chinese pacing rapidly behind him. Two rickshaws were waiting under the street lamp, two shabby rickshaws. Yet somehow, the Bishop did not care for his own private conveyance at this moment, did not wish the sharp, inquisitive eyes of his runners to follow him just then. He mounted hastily, and the coolies started off with a will, the Chinese leading the way. Even in that moment of anxiety, the Bishop was aware that the Chinese was leading the way, was conscious that the place of honour was not his—for the first time in his life, his vehicle followed, second place, a rickshaw that carried a Chinese.
The distance seemed interminable. Fortunately, at that hour few of his acquaintances were abroad, but in the anxiety which possessed him, he scarcely realised it. He was conscious of passing through crowded streets, the quarter of the Mohammedans, where incense pots were alight, scenting the warm air. Then the vile-smelling bazaar, crowded with buyers, bargaining and shouting under the swaying torches. Then they passed the European section of the town, where the streets were wide, clean and deserted. They must be going back of the quais now, for the air was heavy with the acrid scent of rubber. Then they turned into a narrow, wildly tumultuous street full of Chinese, scattered all over the road and sidewalk, shouting, calling, beating drums, yelling wares for sale, the babel of the Chinese quarter, only such as the Bishop had never seen it. The rickshaws turned many times, up narrow lanes and alleys, across wider thoroughfares, and finally halted before a dingy house of many storeys, a foreign-style house, converted to native uses. They stopped before a red painted door, a double door, in two halves, like a saloon door. Over the entrance hung a sign, black and white, in large, sprawling Chinese characters. Subconsciously, he was aware that he had passed such signs, in such characters, many times before. A curious and large crowd gathered before the house parted at their approach, and the filthy Chinese led the way, followed by the Bishop in his immaculate garb. As they passed in and the swing doors closed behind them, a throng of yellow faces peered down and looked under the door, which was hung high. And all the while, the low, insistent shuffling noises of the crowd outside penetrated into the dark, dimly lit room in which the Bishop and his companion found themselves.
Around three sides of this room, which was narrow, ran a wide bench covered with dirty matting. Lying at intervals in pairs all along the bench, were two coolies in a little pen, with a lamp between them, separated by a narrow ridge from the pen adjoining, which held two more ragged smokers. The Bishop beheld rows of them, haggard, pallid rows. A horn lantern was suspended from the ceiling, and the air was unstirred by punkah, the heavy, foul air reeking with the sickening, pungent fumes of opium. As he passed, the smokers raised themselves on their elbows and gazed at him with glazed, dull eyes. The sight of a Bishop in a low class opium den was unusual, and the dimmed brains of the smokers dimly recognised the distraction. Then, as he moved on, they sank down again upon their wooden pillows, and with slow, infinite pains, set themselves to roll their bits of opium, to cook it over the dim lamps that dotted the murky atmosphere with glints of light, and to resume their occupations.
At the back of the room, the proprietor paused before a part of the bench where the pen was occupied by one smoker only, a foreigner. The foreigner lay stretched out in an awkward attitude, knees drawn up, his head sliding off the wooden block, most uncomfortable. A candle was thrust into the Bishop's unsteady hand.
"Looksee," whispered a voice. The Bishop looked. "All lite?" questioned the anxious voice of the proprietor, "Die lil' while ago. No can smoke like China boys. No can do."
The Bishop continued to look at the beautiful, disdainful head of the young foreigner, sliding limply off its wooden pillow.
"All lite?" continued the whining voice insistently. "My got money. Have got watch. No steal." A skinny hand with filthy fingernails crept forth and thrust itself into the pockets of the limp waistcoat, crumpled so pitifully upon the thin, young figure, and presently a gold watch was drawn forth. The watch was slowly waved before the Bishop's eyes, and the case snapped open, so that he could read the name engraved within. After which the Bishop continued to gaze fixedly upon the dead youth, lying disgraced upon a bench in one of the lowest opium dives in the Colony.
"Smoke here week," went on the insistent voice of the proprietor, "all time smoke. No go out. No eat. Smoke all same China-boy. No same China-boy. No can do."
There was a slight movement at the back of the room, and an object was passed from hand to hand and finally held for inspection under the Bishop's nose. In a grimy frame, protected by a square of fly-brown glass, was a square, official-looking bit of paper. Of value evidently, since much care had been taken to preserve it.
"License," went on the explanatory voice. "Gov'ment license. All samee Gov'ment license. Pay heap money. No can help if man die. Plenty China-boy die too. This velly lespectable place."
The Bishop recalled himself as from a dream. During the few moments he had spent looking down upon the huddled figure, he seemed to have grown older, to have shrunken down, to have lost something of his fine, arrogant hearing and conscious superiority.
"All lite?" whined the voice insistently. "All lite?" "Yes," said the Bishop shortly, "it's all right." He strode rapidly through the foul room, through the heavy, tainted, pungent air. Outside, the dense crowd pressed closely about the swinging doors scattered widely as he approached. Two policemen were coming down the street, attracted by the excitement of the crowd. The Bishop got into a rickshaw and drove homewards. A heavy weight seemed to have been lifted from his mind. Through the oppressive, hot night air the Canterbury chimes pealed their mellow notes.
"Thank God," said the Bishop fervently, "it was not my nephew."
