He took the breath out of her mouth by saying that he would travel on the same river-boat with her to Ching-Fu, if he had to scrub down decks for his passage. She told him not to be a silly boy; that he was, underneath his uncouthness, really a dear, but that he didn't know women.
When the Sunyado Maru dropped anchor off Woo-sung, Miss Vost let Bobbie hold her hand an instant longer than was necessary, and stubbornly refused to accompany him in the same sampan—or the same tug—to the customs jetty. Summarily, she went up the Whang-poo all alone, while Bobbie, biting his finger-nails, purposely quarreled with the staid British captain, and was invited to sign off, which he did.
Through devious subterranean channels Bobbie MacLaurin found that the berth of master on the Hankow was vacant, the latest incumbent having relinquished his spirit to cholera. Was he willing to assume the tremendous responsibility? He was tremendously willing! Did he possess good papers? He most assuredly did!
When the Shanghai express rolled into the Nanking station, Bobbie MacLaurin climbed into a rattling rickshaw and clattered off in the direction of the river-front, registering the profound hope that Miss Vost had somehow managed to reach the Hankow ahead of him. Peter Moore, who knew China's ancient capital like a book, struck off in a diagonal direction on foot.
He made his way to a Chinese tailor's, who bought from him the Japanese costume and sold him a suit of gray tweeds, which another customer had failed to call for. While not an adornment, the gray tweeds were comfortably European, a relief from the flapping, clumsy kimono.
He wanted to have a little talk with Miss Vost before she saw Bobbie. He had so much affection for Bobbie that he wanted to ask Miss Vost to please not be unnecessarily cruel with him. He did not know that Miss Vost was never unnecessarily cruel to any living creature; for he made the mistake there of classifying all women into the good and the cruel, of which Miss Vost seemed to be among the latter. As a matter of fact, Miss Vost was simply a young woman very far from home, compelled to believe in and on occasion to resort to primitive methods of self-defense.
Peter took a rickshaw to the river. He picked out the Hankow among the clutter of shipping, anchored not far from shore, and out of reach of the swift current which rushed dangerously down midchannel. Black smoke issued from her single chubby funnel. Blue-coated coolies sped to and fro on her single narrow deck. Bobbie MacLaurin leaned far out across the rail as Peter's sampan slapped smartly alongside. The coolie thrashed the water into yellowy foam.
"Have you seen Miss Vost?" shouted MacLaurin above the hiss of escaping steam. "We pull out in an hour, Miss Vost or no Miss Vost. That's orders."
Peter, reaching the deck, scanned the pagoda-dotted shore-front. "She'll be here," he said.
Pu-Chang, the Hankow's pilot, a slender, grayed Chinese, grown old before his time, in the river service, sidled between them, smiling mistily, and asked his captain if the new tow-line had been delivered. While MacLaurin went to make inquiries, Peter watched a sampan, bow on, floating down-stream, with the intention, evidently, of making connections with the Hankow's ladder. On her abrupt foredeck was a slim figure of blue and white.
Startled a little by recollection, Peter leaned far out. For a moment he had imagined the white face to be that of Eileen Lorimer. The demure attitude of Miss Vost's hands, caught by the finger-tips before her, gave further grounds to Peter Moore for the comparison. Her youth and innocence had as much to do with it as anything, for there was undeniably an air of youth and extreme innocence about Miss Vost.
Something in the shape of a triumphant bellow was roared from the engine-room companionway. Whereupon the companionway disgorged the monumental figure of Bobbie MacLaurin, grinning like a schoolboy at his first party. He seized Miss Vost by both hands, swinging her neatly to the deck.
She panted and fell back against the rail, holding her hand to her heart, and welcoming Bobbie MacLaurin by a glance that was not entirely cordial.
"The sampan boy hasn't been paid," she remarked, opening her purse. "It's twenty cents."
While MacLaurin pulled a silver dollar from his pocket and spun it to the anxious coolie, Miss Vost turned with the warmest of smiles to Peter. Rarely had any girl seemed more delighted to see him, for which, under the circumstances, he found it somewhat difficult to be grateful.
He experienced again that dull feeling of guilt. He felt that she ought to show more cordiality to Bobbie MacLaurin. Here was Bobbie, trailing after her like a faithful dog, on the most hazardous trip that any man could devise, and he had not been rewarded, so far, with even the stingiest of smiles.
Women were like that. They took the fruits of your work, or they took your life, or let you toss it to the crows, without a sign of gratitude. At least, some women were like that. He had hoped Miss Vost was not that kind. He had hoped——
Miss Vost laid her small, warm hand in his, and she seemed perfectly willing to let it linger. Her lips were parted in a smile that was all but a caress. She seemed to have forgotten that the baffled young man who stared so fixedly at the back of her pretty, white neck existed.
It was quite embarrassing for Peter. The feeling of the little hand, that lay so intimately within his, sent a warm glow stealing into his guilty heart.
Then, aware of the pain in the face of Bobbie MacLaurin, a face that had abruptly gone white, and realizing his duty to this true friend of his, he pushed Miss Vost's hands away from him.
That gesture served to bring them all back to earth.
"Aren't you glad—aren't you a little bit glad—to see me—me?" said the hurt voice of Bobbie MacLaurin.
Miss Vost pivoted gracefully, giving Peter Moore a view of her splendid, straight back for a change. "Of course I am, Bobbie!" she exclaimed. "I'm always glad to see you. Why—oh, look! Did you ever see such a Chinaman?"
They all joined in her look. A salmon-colored sampan was riding swiftly to the Hankow's riveted steel side. With long legs spread wide apart atop the low cabin stood a very tall, very grave Chinese. His long, blanched face was more than grave, more than austere.
Peter Moore stared and ransacked his memory. He had seen that face, that grimace, before. His mind went back to the shop front, on Nanking Road, last evening, when he was skulking toward the bund from the friendly establishment of his friend, the silk merchant, Ching Gow Ong.
This man was neither Cantonese nor Pekingese. His long, rather supercilious face, his aquiline nose, the flare of his nostrils, the back-tilted head, the high, narrow brow, and the shock of blue-black hair identified the Chinese stranger, even if his abnormal, rangy height were not taken into consideration, as a hill man, perhaps Tibetan, perhaps Mongolian. Certainly he was no river-man.
It seemed improbable that the window-breaker could have been released by the heartless Shanghai police so quickly; yet out of his own adventurous past Peter could recall more than one occasion when "squeeze" had saved him embarrassment.
There was no constraint in the pose of the man on the sampan's flat roof. With indifference his narrow gaze flitted from the face of Bobbie MacLaurin to that of Miss Vost, and wandered on to the stern, sharp-eyed visage of Peter Moore.
Here the casual gaze rested. If he recognized Peter Moore, he gave no indication of it. He studied Peter's countenance with the look of one whose interest may be distracted on the slightest provocation.