UNDER A WINEGLASS
UNDER A WINEGLASS
A little coasting steamer dropped anchor at dawn at the mouth of Chanta-Boun creek, and through the long, hot hours she lay there, gently stirring with the sluggish tide, waiting for the passage-junk to come down from Chanta-Boun town, twelve miles further up the river. It was stifling hot on the steamer, and from side to side, whichever side one walked to, came no breeze at all. Only the warm, enveloping, moist heat closed down, stifling. Very quiet it was, with no noises or voices from the after deck, where under the awning lay the languid deck passengers, sleeping on their bedding rolls. Very quiet it was ashore, so still and quiet that one could hear the bubbling, sucking noises of the large land-crabs, pattering over the black, oozy mud, or the sound of a lean pig scratching himself against the piles of a native hut, the clustered huts, mounted on stilts, of the village at the mouth of the creek.
The Captain came down from the narrow bridge into the narrow saloon. He was clad in yellow pajamas, his bare feet in native sandals, and held a well pipeclayed topee in one hand. Impatient he was at the delay of the passage-junk coming down from up-river, with her possible trifling cargo, and possible trifling deck-passengers, of which the little steamer already carried enough.
"This long wait—it is very annoying," he commented, sitting upon the worn leather cushions of the saloon bench. "And I had wished for time enough to stop to see the lonely man. I have made good time on this trip—all things considered. With time to spare, to make that call, out of our way. And now the good hours go by, while we wait here, uselessly."
"The lonely man?" asked the passenger, who was not a deck-passenger. He was the only saloon passenger, and because of that, he slept first in one, then in the other of the two small cabins, alternating according to which side the wind blew from.
"You would not mind, perhaps," continued the Captain, "if, after all—in spite of this long delay—we still found time for the lonely man? An unscheduled call, much out of our way—oh, a day's sail from here, and we, as you know, go slowly——"
"Three days from now—four days from now—it matters little to me when we reach Bangkok," said the passenger largely, "but tell me of this man."
Upon the sideboard, under an inverted wineglass, sat a small gilt Buddha, placed there by the China-boys. The Captain fixed his eyes upon the Buddha.
"Like that. Immovable and covered in close, sitting still in a small space. Covered in. Some one turned a wineglass over on him, long ago, and now he sits, still and immovable like that. It makes my heart ache."
"Tell me. While we are waiting."
"Three years ago," began the Captain dreamily, still looking at the tiny gilt Buddha in its inverted wineglass, "he came aboard. Bound for nowhere in particular—to Bangkok, perhaps, since we were going that way. Or to any other port he fancied along the coast, since we were stopping all along the coast. He wanted to lose himself, he said. And, as you have seen, we stop at many remote, lonely villages, such as this one. And we have seen many lonely men, foreigners, isolated in villages such as this one, unknown, removed, forgotten. But none of them suited him. He had been looking for the proper spot for many years. Wandering up and down the coast, in cargo-boats, in little coasting vessels, in sailing vessels, sometimes in native junks, stopping here and there, looking for a place where he could go off and live by himself. He wanted to be quite, absolutely, to himself. He said he should know the place immediately, if he saw it—recognise it at once. He said he could find himself if he could get quite absolutely away. Find himself, that is, recover himself—something, a part of him which he had lost. Just temporarily lost. He was very wistful and very eager, and said I must not think him a fool, or demented. He said he only wanted to be by himself, in the right spot, to accomplish his purpose. He would accomplish his purpose and then return.
"Can you see him, the lonely man, obsessed, going up and down the China Coast, shipping at distant ports, one after another, on fruitless quests, looking for a place to disembark. The proper place to disembark, the place which he should recognise, should know for his own place, which would answer the longing in him which had sent him searching round the world, over the Seven Seas of the world. The spot in which he could find himself again and regain what he had lost.
"There are many islands hereabouts," went on the Captain. "Hundreds. Desert. He thought one would suit him. So I put him down on one, going out of my way to find it for him. He leaned over the rail of the bridge, and said to me 'We are getting nearer.' Then he said that he saw it. So I stopped the ship and put him down. He was very grateful. He said he liked to be in the Gulf of Siam. That the name had a picturesque sound, the Pirate Islands. He would live all by himself on one of the Pirate Islands, in the Gulf of Siam. Isolated and remote, but over one way was the coast of Indo-China, and over the other way was the coast of Malay. Neighbourly, but not too near. He should always feel that he could get away when he was ready, what with so much traffic through the Gulf, and the native boats now and then. He was mistaken about the traffic, but I did not tell him so. I knew where he was and could watch him. I placed a cross on the chart, on his island, so that I might know where I had left him. And I promised myself to call upon him, from time to time—to see when he should be ready to face the world again."
The Captain spread a chart upon the table.
"Six degrees north latitude," he remarked, "Ten thousand miles from——"
"Greenwich," supplied the passenger, anxious to show that he knew.
"From Her," corrected the Captain.
"He told me about her a little. I added the rest, from what he omitted. It all happened quite a long time ago, which was the bother of it. And because it had taken place so long ago, and had endured for so long a time, it made it more difficult for him to recover himself again. Do you think people ever recover themselves again? When the precious thing in them, the spirit of them has been overlaid and overlaid, covered deep with artificial layers——?
"The marvel was that he wanted to regain it—wanted to break through. Most don't. The other thing is so easy. Money—of course. She had it, and he loved her. He had none, and she loved him. She had had money always, had lived with it, lived on it, it got into her very bones. And he had not two shillings to rub together, but he possessed the gift—genius. But they met somewhere, and fell in love with each other, and that ended him. She took him, you see, and gave him all she had. It was marvellous to do it, for she loved him so. Took him from his four shilling attic into luxury. Out of his shabby, poor, worn clothes into the best there were. From a penny 'bus into superb motors. With all the rest of it to match. And he accepted it all because he loved her, and it was the easiest way. Besides, just before she had come into his life, he had written—well, whatever it was—however, they all praised him, the critics and reviewers, and called him the coming man, and he was very happy about it, and she seemed to come into his life right at the top of his happiness over his work. And sapped it. Didn't mean to, but did. Cut his genius down at the root. Said his beginning fame was quite enough—quite enough for her, for her friends, for the society into which she took him. They all praised him without understanding how great he was, or considering his future. They took him at her valuation, which was great enough. But she thought he had achieved the summit. Did not know, you see, that there was anything more.