An intelligent and wary student of human nature, Peter dropped his eyes to the man's long, claw-like fingers. These were twitching ever so slightly, plucking slowly—it may have been meditatively—at the hem of his black silk coat. At the intentness of Peter's stare, this twitching abruptly ceased.
The sampan whacked alongside. The big man tossed a small, orange-silk bag to the deck. He climbed the ladder as if he had been used to climbing all his life.
"I don't care for his looks," remarked Miss Vost, looking up into Peter's face with a curious smile.
"Nor I," said Bobbie MacLaurin.
The richly dressed stranger vaulted nimbly over the teak-rail, recovered the orange bag, and approached MacLaurin. His head drooped forward momentarily, in recognition of the authority of the blue uniform.
He said in excellent English: "I desire to engage passage to Ching-Fu."
"This way," replied the Hankow's captain.
"You seemed to recognize him," said Miss Vost to Peter, when they had the deck to themselves.
"Perhaps I was mistaken," replied Peter evasively. He suddenly was aware of Miss Vost's wide-eyed look of concern.
Impulsively she laid her hand on his arm. She had come up very close to him. Her head moved back, so that her chin was almost on a level with his.
"Mr. Moore," she said in a low, soft voice, "I won't ask you any questions. In China, there are many, many things that a woman must not try to understand. But I—I want to tell you that—that I think you are—splendid. It seems so fine, so good of you. I—I can't begin to thank you. My—my feelings prevent it."
"But—why—what—what——" stammered Peter.
"Oh, Mr. Moore, I know—I know!" Miss Vost proceeded earnestly. "Like all fine, brave men, you are—you are modest! It—it almost makes me want to cry, to think—to think——"
"But, Miss Vost," interrupted Peter, gently and gravely, "you are shooting over my head!"
In the rakish bows of the Hankow arose the clank and clatter of wet anchor-chains. A bell tinkled in the engine-room. The stout fabric of the little steamer shuddered. The yellow water began to slip by them. On the shore two pagodas moved slowly into alignment. The Hankow was moving.
Miss Vost strengthened her gentle hold upon Peter's reluctant arm. Her bright eyes were a trifle blurred. "Last night, when we met on the bund," she went on in a small voice, "I knew immediately—immediately—what you were. A chivalrous gentleman! A man who would shelter and protect any helpless woman he met!"
"That was nice of you," murmured Peter.
Like Saul of Tarsus, he was beginning to see a bright light.
"And it was true!" Miss Vost plunged on. "Now—now, you are risking your life—for poor, unworthy little me! Please don't deny it, Mr. Moore! I only wanted to let you know that I—I understand, and that I am—g-grateful!" Her eyelids fluttered over an unstifled moistness.
"Bobbie loves you," blurted Peter. "He'd do anything in the world for you. He told me so. He told me——"
Miss Vost opened her eyes on a look that was hurt and humiliated. "What?"
"He'd go to hell for you!"
"He's an overgrown boy. He doesn't know what he says. That's nonsense," declared Miss Vost, looking away from Peter. "I know his type, Mr. Moore. He falls in love with every pretty face; and he falls out again, quite as easily."
"You don't know Bobbie, the way I do," said Peter stubbornly.
"I don't have to. I know his kind—a girl in every port."
"No, no. Not Bobbie!"
For a moment it seemed that they had come to an impasse. Miss Vost was blinking her eyes rapidly, appearing to be somewhat interested in a junk which was poling down-stream.
She looked up with a wan smile. Tears were again in her eyes. "Mr. Moore," she said in a broken voice, "what you've told me about Mr. MacLaurin, Captain MacLaurin, moves me—deeply!"
"Do try to be nice to Bobbie," begged Peter. "He is the finest fellow I know. He is true blue. He would give his life for your little finger. Really he would, Miss Vost!"
The bright eyes gave him a languishing look.
"I'll try," she said simply.
That night the banks of the great river were gray and mysterious under the effulgence of a top-heavy yellow moon. The search-light on the peak pierced out the fact that a low, swirling mist was creeping up from the river's dulled surface.
The air was damp with the breath of the land. Occasionally the gentle puffs of the wind bore along the water the flavor of queer, indistinguishable odors.
Elbow to elbow, glancing down at the hissing water, Miss Vost and Peter stood for a number of sweet, meditative moments in silence. At length Miss Vost slipped her arm through his.
"Sometimes," she murmured, inclining her head until it almost rested against his shoulder, "I feel lonely—terrible! Especially on such a night as this. The moon is so impersonal, isn't it? Here it is, a great, gorgeous ball of cold fire, shining across China at you and me. In Amoy it seemed to frown at me. Now—it seems to smile. The same moon!"
"The same moon!" whispered Peter as her warm hand slipped down and snuggled in his.
"Don't you ever feel lonely—like this?" demanded Miss Vost suddenly.
Peter sighed. "Oh, often. Often! The world seems so big, and so filled with things that are hard to learn. Especially at night!" He wondered what she thought he meant.
"I—I feel that way," Miss Vost's absorbed voice replied. "I try—and try—to reason these things out. But they are so baffling! So elusive! So evasive! Here is China, with its millions of poor wretched ones, struggling in darkness and disease. There are so many! And they are so hard to help. And out beyond there, not so many miles beyond that ridge, lies Tibet, with her millions, and her ignorance, and her disease. And to the left—away to the left, I think, is India.
"If a person would be happy, he must not come to China or India. Their problems are too overwhelming. You cannot think of solutions fast enough, and even while you think, you are overcome by the weariness, the hopelessness, of it all. I wish I had never come to China.
"I happened to be in Foo-Chow not long ago. There is in Foo-Chow a thing that illustrates what I mean. It is called the baby tower. Girls, you know, aren't thought much of in China. At the bottom of the tower is a deep well. Women to whom are born baby girls go to the baby tower——" Miss Vost shuddered. "The babies are thrown into the well. I have seen them. Poor—poor, little creatures—dying like that!"
Miss Vost sniffled for a moment. Brightly she said:
"I like to talk to you, Mr. Moore. You're so—so sympathetic!"
A great, dark shadow bulked up against the rail alongside Peter.
"Good evening, folks!" declared the pleasant bass voice of Bobbie MacLaurin.
"We were just talking about you, Bobbie," said Peter affably. "As I was telling Miss Vost, you're the most sympathetic man I ever knew! Good night, Miss Vost. Night, Bobs!"
When Peter descended the stairway into the narrow vestibule which served as reception-hall, dining-saloon, and, incidentally, as the corridor from which the Hankow's four small staterooms were entered, he had the chilly feeling that the darkness had eyes.
Yet he saw nothing. The cabin was dark. Three round ports glimmered greenly beyond the staircase on the cabin's forward side. The glimmer was occasioned by the refracted rays of the Hankow's dazzling searchlight. But these were not the ones he felt.
Gradually his own eyes became accustomed to the pulp-like darkness. He steadied his body against the gentle swaying of the steamer, and endeavored to listen above, or through, the imminent thrashing and clattering of the huge engine.