"He was so sure of himself, too, during those first few years. Young and confident, conscious of his power. Drifting would not matter for a while. He could afford to drift. His genius would ripen, he told himself, and time was on his side. So he drifted, very happy and content, ripening. And being overlaid all the time, deeper and thicker, with this intangible, transparent, strong wall, hemming him in, shutting in the gold, just like that little joss there under the wineglass.
"She lavished on him everything, without measure. But she had no knowledge of him, really. Just another toy he was, the best of all, in her luxurious equipment. So he travelled the world with her, and dined at the Embassies of the world, East and West, in all the capitals of Europe and of Asia. Getting restive finally, however, as the years wore on. Feeling the wineglass, as it were, although he could not see it. Looking through its clear transparency, but feeling pressed, somehow, conscious of the closeness. But he continued to sit still, not much wishing to move, to stretch himself.
"Then sounds from the other side began to filter in, echoing largely in his restricted space, making within it reverberations that carried vague uneasiness, producing restlessness. He shifted himself within his space, and grew conscious of limitations. From without came the voices, insistent, asking what he was doing now? Meaning, what thing was he writing now, for a long time had passed since he had written that which called forth the praise of men. There came to him, within his wineglass, these demands from the outside. Therefore he grew very uneasy, and tried to rise, and just then it was that he began to feel how close the crystal walls surrounded him. He even wanted to break them, but a pang at heart told him that was ingratitude. For he loved her, you see. Never forget that.
"Now you see how it all came about. He was conscious of himself, of his power. And while for the first years he had drifted, he was always conscious of his power. Knew that he had but to rise, to assume gigantic stature. And then, just because he was very stiff, and the pain of stiffness and stretching made him uncouth, he grew angry. He resented his captivity, chafed at his being limited like that, did not understand how it had come about. It had come about through love. Through sheer, sheltering love. The equivalent of his for her. She had placed a crystal cup above him, to keep him safe. And he had sat safe beneath it all these years, fearing to stir, because she liked him so.
"It came to a choice at last. His life of happiness with her—or his work. Poor fool, to have made the choice at that late day. So he broke his wineglass, and his heart and her heart too, and came away. And then he found that he could not work, after all. Years of sitting still had done it.
"At first he tried to recover himself by going over again the paths of his youth. A garret in London, a studio off Montparnasse, shabby, hungry—all no use. He was done for. Futile. Done himself in for no purpose, for he had lost her too. For you see he planned, when he left her, to come back shortly, crowned anew. To come back in triumph, for she was all his life. Nothing else mattered. He just wanted to lay something at her feet, in exchange for all she had given him. Said he would. So they parted, heart-broken, crushed, neither one understanding. But he promised to come back, with his laurels.
"That parting was long ago. He could not regain himself. After his failure along the paths of his youth, his garrets and studios, he tried to recover his genius by visiting again all the parts of the world he had visited with her. Only this time, humbly. Standing on the outside of palaces and Embassies, recollecting the times when he had been a guest within. Rubbing shoulders with the crowd outside, shabby, poor, a derelict. Seeking always to recover that lost thing.
"And getting so impatient to rejoin her. Longing for her always. Coming to see that she meant more to him than all the world beside. Eating his heart out, craving her. Longing to return, to reseat himself under his bell. Only now he was no longer gilded. He must gild himself anew, bright, just as she had found him. Then he could go back.
"But it could not be done. He could not work. Somewhere in the world, he told me, was a spot where he could work. Where there were no memories. Somewhere in the Seven Seas lay the place. He should know it when he saw it. After so many years' exclusion, he was certain he should feel the atmosphere of the place where he could work. And there he would stay till he finished, till he produced the big thing that was in him. Thus, regilded, he would return to her again. One more effort, once more to feel his power, once more to hear the stimulating rush of praise,—then he would give it up again, quite content to sit beneath his wine-glass till the end. But this first.
"So I put him down where I have told you, on a lonely island. Somewhat north of the Equator, ten thousand miles away from Her. Wistfully, he said it was quite the right spot. He could feel it. So we helped him, the China-boys and I, to build a little hut, up on stilts, thatched with palm leaves. Very desolate it is. On all sides the burnished ocean, hot and breathless. And the warm, moist heat, close around, still and stifling. Like a blanket, dense, enveloping. But he said it was the spot. I don't know. He has been there now three years. He said he could do it there—if ever. From time to time I stop there, if the passengers are willing for a day or two's delay. He looks very old now, and very thin, but he always says it's all right. Soon, very soon now, the manuscript will be ready. Next time I stop, perhaps. Once I came upon him sobbing. Landing early in the morning, slipped ashore and found him sobbing. Head in arms and shoulders shaking. It was early in the morning and I think he'd sobbed all night. Somehow, I think it was not for the gift he'd lost—but for Her.