He examined the four stateroom doors anxiously. As the darkness began to dissolve slightly, Peter, still conscious that eyes were fastened upon him, made the discovery that the stateroom adjoining his was slightly ajar. The moon favored him—Miss Vost's impersonal moon. It outlined against the slit what appeared to be a large, irregular block.
Peter decided that the irregular block was nothing more nor less than the head of a man. To prove that his surmise was correct, Peter quickly shifted the revolver from his right hand to his left, brought it even with his eyes and—struck a match.
In the startling flare of the phosphorus the evil glint of Celestial eyes was instantly revealed in the partly opened door.
With incredible softness the door was closed. Where there had been half-lidded eyes, a positive snarl, and a shock of blue-black hair was now a white-enameled panel.
Peter continued to smile along the barrel, which glistened in the dying flame of the match. He unlocked his door, closed it, and shot the bolt. Switching on the electric light, he cautiously drew back the sheet. Apparently satisfied, he sniffed the air. It was nothing more than stuffy, as a stateroom that has been closed for a week or so is apt to be.
Unscrewing the fat wingbolts which clamped down the brass-bound port-glass, he let in a breath of misty river air. Simultaneously voices came into the room.
Miss Vost and Bobbie MacLaurin were conversing in clear, tense syllables. Peter could not help eavesdropping. They were standing on the deck, directly over his stateroom, only a few scant feet from his porthole, which was situated much nearer the deck than the surging water.
"But I do—I do love you!" Bobbie was complaining in his rumbling voice. "Ever since you set foot on the old Sunyado Maru I've been your shadow—your slave! What more can any man say?" he added bitterly.
"Not a great deal," rejoined Miss Vost lightheartedly. She became abruptly serious. "Bobbie, I do like you. I admire you—ever so much. But it happens that you are not the man for me. You don't understand me. You can never understand me. Don't you realize it? You're too sudden—too brutal—too——"
"Brutal! I've treated you like a flower. I want to shield you——"
"But I don't need shielding, Bobbie. I'm prudent, fearless, and—twenty-two. I don't need a watch-dog!"
"Good God, who said anything about being a watchdog?" exclaimed Bobbie. "I—I just want——"
"You just want me," completed Miss Vost. "Well, you can't have me."
"You love somebody else, then. That young pup!"
Peter stared sourly at the bilious moon.
"Don't you dare call him a young pup, Robert MacLaurin," retorted Miss Vost resentfully. "He is a fine young man. I admire him and I respect him very, very much."
"He can't fool around any girl of mine!"
Peter heard Bobbie sucking the breath in between his teeth, as if he might have pricked himself with a pin. Bobbie had done worse than that.
"A girl of yours!" snapped Miss Vost.
Followed low, anxious and imploratory whispers. These were terminated by a long, light, and delicious laugh.
"Bobbie, you're so funny!" Miss Vost gurgled.
"I wish I was dead!" declared Bobbie despondently.
"You should go to Liauchow," Miss Vost chirped.
"Why should I go to Liauchow?" grumbled the bass voice.
"To be happy, you must be born in Soochow, live in Canton and die in Liauchow. So runs the proverb."
"Why should I go to Liauchow?" persisted Bobbie.
"Because Soochow has the handsomest people, Canton the most luxury, and Liauchow the best coffins!"
Peter Moore's curiosity regarding the motives which were sending Miss Amy Vost into Szechwan, most deplorable, most poverty-stricken of provinces, was satisfied before the Hankow had put astern the great turbulent city after which it had been named.
At Hankow the Hankow picked up the raft which it would tow all the way up to Ching-Fu. Upon this raft was a long, squat cabin, in and out of which poured incessantly members of China's large and growing family.
There were thin, dirty little men, and skinny, soiled little women, and quantities of hungry, dirty little boys and girls. A great noise went up from the raft as the Hankow nosed in alongside, and the new towline was passed and made fast over the bitts.
As the big propeller thumped under them and churned the muddy water into unhealthy-looking foam, Peter Moore and Miss Vost leaned upon the rail, where it curved around the fantail, and discoursed at length, speculating upon the probable destination of that raftful of dirty humanity, and offering problematic answers to the puzzling question as to why were all these people deserting relatively prosperous Hankow for the over-populated, overdeveloped province of Szechwan.
Peter had an inkling that Miss Vost was distressed by the scene.
"Let's take a stroll forward," he suggested.
An urchin, directly below them, stood rubbing his eyes with two grimy fists. His whines were audible above the churning of the engines.
"No, no. I'm quite accustomed to this. Look—just look at that miserable little fellow!"
"He is blind," stated Peter quietly.
"Half of them are blind," Miss Vost replied. Her features were transfixed by a look of sadness. "Wait for me. I'll return in a second."
Peter watched the graceful swing of her shoulders as she strode down the deck to the forward companionway, admiring the slim strength of her silk-clad ankles. She was every inch an American girl. He was proud of her. She returned, carrying a small oblong of cardboard, upon which a photograph was pasted.
Peter found himself looking into the sad, be-wrinkled eyes of a gray-bearded man, a patriarchal gentleman, who stood on the hard clay at the foot of a low stone stairway. His nose, his eyes, his intellectual forehead were distinctly those of Miss Vost. A child in a freshly starched frock, with eyes opened wide in surprise and interest, was firmly clutching one of his trouser-legs.
"My father," explained Miss Vost. "He was stationed at Wenchow then, in charge of the mission. I have not seen him since."
Peter remarked to himself that somehow Miss Vost did not seem to be the daughter of a missionary, nor was the costly way she dressed in key with her remark. Perhaps she divined his thoughts.
"He has money—lots of it. He has a keen, broad mind. But he chose this. When he was first married be brought mother to China. He saw, and realized, China's vast problems. And he stayed. He wanted to help."
Peter gazed into her gray eyes, which seemed to take on a clear violet tinge when she was deeply moved.
"He told me to come to see him because he was growing old. I stopped off in Amoy," said Miss Vost with a ghost of a smile. "A young missionary he wanted me to meet lives there. I met him. But I could not admire that young missionary. He was a—a poseur. He was pretending. One reason I like you, Mr. Moore, is because you're so sincere. He was so transparent. And his 'converts' saw through him, too. They were bread-and-butter converts. They listened to him; they devoured his food—then they went to the fortune-tellers! Father could not have known Doctor Sanborn longer than a few minutes—or else he's not the father that he used to be! I inherit his love for sincerity. I—I'm sure he will like you!"
"But—but——" stammered Peter—"I don't expect to go to Wenchow. Better say he'd like—Bobbie!"
"Oh, he'd like anybody that I liked," Miss Vost said lightly. "It—it's really interesting, you know, from Ching-Fu to Wenchow. We take bullock carts—if we can find them. Otherwise we walk. Doesn't it—appeal to you—just a little—to be all alone with me for nearly a hundred miles?"
"Very much indeed," replied Peter earnestly. "But our roads part—at Ching-Fu. I go directly south."