"But he says over and over again that it is the right spot—the very right place in the world for such as he. Told me that I must not mind, seeing him so lonely, so apparently depressed. That it was nothing. Just the Tropics, and being so far away, and perhaps thinking a little too much of things that did not concern his work. But the work would surely come on. Moods came on him from time to time, which he recognised were quite the right moods in which to work, in which to produce great things. His genius was surely ripe now—he must just concentrate. Some day, very shortly, there would be a great rush, he should feel himself charged again with the old, fine fire. He would produce the great work of his life. He felt it coming on—it would be finished next time I called.
"This is the next time. Shall we go?" asked the Captain.
Accordingly, within a day or two, the small coastwise steamer dropped her anchor in a shallow bay, off a desert island marked with a cross on the Captain's chart, and unmarked upon all other charts of the same waters. All around lay the tranquil spaces of a desolate ocean, and on the island the thatched roof of a solitary hut showed among the palms. The Captain went ashore by himself, and presently, after a little lapse of time, he returned.
"It is finished," he announced briefly, "the great work is finished. I think it must have been completed several weeks ago. He must have died several weeks ago. Possibly soon after my last call."
He held out a sheet of paper on which was written one word, "Beloved."
There is cholera in the land, and there is fear of cholera in the land. Both are bad, though they are different. Those who get cholera have no fear of it. They are simple people and uneducated, fishermen and farmers, and little tradesmen, and workers of many kinds. Those who have fear of cholera have more intelligence, and know what it means. They have education, and their lives are bigger lives—more imposing, as it were, and they would safeguard them. Those who are afraid are the foreigners and the officials, yes, even the Emperor himself. Is he afraid, the Emperor? One can but guess. He has spent many weeks of this hot summer, when cholera was ravaging his country, in his summer palace at Nikko. There he was safe. And cholera spread itself throughout the land, in the seaports, in the capital, across the rice-fields to the inland villages, taking its toll here and there, of little petty lives. But dangerous to the Emperor, these lives, afflicted or cut short, whichever happens. So he is staying safe at Nikko, in seclusion, waiting for the cool of Autumn to come and purge his land.
Once he was to come back to Tokyo, to his capital. For September waned and he was due there, the Son of Heaven, due in his capital. Many of his subjects came to the station at Nikko on the day appointed for his departure, stepping with short steps in their high clogs, tinkling on the roadside in their clogs, scratching in their sandals. They came in crowds to the station, at the hour when he was due to enter the royal train. But when the time came for his departure, he did not go. He would tarry awhile longer at Nikko. So the crowds were disappointed and did not understand. Rumour had it that cholera had developed in the royal household itself—the Purveyor to the Palace, so it was stated, had contracted the disease. A fish dealer, bringing fish to the palace, had brought cholera with him. So the Emperor tarries at Nikko, and the highroad, behind the Imperial Palace in Tokyo is closed to the public, lest any poor coolie, strolling by, should become ill and bring this dread thing near to the precincts of the Son of Heaven.
The foreigners are very careful as to what they eat. They avoid the fruits, the ripe, rich Autumn figs, and the purple grapes, and the hard, round, woody pears, and the sweet butter and many other things. Oh, these days the rich foreigners are very careful of themselves, and meal times are not as pleasant as they used to be. They discuss their food, and wonder about it. And because there is cholera, rife in the ports, and among the fishermen and sailors, the authorities have closed the fish market of Tokyo. The great Nihom-Bashi market, down by the bridge, the vile, evil smelling fish market, lying along the sluggish canal, is closed. The canal is full of straw thatched boats. It all smells very nasty in that quarter, it smells like cholera. No wonder there is cholera, with that smell. No wonder the great market is closed. So the baskets of bamboo are empty, turned upside down, for there is no fish in them. The people, bare-legged, nearly naked, stand idly about the empty fish market, and talk together of this fear which is abroad, which has ruined their trade. What is this fear? They cannot understand. They do not know it. Only the Emperor cannot eat fish now, for some reason, and their business is ruined because of his caprice.
It is very hot. All summer has this great heat continued, and it makes one nervous. Day after day it lasts, unbroken, always the same, unavoidable. There is no escape from the stifling dampness of it—one cannot breathe. Over all the land it is like this, this heavy, sultry heat. It is no cooler when it rains, no dryer when the hot sun shines. It is enveloping, engulfing. In the big hotel, the leather shoes of the foreigners become mouldy overnight, and the sweat runs in streams from the brown bodies of the rickshaw boys. The rickshaw boys of the big hotel wear clothes, long legged, tight cotton trousers, and flapping white coats. This is to save the feelings of the foreigners and the missionaries, who believe that clothing should always be worn, even in hot weather. So as the rickshaw boy runs along, one can see his white coat grow damp between the shoulder blades, then wet all across the back, till it is all wet and sticks to him tight. Yet it is more modest to wear clothes, when doing the work of a horse. One does not object to a man doing the work of a horse, provided he dress like a man. But the coolies toiling at the log carts, and the little tradesmen in their shops, wear few clothes, because they are independent of the foreigners. Therefore they seem to suffer less with the heat, or to suffer less obviously. Ah, but the heat is intense, overwhelming! Day after day, one cannot breathe. And in it, cholera goes on.
They say a typhoon is coming. Word has come from Formosa that a typhoon is rushing up from the southern seas, from Hong Kong, the Equator, wherever it is they come from. It will reach us to-night. That will be better. The heat will go then, blown from the land by the gigantic blast of the typhoon, zig-zagging up the coast from Formosa. Well, it is late September—this unnatural heat,—why will it not leave? Why must it linger till torn like a blanket from the sweating earth, by this hurricane from the Southern seas?
Only it did not come—the typhoon. They said it would, but it failed. Has it gone shooting off into the Pacific, futile? So the damp, stifling heat lingers, and the toll of cholera rolls slowly upward day by day.
It is a long way from Nikko to Tokyo by motor. A hundred miles, when one can cross the bridge, but the bridge is washed away now, so a detour of many more miles is necessary, to ferry the motor across the Tonegawa on a flat bottomed, frail boat. The motor sinks nearly to the hubs in the blazing, glaring sands of the dry river bed, and many naked coolies are needed to push and pull it through the hot sands, and work it into the boat. In the glaring sun of noon, the broad river lies motionless, like a sheet of glowing steel. Children bathe in the river, and the sweating coolies dip their brown bodies in it, and the sun beats down pitiless. A junk gets loose from its moorings, and drifts down stream, stern first, on the slow current. Who cares? No one. It will beach itself presently, on a mud flat, and can be recovered towards evening. The great heat lies over all the land, and cholera is in the slowly flowing water, and the fishermen and the coolies and the children live and work and play by the river bank, and they have no fear of it, because they are ignorant.
From Nikko to the capital, the road runs through village after village, endlessly, mile after mile. On each side of the village street are straw thatched houses, and along the roads coolies bend under great loads, carried on poles across their shoulders. Black bulls drag giant loads on two wheeled carts, their masters straining beside them. The bulls' mouths are open, their tongues hang out, and saliva drools out in streams. It leaves a wet, irregular wake, in the dust of the roadside, behind the carts. By and by, the men will stop for food and drink. They cannot choose what it shall be. They cannot afford to choose. But the food of the Emperor is carefully selected. Physicians examine those who handle it, who bring it to the Palace, to see that they are in good health. They examine the food, disinfect it, see to its cooking. News of this is in the papers each day, not to show that the Emperor is afraid, but to set an example to his subjects.
In the houses along the roadside, little tradesmen are at work, all naked in the heat. Or else they are bathing. For all along the high road from Nikko to the capital, following its every bend and turning, runs a ditch or channel filled with water. Sometimes the water is clean and rushing, sometimes foul and stagnant and evil smelling. And all the way along the high road people are bathing in this ditch or channel, in the foul or running water, as it happens. They stand naked, knee deep, men and children, while the women wash and bathe also, but more modestly. Also, besides their bodies, they wash much else in this long ditch,—clothes, pots, what-not. Very dirty seems this channel, sewer, bath tub, as you please. And cholera is abroad in the land.
At the entrance to the temples sits the image of Binzuru. Long ago, when history was new and the gods were young, Binzuru, one of the sixteen great disciples, broke his vow of chastity by remarking on the beauty of a woman. So he was put outside the temples. His image no longer rests upon the altars, with those of the calm, serene ones. He's disgraced, expelled, no longer fit to sit upon the altars, with the cold, serene ones, in their colossal calm. He's so human now, outside the temples. Sitting on a chair for human beings to touch him, now he's off the altar, he's in contact with humanity. The devout ones rub his wooden image—there is no bronze or gold in poor Binzuru's makeup. So the people rub his wooden image, rub his ears, his head, his forehead, rub his arms, his legs, his shoulders. How they suffer, human beings! How their bodies ache and suffer, judged by poor Binzuru's body! For if you rub Binzuru on the part which hurts you in your body, and then rub your body with a hand fresh from Binzuru, you will be cured. Your pain will go. That's true. Binzuru is polished smooth and shining, quite deformed with rubbing—his poor head's a nubbin! And in gratitude for what he's done for people, he sits now on a pile of cushions, one for each new cure. Bibs and caps adorn him too, votive offerings from the faithful whom he's cured.
But he is no good for cholera, poor Binzuru. You can't reach him quick enough to rub his stomach, then your own. Cholera's too quick for that. You can't reach him soon enough. He can't help in this.
Down the road a stretcher comes, swinging from a bamboo pole, carried on the shoulders of two men. Over it a mat is thrown, and through the little open triangle at one end, you see a pair of brown legs lying. Only legs, no more. Drawn up stiffly, toes clinched.
Here in the hospital they lie in rows, very quiet. Not an outcry, not a murmur. Everything is swimming in carbolic. The nurses wear masks across their mouths and noses. They come and go in clogs, barefooted, and splash through the carbolic on the floors. This is cholera. These people, lying so quietly upon their hard pillows, have cholera. It is not spectacular. All are poor folk, fishermen, sailors, farmers, shopkeepers, all the ignorant, the stupid, who were not afraid. One is dying. Nose pinched, gasping, bathed in sweat. The hot air can't warm him. He is dying, cold.
So there is cholera in the land, and fear of cholera. Those who were not afraid have cholera. With them it is a matter of a few days only, one way or the other. But those who have fear of cholera have something which lasts much longer, weeks and weeks. Till the heat breaks. Till the typhoon comes.
Young Withers bought out his uncle's firm of Withers, Ltd., importers. He had been associated with his uncle for some years, as a minor partner, and how he could manage to take over the prosperous Withers, Ltd. without capital, is one of the mysteries of finance that do not concern us. Suffice it that he did, everything included, the big godowns on the quais, shipping rights, the goodwill, stock and fixtures, and the old compradore, Li Yuan Chang. Most particular was old Mr. Withers that Li Yuan Chang should be included. "You will never find a better compradore," he had explained over and over, "in fact, the business will go to pieces without him." Presumably old Mr. Withers knew what he was talking about, for Li had been his interpreter, his accountant, his man of affairs for years. So of course young Withers made no objection, and considered that he was very fortunate in having Li stay with him, after the turnover. For old Li was rich enough to retire by this time, no doubt, as compradores always find means to put away something year by year over and above their salaries. But he was scrupulously honest—old Mr. Withers had full and complete trust in him, and explained to his nephew that he could leave Tientsin from time to time, for as long a time as he liked, in fact, and could be sure meanwhile that old Li would look out for his interests.