"In search of more adventure and romance? Perhaps—perhaps a girl who is not so silly as I have been? Or—is it India—or Afghanistan?"
"Neither. An old friend!"
"Is that why you are growing a beard—to surprise—him?"
"Perhaps," said Peter, absently fingering the bristles. "Don't tell me it's unbecoming or I'll have to shave it off!"
"As if what I thought made a particle of difference!" retorted Miss Vost defiantly.
Peter gave her a thoughtful, a puzzled stare. "I overheard you last night. You broke your promise. You promised to be nice to him."
"I was. Do you mean what I said about Liauchow?"
"You don't realize what you mean to Bobbie. My dear, dear girl——"
"I am not your dear, dear girl!"
"Does your heart ache, too, Peter?"
"Of course it does! I—I'd like——"
"Then why don't you?"
"It wouldn't be fair, that's why!"
"Then there is another girl," Miss Vost cried bitterly. She bit her lip. "You should have told me before."
"I thought it wouldn't be necessary."
Miss Vost dropped her eyes to Peter's hand which was resting on the rail. Her own hand moved over and nestled against it.
"Do—do you l-love her as much as th-this?" Her eyes returned to his face.
"I did think I did!"
"But you're not sure—now?"
"Oh, I thought I was sure! I am sure'"
"There's little more to say, then, is there?" Her lids were blinking rapidly as she looked down at the mob of filthy little Arabs on the flat. Her fingers plucked, trembling, at the embroidered hem of a white, wadded handkerchief.
"Bobbie does care for you so," observed Peter with unintentional cruelty.
"Oh—oh—him!" sobbed Miss Vost, leaving him to stare after her drooping figure as she retreated down the deck.
She seemed on a sudden to be avoiding the entrance to the forward companionway. He wondered why.
The girl stopped, with her hands clenched into white fists at her sides.
From the doorway, smiling suavely and wiping one hand upon the other in a gesture of solicitous meekness, emerged the tall and commanding figure of the Mongolian—or was he a Tibetan? He was attired now in the finest, the shiniest of Canton silks. His satin pants, of a gorgeous white, a courting white, were strapped about ankles which terminated in curved sandals sparkling with gold and jewels in the mid-day sun. His jacket, long and perfectly fitting, was of a robin's egg blue. His blue-black queue, freshly oiled, gleamed like the coils of an active hill snake.
He was a picture of refined Chinese saturninity.
Miss Vost, beholding him, was properly impressed. She stepped back, not a little appalled, and swept him from queue to sandal with a look that was not the heartiest of receptions. The Mongolian was speaking in oiled, pleasing accents.
Peter strode toward them.
"He insulted me!" panted Miss Vost. "Like many fine, Chinese gentlemen, he thought, perhaps, that I might be—what do they call 'em—a 'nice li'l 'Melican girl!' Impress him with the fact that I am not, Mr. Moore—please do that!"
She hastened around the forward cabin, out of sight.
The Mongolian was regarding Peter with a cool, complacent smile. His expression was smug, uninjured.
"Looka here, Chink-a-link," Peter advised him, "my no savvy you; you no savvy my. My see you allatime. Allatime. You savvy, Chink-a-link?"
"I comprehend you, my friend," replied the Mongolian in polished accents. "In my case, 'pidgin' is not, let me hasten to say, necessary."
"Very good, Chink; the next time you so much as glance in Miss Vost's direction, you're going to walk away with a pair of the dam'dest black eyes in China! Get that—you yellow weasel?"
"Unfortunately," replied the Mongolian, lifting his fine, black eyebrows only a trifle, "your suggestion—your admonitions—are again, most inappropriate. Miss Vost—do I pronounce it correctly? Miss Vost and yourself are the victims of a misunderstanding."
"Take off your coat, and prove I'm wrong!" shouted Peter. "I'm a better man than you are! Swallow it or—fight!"
Peter's gray tweed coat flopped in a heap upon the ironwood deck.
The Mongolian retired a few feet, with indications of anxiety.
"I—I did not intend to offend her," he retracted. His ropy throat muscles seemed to convulse. His long face flamed hotly red. He burst out, as though unable to control himself: "My savvy allatime you no savvy! Ni buh yao tī na go hwa! Djan go chue, rang o dzou!"
"Lao-shu," laughed Peter. "Dang hsin!"
They came to Ichang next noon. Peter was on deck watching the somewhat hazardous procedure of transferring large grass-bound cases of tools from a tidewater steamer to the stern of the flat when he saw the Mongolian emerge from the companionway and walk to the rail, forward. Peter gave him a full stare, but the man did not glance in his direction. He was looking down at the muddy river, and beckoning.
Peter observed a sampan coolie give an answering wave, and the sampan sidled alongside the flat.
The Mongolian returned a few minutes before the Hankow hauled in her anchor. He retired to his stateroom and stayed there until late afternoon.
The river above Ichang was swifter, more dangerous, than in its lower course. Except for the junks and an occasional sampan, the Hankow had the stream to herself. The yellow waters were tinged with red, dancing and sparkling to a fresh breeze under a fair blue sky. Great blue hills confined the swollen current. This was not the Yangtze of yesterday. It was a maddened millrace, gorged by the mountain rains. Even the gurgle under the sharp-cut waters seemed to convey a menace.
Dikes were broken down. The brown waters had flowed out to right and left, forming quiet lakes where there had been fields of paddy and wheat. The junks from up-river were having a strenuous time of it. Swarms of gibbering coolies manned the long sweeps, striving above all to keep their clumsy craft in safe mid-current.
They were passing a long row of pyramids, green, brown and red. But Miss Vost was staring along the deck.
"The Mongolian!" she muttered. "How he is grinning at you!"
The Mongolian had come upon them, apparently unintentionally. He hesitated and paused when Peter looked up. Peter saw no grin upon his lips. They were set in a firm, straight line. His long arms were folded behind his back, and his eyes were empty of mirth—or malice. They simply expressed nothing. He looked at Peter shortly, and favored Miss Vost with a long stare.
Her eyes faltered. Peter stepped forward.
But the Mongolian bowed, passed them at a slow, meditative walk, and was lost from their sight behind the cabin's port side.
The idea took hold of Peter that the stalker had become the killer. There was a telegraph station at Ichang through which ran the frail copper wires connecting the seventy millions of Szechwan Province with civilization. Had it been possible for the Mongolian to signal his master in Len Yang and receive an answer while the Hankow lay at Ichang?
After dinner, curious and nervous, Peter went below. The light was burning over the table of weapons in the main cabin.
The Mongolian's door was slightly ajar, and as Peter descended the stairs, the door closed.
He waited. His heart thumped, louder than the thump of the laboring engine. He walked to his stateroom, opened the door, kicked the threshold, and—slammed the door! He hastened to the table, and hid behind it. Between the table legs he had a splendid view of both doors.
Holding a kris, point down, in front of him, the Mongolian slipped out, tried the adjacent door-knob and entered Peter's room. When he came out, he looked perplexed and angry. He slid the dagger into his silk blouse and looked up the stairway, listening.