"Just be careful of him," he explained. "He's really invaluable. But be a little careful of him—considerate, I mean—he's not very strong——"
"Chandoo?" asked young Withers suspiciously, by which he meant, was Li addicted to smoking that cheapest form of opium, the refuse and scrapings, which was the only grade that all but the richest could afford.
"Oh never," replied old Mr. Withers, "never. In all the years I've had him. Never touches a pipe. Temperate and austere in all things, to a degree. But he is getting old now and needs humouring—likes to feel his importance, does not care to be overlooked in the way young men may be inclined to overlook him,—his work, I mean. Besides, he's not very strong, rather delicate in fact, so you must be easy with him. But you'll never get a better compradore, and he's good for many years yet—or until you learn the ropes."
After which old Mr. Withers concerned himself very earnestly in the preparations for his departure, for he was leaving China for a better land,—England, I mean.
Young Withers set about learning the business under the direction of old Li. Which greatly complimented old Li, who liked being deferred to by a European. And young Withers being very easy-going, and having fallen into a business which required no up-building, being already in its stride, most successful, he left a good many of the details to his compradore, and bragged about him a good deal, saying that indeed he had inherited from his uncle a most wonderful and competent man of affairs. Therefore he was greatly astonished one day, about two years after his accession, when Li asked for a vacation—a long one.
"Want go America," explained the Chinese succinctly. Young Withers was dumbfounded.
"But you can't go America!" he explained, "no can go. What become of business here in Tientsin if you go America? No can do."
Li had had his own way about many things during a great number of years, and opposition, no matter from what motives, meant nothing to him. He settled his big horn spectacles more firmly on his nose, and flecked invisible dust from his rich black brocade coat.
"Want go America," he repeated without emphasis.
"Whatever for?" asked young Withers, to whom a desire to go to America was incomprehensible. He himself had never felt a desire to go to America, and that his old compradore should be so obsessed was past his understanding. Besides, he could imagine somewhat what would befall the old gentleman, who after many years was only able to speak pidgin-English, who never wore European clothes, and who had managed to retain his magnificent queu in spite of all the troubles following the Boxer business. Old Withers had managed to preserve Li's queu for him. Took him into his compound and sheltered him, and finally got a permit from the Legation to allow him to wear it. Li was enormously proud of this queu, which was long and thick and glossy, and its length enhanced by a black silk cord, neatly plaited in towards the end—altogether, it came nearly down to his heels, the envy and admiration of many a Chinese gentleman who had been abruptly shorn before help arrived. Young Withers visualised his dignified compradore the figure of fun to irreverent American crowds. He sincerely wished to preserve him from what he felt must be an unpleasant experience. He was even more anxious to protect his old friend from what would probably be in store for him, than through any selfish desire to retain his services.
"Come back again four month," observed Li. "Not long time. Want to go." Young Withers sighed. It was impossible to explain to the old man. There were pitfalls and pitfalls, he well knew. Yet he had never been to America himself, so could not speak from experience. Only the evening before he had been dining in company with a wise woman of sorts, a French lady who had lived in a cave in Tibet for some years, pursuing reluctant hermits into their mountain fastnesses in order to obtain elucidation on certain Buddhist books. She had told him frankly that she was bound back again for her cave, or for the wilds of Mongolia, but never, under any circumstances, could she trust herself to the risks of American civilization. Young Withers tried to explain something of this to the old man, who was very patient and did not interrupt him, but the seed was falling on barren ground. If he could just understand English better, thought Withers, I might be able to make him see. So Withers' oratory was lost, to a large degree, and when he came to a pause Li repeated, without emphasis,
"Want go America."
"But you're too old!" exclaimed the young man, exasperated by such obstinacy. "Too—you're too—you're not strong enough. You're too—delicate——"
"Want go America. Four month. Come back then," said Li, and Withers gave it up. Two weeks later Li was standing on the deck of a small Japanese liner bound from Tientsin to Kobe, from which port he would transship to a larger Japanese liner bound for San Francisco. He took with him many bundles of odd sizes, wrapped in coarse blue cotton, seemingly of no value. He waved a dignified farewell from the rail, and young Withers, on the dock, watched the departure of his old compradore with infinite misgivings.
Four months, including the passage both ways, proved much too long a time in which to see America. Li returned unexpectedly one day, within half that time, a silent and broken man. His blue bundles, whatever their mystery, were gone, his rich brocade coat was gone, and gone also was his confidence and trust in human kind. Only his thick, glossy, long queu remained to him,—that, and a singular taciturnity. Whatever his experiences, no word would he speak concerning them—he preserved a rigid silence. Something had been broken in the old man, there beyond the seas, and whatever had befallen him was abhorrent and unspeakable. He seemed very much older, very much more frail, and his thin, fine hands were always trembling in a manner unaccustomed. Young Withers was in distress, for Li's distress was so obvious, his singular reticence making him suffer still more.
"Those thugs in San Francisco must have cleaned out the old fellow first day on shore," he concluded, and then thought no more about it. It was pitiful to see the old man, however, pitiful to watch him going about his duties with the recollection of his terrible days in the New World undermining his spirits and vitality. The secret, whatever it was that had befallen him, was sapping his frail strength. Only on one occasion, several months later, did he bring up the subject. He appeared suddenly before Withers' desk one day, and there was an angry gleam in his spectacled eyes.