His expression of rage passed away; now his look was inscrutable. Stealing across the vestibule, he approached Miss Vost's door, and rapped.
Peter ran his fingers along the edge of the table until they encountered the hilt of a cutlass. He waited.
The Mongolian rapped a little louder. There was no answer. Again he knocked, imperatively. Peter heard Miss Vost's sleepy voice pitched in inquiry. Her door opened an inch or two.
The Mongolian forced his way inside!
Miss Vost uttered a short, sharp scream, which was instantly smothered.
As Peter burst into the room, the Mongolian turned with a snarl, reaching for his silk blouse. Peter clapped his free hand to the muscled shoulder, and dragged him into the corridor.
Miss Vost, in a long, white nightgown, was framed in the doorway, staring sleepily. Her hand was clutched to her lips. Her hair tumbled about her bare shoulders in dark, silky clusters.
Bright steel flashed in the Mongolian's hand. "Ha-li!" he muttered.
Peter braced himself, and thrust straight upward, striking with fury. He drove the sword through the Mongolian's right eye.
Miss Vost, a slender pillar of white, stared down at the floundering heap. She seemed to be going mad, with the green light of the electric glittering in her distended eyes.
Bobbie MacLaurin bounded down the steps.
"He tried to come into my room," said Miss-Vost. "He tried to come into my room!"
"I know. I know. But it's all right," soothed Peter, panting. "You must go back to bed. You must try to sleep." He talked as though she were a child. "He was a bad man. He had to—to be treated—this way!"
"You—you look like an Arab. The dark. And that beard. Where is Bobbie?"
"Right here. Right here beside you!"
"You're not hurt—either of you? You're both all right?"
"Yes. Yes. Please go to bed!" begged Peter.
"Please!" implored Bobbie.
To them there was something unreligious, something terrible, in the notion of Miss Vost standing in the presence of the grim black heap in the shadow. Nor were her youth and her innocence intended to be bared before the eyes of men in this fashion.
As if a chill river wind had struck her, she shivered—closed the door.
The men carried the limp body, which was unaccountably heavy, to the deck. After a minute there—was a splash. The Hankow had not been checked. On the Yangtze formal burial ceremonies are seldom performed.
Peter went to bed at once. He tried to sleep. He counted the revolutions of the propeller. He added up a stupendous number of sheep going through a hole in a stone wall. Every so often the sheep faded away, to be replaced by the fearful countenance of the Mongolian, who was now perhaps ten miles or more downstream.
After a while the engines were checked, turning at half speed for a number of revolutions, then ceasing as a bell rang. The only sound was the soughing gurgle of the water as it lapped along the steel plates, and the distant drone of the rapids.
He heard the splash of an anchor, accompanied by the rumble and clank of chains, forward; and a repetition of the sounds aft. Directly under him, it seemed a loud, prolonged scraping noise took place. The fires were being drawn.
The sounds could only mean that the Hankow had reached the journey's end. The trip was over; the Hankow was abreast Ching-Fu. She would lie in the current for a few days, before facing about and making for tidewater.
To-day would see the last of Miss Vost, a termination of that serio-humorous love affair of theirs, which, on the whole, had been one of his most delightful experiences. He wondered whether or not she would ask him to kiss her good-bye. He rather hoped she would.
On the other hand, he hoped she would do nothing of the kind. Distance was lending enchantment to Eileen Lorimer. He was sure this was not infatuation. She was not the first; he had had affairs; oh, numbers of them! But they were mere fragments of his adventurous life. They were milestones, shadowy and vague and very far away now. Dear little milestones, each of them!
Sometime he would go to Eileen, and get down on his knees before her in humility, and ask her if she could overlook his systematic and hardened faults! When would he do this? Frankly, he did not know.
He dozed off, and it seemed only an instant later when he was awakened by a harsh cry.
The port-hole was still dark. Morning was a long way off.
The cry was repeated, was joined by others, excited and fearful.
Peter sat up in bed, and was instantly thrown back by a sudden lurch. Next came a dull booming and banging. The stateroom was filled with the hot, sweet smell of smoking wood, the smell that is caused by the friction of wood against wood, or wood against steel.
Another pounding and booming. Some one hammered at the door. Peter tried to turn on the electric light. There was no current. He opened the door.
Bobbie, shoeless and collarless, dressed only in pants and shirt, towered over the light of a candle which he held in a hand that shook.
"A collision! Junk rammed us! Get up quick! Don't know damage. Call Miss Vost! Get on deck! Take care of her! My hands filled with this dam' boat."
Peter snatched his clothes, and before he was out of his pajamas the Hankow began to keel over. It slid down, until the port-hole dipped into the muddy current. Water slopped in and drenched his knees and feet.
He yanked open the door, not stopping to lace his shoes, and called Miss Vost. She had heard the excitement, and was dressing. The floor lurched again, and he was thrown violently against a sharp-edged post.
Miss Vost's door was flung open, and she stumbled down the sloping floor, bracing her hands against his chest to catch herself.
"We're sinking," she said without fear.
To Peter it was evident that Miss Vost had never been through the capsizing of a ship before. He fancied he caught a thrill of eager, almost exultant, excitement in her voice. In that vestibule, he knew they were rats in a water-trap, or soon would be.
He still felt weak and limp from his fall against the post, and he was trying hard to regain his strength before they began their perilous ascent to the deck.
Miss Vost misunderstood his hesitancy.
"I am not afraid, not a bit!" she declared, holding with both hands the folds of his unbuttoned shirt. "I am never afraid with you! When I am in danger, you—you are always near. It—it seems that you were put here to—to look after me. But there is no danger—is there?" She shook him almost playfully.
"Cut out your babbling," he snapped. "Get to that stairway!"
He heard the breath hiss in between her teeth. But she clung to his arm obediently. They sprawled and slipped in the darkness to the stairs. Clinging to the railing, they reached the deck, which was inclined so steeply that they clung to the cabin-rail for support.
In the dark on all sides of them coolies shouted in high-pitched voices. Heavy rain was falling, drumming on the deck. The odor of wood rubbing against steel persisted. They could see nothing. The world was dark, and filled with contusion.
A sharp explosion took place in the bows. Chains screamed through the air and clanged on metal and wood. One of the forward anchor-chains had parted.
The deck was tilted again. Bobbie MacLaurin was not in evidence. Peter shouted for him until he was hoarse. Then he left Miss Vost and groped his way to the starboard davits. The starboard life-boat was gone!
Suddenly the rain ceased. A dull red glow smouldered on the eastern heaven.
Miss Vost was praying, praying for courage, for help. She clung to him, and sobbed. By and by her nerves seemed to steady themselves.
There was nothing to do but wait for daylight—and pray that the gurgling waters might not rise any higher.
The glow in the east increased, and permitted them to see the vague outlines of a looming shape which seemed to grow out of the bows. As dawn came, Peter made out the form of a huge junk, which had pinioned and crushed the foredeck rail under her brawny poop.
Then the remaining anchor-cable snapped like a rotten thread. Dimly they saw the end of the chain whip upward and crash down. A coolie, paralyzed, stood in its way. The broken end struck him in the face. He screamed and rolled down the deck until he lodged against the rail.
Bobbie shouted their names, and scrambled and slipped down.
"We're trying to get up steam. Our only chance. Both forward anchors gone. We'll swing around with the current and lose this damn junk. If the after anchor holds till steam's up—we're safe!" He sped aft.
The steamer shuddered, and they felt her swinging as the scattered shore lights moved from left to right. The junk was acting as a drag. The shore lights became stationary. A gang of coolies with grate bars were trying to pry up the junk's coamings.
Peter was aware then that Miss Vost's arms were clinging about his neck, and that she was whimpering softly in his ear.
Up-river boomed another explosion. The deck seemed to fall from under his feet. Water splashed up over his toes. In the gold-speckled dawn he could see the waters foaming and swirling, and rising higher.
He knew it was suicide to swim the Yangtze rapids, knew the whirlpools which sucked a man down and held him down until his body was torn to shreds. There was no alternative. And the water was now half-way to his knees. He dragged the unresisting girl to the rail.
"Can you swim—at all?"
"A—a little," she chattered.
"Hold to my collar and swim with one hand. Only try to keep afloat."
They slipped into the racing current, were seized, and spun around and around. Above the drone of the waters he heard the roar of a whirlpool, coming rapidly nearer. The firm clutch of Miss Vost's hand on his collar was not loosened. Occasionally he heard her gasp and sputter as a wave washed over her face.
They were swept down. On they went, spinning, snatched from one eddy to another. The roar of the whirlpool receded, became a low growl and mutter.
Now they could see the churning surface covered with torn bits of wreckage. A body, bloated and discolored, spun by, and was caught and dragged under, leaving only an indescribable stench.
After a while the northern shore, a low, brown bank, crept out toward them, like a long, merciful arm. In another minute Peter's bare feet came in contact with slimy, yielding mud. They were in shoal water!
He picked up Miss Vost in his arms, and carried her ashore; and she clung to him, shivering and moaning. He did not realize until afterward that she was kissing him over and over again on his wet lips and cheeks.
Coolies found them, and carried them to a village, and deposited them in a little red clay compound behind a building of straw. A bonfire was kindled. The sun came up, a disk that might have been cut out of red tissue-paper.
Some time later a tall man came into the clearing with a little group of coolies who were pointing out the way. A white patriarchal beard extended nearly to his waist.
He saw Miss Vost and shouted. She leaped up, was enfolded in his arms.
Peter stared at them a moment with a look that was somewhat dazed. He picked himself up, and skulked out of the compound, in the direction of the foaming river.
His mind was not in a normal state just then, or he would not have wanted to cross to Ching-Fu in a sampan. But he did want to cross. In the back of his brain foolish words were urging him: "You must get to Ching-Fu. You must go on to Len Yang. Hurry! Hurry!"
He had no money. A box filled with perforated Szechwan coins now lay at the bottom of the river in what was left of the Hankow. Nevertheless, he hailed a sampan as though his pockets were weighted down with lumps of purest silver.
The boat leaked in dozens of places. The paddle, scarred and battered, clung to the stern by means of a rotting leather thong. As Peter looked and hesitated, a long, imperative cry issued from behind him. Possibly Miss Vost wanted him to return.
The coolie stipulated his price, and Peter stepped aboard without a murmur, without looking around, either. The crossing was precarious. They skirted the edge of more than one whirl; they were caught and tossed about in waves as large as houses. Peter kept his eye on the rotting thong, and marveled because it actually held.
Deposited on the edge of Ching-Fu's bund, he confessed his poverty, and offered his shirt in payment. The shirt was of fine golden silk, woven in the Chinan-Fu mills. For more than a year it had worn like iron, and it had more than an even chance of continuing to do so.
Peter stripped off the shirt before a mob of squealing children, and the coolie scrutinized it. He accepted it, and blessed Peter, and Peter's virtuous mother, and called upon his green-eyed gods to make the days of Peter long and filled with the rice of the land.
With the coming of noon Peter sat down under a stunted cembra pine tree and contemplated the distant rocky blue ridge with a wistful and discouraged air. He removed from his trouser-pocket two yellow loquats and devoured them.
He was dreadfully hungry. His stomach fathered a dull, persistent ache, which forced upon his attention the pains in his muscles and bones. It was their way of complaining against the abuse he had heaped upon them during the past twenty-four hours.
He was beginning to feel weak and dispirited. His was a constitution that arose to emergencies in quick, battling trim; but when the emergency was past, his vitality seemed to be drained.
He looked down the muddy brown road as he finished the second loquat (which he had stolen from a roadside farm in passing) and estimated that Ching-Fu was all of ten miles behind him. Walking through the pasty blue mud in his bare feet, with the rain streaming through his hair and down his beard and shoulders, had been tedious, trying. Several times he had stopped, with his feet sinking in the clay, and cursed the Yangtze with bitterness.
What had become of Bobbie MacLaurin? Had that noble soul been snatched down by the River of Golden Sands?
He cursed the river anew, for Bobbie was a man after God's own heart. Never had there lived such a generous, such a fine and brave comrade. More than once the mule-kick which lurked behind those big, kind, red fists had saved Peter from worse than black eyes.
He would never forget that night on the pier at Salina Cruz, when the greaser had flashed out a knife, bent on carving a hole in Peter's heart—and Bobbie had come up from behind and knocked the raving Mexican a dozen feet off the pier into the limpid Pacific!
Those days were ended now. The adventures, the excitement, the sorrows, and the fiery gladness were all well beyond recall.
Peter leaned back against the thorny trunk of the cembra pine, and sniffed the odors of drenched earth, listened to the drip and patter of the cold, gray rain, and gazed pessimistically at the blue crest of rock which lifted its granite shoulders high into the mist miles away.
He stretched himself, groaned, and staggered on through the mire.
The valley was filled with the blue shades of dusk when he espied some distance beyond him what was evidently a camp, a caravan at rest. The setting sun managed at last to burrow its way through a rift of purple before sinking down behind the granite range, to leave China to the mercies of its long night.
These departing rays, striking through the purple crevice, and setting its edges smolderingly aflame with red and gold, became a narrow, dwindling spotlight, which brought out in black relief the figures of men and mules, of drooping tents and curling wisps of cookfire smoke. The sun was swallowed up, and the camp vanished.
Peter plunged on, with one leg dragging more reluctantly than the other. But he had sensed the odor of cooking food in the quiet air.
A sentry whose head was adorned by a dark-red turban presented the point of his rifle as Peter approached. He shouted, was joined by others, both Chinese and Bengalis, and Peter, not adverse even to being in the hands of enemies as long as food was imminent, was inducted into the presence of a kingly personage, who sat upon a carved teak stool.