"Your uncle never let me go America. Twenty years with your uncle. Very good man. Never can go." He turned away abruptly.
"By Jove," thought young Withers to himself, "the old chap's holding me responsible. Blaming it all on me. I like that!" and he laughed a little, uneasily. These Chinese were queer ones. You never knew how they stood.
The firm of Withers, Ltd. was very busy. Every week or so ships came into the harbour with boxes and bales of European merchandise of a rather shoddy kind, intended for the markets of North China. And there was much business in transferring these boxes and bales to the big godowns, with their heavy iron doors and windows, in checking them up, sorting them out—in short, all the sort of activity that goes with a firm of importers, such as this one. Also there was much business in distributing these boxes and bales, or rather the contents thereof, to the railway station, for shipment to Peking and to remote provinces in the north and west. In Peking, these shoddy goods were made into smaller bales, and laden on camels, for some far off, remote destination in the interior. This took Withers frequently to Peking, leaving old Li in charge of the godowns in Tientsin. Withers always took charge of this end of the business, because of the opportunity it offered to get away from daily contact with his old compradore. Somehow, he felt rather uneasy in the old man's presence. There was a change in his manner, most marked. Again and again that remark occurred to him, and again and again, in the compradore's presence, Withers was conscious of a feeling of undefinable hostility. He holds me responsible, he thought, absurd, but that's what it is. Because I did not prevent him from going to America. Therefore Withers was very glad to go to Peking from time to time, for he liked the excitement of the barbaric capital, and besides, he thought it would be good for Li to be quite on his own in charge of the godowns, and might distract his thoughts from that obsession which was preying upon him.
One day, after an absence of two weeks, young Withers returned to his Tientsin office, which wore a somewhat deserted air. The shroff was clicking on his abacus, and left off snicking the beads up and down to remark casually that the compradore had gone. The shroff was a young Chinese who spoke excellent, mission-school English, and wore good European clothes, and he shared Withers' astonishment that such a thing had happened.
"Wanted to go home, he said. Had had enough business. Gone home ten days ago, with his family. Said say good-bye to you."
Withers' first feeling was of relief. That's that, he thought to himself, and just as well. He stood eyeing the young Chinese accountant, and the shroff looked him back fairly in the eye, and the same thought passed through both minds. A younger man would do just as well as compradore, and here was the younger man at hand, waiting. "Let's go down to the godowns," said Withers, and the two walked out of the office together, in the direction of the quais. The shroff should learn things from the beginning, and taking charge of the bales and boxes in the warehouses, counting them, distributing their contents, was part of the business.
On unlocking the great, heavy doors, the godowns presented a singular aspect. Never, in all the years that young Withers had been associated as junior partner in Withers, Ltd., and never in the few years since he had become Withers, Ltd. himself, had the godowns presented such an aspect. They were empty. Quite, stark, utterly empty. Not a bale, not a box, not a yard of calico was to be found anywhere about. The sunshine slanted in through the open door, and not a moat of dust danced in the rays, for nothing had been disturbed for some time, and the dust was settled. They went top-side, into the lofts. The same thoroughness presented itself. Everything had been cleared out, absolutely.
"Stolen!" exclaimed Withers.
"Clean-sweep!" said the shroff, in his mission-school English.
"Ruined!" added Withers to himself.
Together they hurried back to the office and examined things. It was evident in a moment how it had been done. Withers had signed an order for the removal of five boxes. The compradore had deftly added a cipher and raised it to fifty. And so on. Done repeatedly, with neatness and precision, over Withers' own signature. No wonder the streets about the godowns had presented an air of activity at times.
"We must find him," said Withers, "catch him quickly, before he has time to dispose of the money."
The old compradore had made no effort to hide his whereabouts. There were a dozen people to whom he had said farewell, telling them that he had now given up work and was retiring with his family to his home in the Western Hills. Over Jehol way. Three weeks by cart. Aye, his cart had come down from Peking to fetch him, a two days' journey. He was not taking the train. He had started early one morning in his big, blue-hooded cart, drawn by a gorgeous yellow mule, its harness inlaid with jade stones. Not number-one jade, of course, but still jade, and of value. Ten days ago he had gone.
Withers and the shroff caught the first train out for Peking, and arriving in two hours, made hasty preparations for their journey. They obtained a cart and a mule, bedding rolls and tinned food, and by afternoon had set out through the West Gate of the Tartar City, over the dusty plains towards the Western Hills. Over Jehol way, towards a village beyond Jehol, up in the hills, where Li Yuan Chang had his dwelling.
Travelling is slow in a Peking cart, and uncomfortable. The heavy, springless vehicle lumbered along, bouncing over the deep, dried ruts, at times sinking hub deep into the dry holes. There were times when the road was below the level of the adjacent fields, so deep below that even the hood of the cart was below them, worn as they were by centuries of travel. At these times, the dust swept through the narrow channel, blinding. Once or twice they ran into a dust storm whirling down from the north, from the great Gobi Desert, beyond. Then they drew down the curtains of the cart, suffocating inside, tossed from side to side, up and down, by the hard jolting of the vehicle. By night they rested at wayside inns, sometimes finding the compounds filled with camels, great shaggy brutes that lay about at all angles, over the courtyard, and snorted and nipped at the intruders. They slept at night in their cart, wrapping up well in their bedding rolls, shivering at times in the keen October wind. Their coolies shared the k'ang within, with the camel drivers and other travellers, but Withers and the shroff preferred the cart, for there were worse if smaller animals than camels to be found in native hostelries. Toilsome, weary days succeeded one another, broken by restless nights, yet ever they pushed westward, slowly, laboriously.