This creature, by all appearances a mandarin, of middle age, was garbed in a stiff, dark satin gown, heavy with gold and jewels which flashed brightly in the light of a camp-fire. His severe, dark face was long, and stamped with intelligence of a high order. He wore a mustache which drooped down to form a hair wisp on either side of his small, firm mouth.
As Peter was whisked into his presence he placed his elbow with a slow, deliberate motion upon his knee, and rested his rounded chin in his palm, bestowing upon the mud-spattered newcomer a look that searched into Peter's soul.
A single enormous diamond blazed upon the knuckle of his forefinger.
He put a question in a tongue that Peter did not understand. It was a deep, resonant voice, with the mellow, rounded tones of certain temple-bells, such a sound as is diffused long after the harsh stroke of the wooden boom has subsided. Vibrant with authority, it was such a voice as men obey, however much they may hate its owner. He repeated the question in Mandarin, and again Peter indicated that that was not his speech.
A different voice, yet quite as impelling as the other, caused Peter to look up sharply. The mandarin smiled wisely, but not unkindly.
"The darkness deceived me," he said in English of a strange cast. "I mistook you for a beggar. You are far from the river, my friend. The bones of your steamer lie fathoms deep by now. Why are you so far from Ching-Fu? You were stunned, perhaps?"
"I am only hungry," said Peter boldly. "My way lies into India. There I have friends."
The mandarin studied him dubiously, and clapped his hands, the great diamond cutting an oval of many colors. Coolies were given up by the night, and ran to obey his guttural, musical commands. They returned with steaming bowls of rice and meat, and a narrow lacquer table.
"Come and sit beside me. Your feet must be sore—bleeding. You may call me Chang. So I am known to my British friends on the frontier. I have been ill, a mountain fever, perhaps. In Ching-Fu. I had expected medicine on the river steamer."
He snapped his fingers, and whispered to a coolie whose face was gaunt and stolid in the flickering red glow of the fire.
So while Peter consumed the rice and stew, his bruised feet were bathed in warm water, rubbed with a soothing ointment, and wrapped in a downy bandage.
A blue liquor served in cups of shell silver completed the meal. The aromatic syrup, which exhaled a perfume that was indescribably oriental, sent an exhilarating fire through his veins. It seemed to clarify his thoughts and vision, to oil his aching joints, and remove their pain.
From the corner of his eye he detected the silken folds of the mandarin's lofty tent, in the murky interior of which a fat, yellow candle sputtered and dripped. When his eyes came back to the table, the bowls and cups had been removed, and in their place was a chess-board inlaid with ivory and pearl.
Inspired by the cordial, and the queerness of this setting, Peter felt that he was the central figure of a dream. The pungent odor of remote incense, the distant tinkling of a bell, the stamping and pawing of the mules and the brooding figure in silk and gold at his side, took him back across the ages to the days and nights of Scheherezade.
And the mandarin appeared to be hungry for Peter's companionship. Over the chess-board, between plays, they discoursed lengthily upon the greatness of the vast empire, once she should awake; upon the menace of the wily Japanese; upon the lands across the mountains and beyond the seas, and their peoples, of which Chang had read much but had never visited.
Wood was heaped upon the fire, which flared up and leaped after the crowding shadows.
It was the life that Peter dearly loved.
The mandarin's eyes glowed, and rested upon him for longer spaces. His words and sentences came fewer and more reluctant.
In one of these pauses he seized Peter's hand. And Peter was forthwith given the meagre details of a story, neither the beginning nor the end of which he would ever know. It was the cross-section of a tale of intrigue, of cold-blooded killings that chased the thrills up and down his spine; a tale of loot, of gems that had vanished, of ingots and kernels of gold that had leaked from iron-bound chests.
The mandarin uttered his woe in a quivering voice, shifting from a Bengal patois to Mandarin, and again to reckless English.
Peter was given to understand that in Chang's camp was a traitor, a man who eluded him, whose identity was shielded, a snake that could not be stamped out unless the lives of every one of his attendants were taken!
In a composed voice Chang, the mandarin, was saying:
"You have walked far. You are weary. Another couch is in my tent. You shall sleep there."
The candle was guttering low in its bronze socket when Peter awoke. A cool breeze stirred the tent flaps. A queer feeling oozed in his veins.
He lay still, breathing regularly, searching the corners with eyes that were brighter than a rat's. The low sleep-mutterings of the mandarin continued from the couch across from him.
Slowly the tent flaps were being drawn back. Peter strained his eyes until they ached. He was impelled to shout, to awaken his companion. Yet the visitor might be bent on legitimate business. He would wait. In the final analysis it was Peter's profound acquaintance with the ways of the East which sealed his lips. In the heart of China one does not strike at shadows, or shriek at sight of them. Not always.
At his side between the covers lay a strong, naked dagger. Why the mandarin had provided him with the weapon he did not know.
A gray shadow entered the tent and backed noiselessly against the front pole. Indeed, not a sound was created by his entrance, not even the rustling whisper of bare feet on dry grass. It seemed very ominous, mysterious, and ghostly.
The gray shadow floated into the candle-light, which waved and quivered a little as the still air was disturbed. Peter was conscious that he was being acutely examined. Not a muscle of his face twitched. He continued to breathe regularly, with the heaviness of a man steeped in sleep. Tentatively he permitted his lids to raise.
The intruder's back was toward him. He was bending with slow stealth over the mandarin's face. What was the fellow doing?
Peter caught the glint of metal, or glass. At the same time a powerful, sickening odor spread through the tent.
Peter groped for the naked dagger, bounded up from the couch with a nervous cry, and burled the steel up to its costly jeweled hilt in the foremost shoulder.
Without a sound the man in gray turned part way round, and a shudder ran through him, causing the folds of his garment to flap slightly. He sank down with a sigh like wind stealing through a cavern, and his fingers clawed feebly in the leaping shadow.
Peter detected a tiny glass vial spilling out its dark, volatile fluid upon the dust. He picked it up, but it was snatched from his hand. The dull pig-eyes of Chang stared very close to his, with the stupefaction of sleep still extending the irises into round dark pools. The vial was in his hand, and he was sampling its odor, waving it slowly back and forth under his wide nostrils. He shouted, and turbaned men filed into the tent, and carried the gray figure away.
The hand of Chang rested upon Peter's shoulder, and in a voice that throbbed with the sonorousness of a Buddha temple-gong he said:
"You have rendered me a service for which I can never sufficiently repay you—for I value my life highly! In the morning your mind will have forgotten what has taken place. Try to sleep now. You will obey—promptly!"
The candle sputtered and jumped, as if it were striving mightily to lengthen its golden life if only for another minute; and went out.
From Chow Yang to Lun-Ling-Ting all the land could not provide costlier raiment than Peter found at his bedside when the long, high-keyed cries of the mule men opened his eyes upon another morning.