The coolies brought them news of the wayside, gathering it each night from the inns. A great mandarin had passed that way some days ago—a great man surely, to judge by the length of the axles of his cart, which stuck out a good foot beyond the hubs, marking him as a man of importance. And a great yellow mule, with harness set with jade stones, and the brasses polished,—oh, a very rich man, evidently! So each night they heard accounts of the rich man who had gone ahead, with his retinue, his family and servants and packmules. It was well noised abroad, evidently, through the countryside. Travellers coming from beyond Jehol had met him with his train, and the inns at which they stopped always had news of his progress, outward bound. In a hurry, too. And very fearful of the roadside dangers. Always in the compounds before dusk, fearful of highwaymen.
To Withers, the suspense of the slow journey was well nigh unbearable. He, too, was in a hurry, worn with fatigue and anxiety. At first, he had been merely anxious to overtake the old man, to obtain restitution. But with the wayside gossip prevailing, other fears entered his mind. One day at noon time, they entered a village apparently deserted. The heavy gates of the compounds were closed, not a person visible in the long, straggling street. Every one had withdrawn himself into his house, behind locked and bolted doors. At the inn, they pounded repeatedly on the gates, asking admission. Slowly, after a very long time, the gates were opened an inch, and it could be seen that there was the pressure of many men on the inside, ready to slam and bar them in an instant. Then, seeing they were but travellers, they were hastily admitted into the courtyard, and the gates closed and barred again. Bandits. A band of them was scouring the country, thirty or more, down from Mongolia. Abject terror was on every face. The whole village was under its spell.
"We must push on," said Withers, "we must hasten." The shroff was very fearful, but as he was to be compradore now, to do the work of a European, he could not show fear. But the mafu and the coolies were too frightened to continue the journey, so they were left behind, and Withers and the shroff went off by themselves. It was very foolhardy, he told himself, it was sheer madness. But he was ruined anyhow, so it did not much matter. Only, he must somehow reach the village three days' journey beyond Jehol—if only he could arrive in time.
Very laborious was the travelling, and they walked in the wake of fear. They now passed through many deserted villages, one after another, locked and barred, that the murderous band from Mongolia had ridden through. Only, they had gone ahead, the bandits—perhaps they would not he riding back that way again. Perhaps they would be going on, into the north again, after they had finished——
Finished? Yes, it was a very rich man they were after,—they had asked for him all along the road. They were trailing him to his home, following with great ease the description of the great mandarin, with the great yellow mule with jade-set harness, who had gone by with his retinue just before.
So Withers and the shroff continued their desolate journey, day by day, across the plains, over such roads as are not, save in North China. Passing through villages shut and empty, through fields in which there were no workers, following in the train of terror that had been spread over the land by the bandits from the north. And the terror reached into Withers' heart, making it cold. They do not want us, he said to himself, over and over. We are quite safe. But the old man—— The little shroff, however, who was also filled with terror, did not think they were safe at all. Only he must appear as brave as a European, so he could only tremble inwardly. Besides all that, the big mule was very difficult to manage, and they had to drag the cart from the deep ruts many times a day, and each evening when they were most tired, they had to calm the suspicions of those within, and make long explanations before the inn gates, before they could be admitted into the compounds.
They arrived at their destination at dusk one evening, after three weeks' weary travel. Trembling fingers pointed out the house—trembling, but in a manner, reassured. At the end of the long street they would find the house, a very fine house indeed—formerly a mandarin's palace, they explained, but purchased a few months ago by a rich man who had come there with his family to live. The tired men and tired mule pushed on through the long street, gazed upon curiously by clustering Chinese, huddled in doorways. They came to a high wall topped with broken glass, a high, strong wall, surrounding a large compound. Beyond, at the entrance, stood two stone lions, such as mark the homes of the rich and great. But the great stone guardian lions were guarding a broken door. The high, red lacquered door was split into many pieces, the hinges holding, but the doors themselves split, so that a man's body could crawl through.
Withers led the way, the shroff following. Within, the compound was deserted. They made their way to the doors of the main house, which had been smashed in. The rooms inside were empty, stripped, their treasures gone, cleaned out. Very much in appearance like the godowns in Tientsin. They made their way through the silent compound into the women's compound in the rear. It was the same—ransacked, despoiled. But there were many compounds and many houses, so together they passed through moon gates, over elaborate terraces, beside peony mountains, and summer houses, across delicate rock bridges with marble balustrades. Silent, deserted, bearing the evidence of thorough looting.
Then, quite at the rear, a woman appeared, the number-one wife of Li Yuan Chang. She peered round the edges of a moon gate, hiding her body behind it. She recognised Withers and the shroff and came forward. She was very apologetic, very embarrassed, for she was wearing coolie clothes. Her own, she explained, had been taken from her by the bandits. Timidly she approached them, but the timidity was embarrassment. She was very embarrassed to be found in coolie clothes, felt resentment at the humiliation, and apologised repeatedly for her appearance. She could think of nothing else. Then she led the way still further to the rear, to a compound quite behind all the other compounds and other houses of the gorgeous mandarin's palace. The last stand of the defenders. They were scattered about the courtyard in all attitudes, in grotesque and uncouth positions, all dead. She pointed to a figure lying face downward, a thin, elderly figure, in blood-soaked black brocade, with a magnificent queu lying at right angles to the dead body.
Once more she apologised for appearing before the gentlemen in coolie clothes. She felt the disgrace keenly.
"My husband," she explained contemptuously, pointing to the old compradore, "was unable to protect us. He was always such a delicate old thing."
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