When camp was broken up, long before the sun became hot, he was given a small but able mule; and he rode down the valley toward India at Chang's side. They moved at the head of a long, slow train, for here bandits were not feared, despite the loneliness of the land through which they were traveling. Farms became more scattered, more widely separated by patches of broken, barren rock; and, finally, all traces of the microscopic cultivation which gave Szechwan Province its lean fruitfulness were left behind them.
The mandarin rode for many miles in silence, occasionally changing reins, looking steadily and gloomily ahead of him, with his attention riveted, it seemed, upon the sharp and ceaseless clatter of his mule's hoofs and the twisting rock road.
Peter's mind was fixed upon the problem which crept hourly nearer. His head was cast between his shoulders as if the weight of a sorrowful world rested upon that narrow, well-proportioned skull, with its covering of shining light hair.
He loved his task as a man might love a selfish and thoughtless woman, who demanded and craftily accepted all that he could give, to the last ounce of his gold and the final drop of his blood. It was a thankless task, yet it had grace.
It was well past mid-morning before Chang spoke the first word.
"A grateful dream came into my sleep last night. For years I have fought in the darkness with a man who has the heart of Satan himself. He has robbed me. Time after time he has sent into my camp his spies. Some were more adroit than others. But none so adroit as the coolie from Len Yang."
Peter repressed his surprise, and merely winked his eyes thoughtfully a number of times. Chang went on:
"In this dream last night a young man was given into my keeping whose spirit and manliness have not yet been soiled. His gratitude was immediate. In return for the acts which grew out of that gratitude, I am prepared to give him anything that is mine, or in my power, whether he desires wealth, or position, or my friendship."
"The young man," said Peter gravely, "desires neither wealth nor position. If he has been of service to the man who befriended him, that is enough."
"Should he desire a favor of any kind——"
"Then help him to reach his enemy, who is your enemy, who is the Gray Dragon of Len Yang!"
"In all seriousness!" said Peter.
"It is death to enter Len Yang!"
"My mind is made up, mandarin!"
They had entered a narrow ravine, and on both sides of the slender trail rose up sharp elbows of hard rock. Peter's head was inclined a little to the right in an attitude he unconsciously assumed when listening for important words of man or wireless machine.
"It is the folly of adventurous youth," rang out the melodious and sincere voice of the mandarin. "It is a quest for a grail which will end in a pool of your own blood! Come into India with me!"
"But I decided—long ago—mandarin!"
"Your life is your life," said the mandarin sadly. "The City of Stolen Lives is beyond the mountain. Ch'ing!"
A road as white and straight as a silver bar led directly between the black, jutting shoulders of the hills to the gates of Len Yang.
Peter, with his heart beating a wild symphony of anticipation and fear, drew rein.
The small mule panted from the long desperate climb, his plump sides filling and caving as he drank in the sharp evening air.
Close behind the city's faded green walls towered the mountain ranges of Tibet, cold, gloomy, and vague in the purple mystery of their uncertain distances. They were like chained giants, brooding over the wrongs committed in the City of Stolen Lives, sullen in their mighty helplessness.
In the rays of the swollen sun the close-packed hovels enclosed within the moss-covered walls seemed to rest upon a blurring background of vermilion earth.
As Peter clicked his tongue and urged the tired little animal down the slope, he recalled the fragment of the description that had been given him of this place. Hideous people, with staring eyes, dripping the blood-red slime of the cinnabar-mines—leprosy, filth, vermin—
His palace! It stood out above the carmine ruck like a cube of purest ivory in a bleeding wound. Its marble outrivaled the whiteness of the Taj Mahal. It was a thing of snow-white beauty, like a dove poising for flight above a gory battlefield. And it was crowned by a dome of lapis lazuli, bluer than the South Pacific under a melting sun! But its base, Peter knew, was stained red, a blood-red which had seeped up and up from the carmine clay.
The gate to the city was down, and by the grace of his blue-satin robe Peter was permitted to enter.
And instantly he was obsessed with the flaming color of that man's unappeased passion. Red—red! The hovels were spattered with the red clay. The man, the skinny, wretched creature who begged for a moment of his gracious mercy at the gate, dripped in ruby filth. The mule sank and wallowed in vermilion mire.
Scrawny, undernourished children, naked, or in rags that afforded little more protection than nakedness, thrust their starved, red-smeared faces up at him, and gibed and howled.
And above all this arose the white majesty of his palace—the throne of the Gray Dragon!
Peter urged the mule up the scarlet alley to a clearing in which he found coolies by the thousands, trudging moodily from a central orifice that continued to disgorge more and more of them. The dreadful, reeking creatures blinked and gaped as if stupefied by the rosy light of the dying day.
Some carried lanterns of modern pattern; others bore picks and shovels and iron buckets, and they seemed to pass on interminably, to be engulfed in the lanes which ran in all directions from the clearing.
It was as though the earth were vomiting up the vilest of its creatures. And in the same light it was consuming others of equal vileness. Down into the red maws of the shaft an endless chain of men and women and children were descending.
Quite suddenly the light gave way, and Peter was aware that the night of the mountains was creeping out over the city, blotting out its disfigurements, replacing the hideous redness with a velvety black.
At the shaft's entrance a sharp spot of dazzling light sprang into being. It was an electric arc light! Somehow this apparition struck through the horror that saturated him, and he sighed as if his mind had relinquished a clinging nightmare.
Professionally now he gave this section of Len Yang another scrutiny. Thick cables sagged between stumpy poles like clusters of black snakes, all converging at the mine's entrance. His acute ears were registering a dull hum, indicating the imminence of high-geared machinery or of dynamos.
At the further side of the red shaft, now crusted with the night's shades, and garishly illuminated by the diamond whiteness of the frosty arc, he made out a deep, wide ditch, where flowed slowly a ruddy current, supplied from a short fat pipe.
Peter believed that electric pumps sucked out the red seepage waters from the mine and lifted them to the bloody ditch.
On impulse he lifted his eyes to the darkening heavens, and he knew now that the threads of this, his greatest adventure, were being drawn to a meeting point; for he detected in the sun's last refracted rays the bronze glint of aerial wires! What lay at the base of the antenna he could guess accurately. He hastened to the base of the nearest aerial mast—a pole reaching like a dark needle into the sky—and found there a low, dark building of varnished pine with a small door of eroded, green brass.
The rain-washed pine, the complete absence of windows, and the austerity of the massive brass door contributed to a personality of dignified and pessimistic aloofness. The building occupied a place to itself, as if its reserve were not to be tampered with, as if its dark and sullen mystery were not meant for the prying eyes of passing strangers.
Peter knocked brazenly upon the door, and it clanked shallowly, giving forth no inward echo. He waited expectantly.
It yawned open to the accompaniment of grumbled curses in a distinctly tenor whine.
A man with a white, shocked face stared at him from the threshold. The countenance was long, tapering, and it ended nowhere. Dull, mocking eyes with a burned-out look in them stared unblinkingly into Peter's face.
Peter could have shouted in recognition of the weak face, but he compressed his lips and bowed respectfully instead.
"What the hell do you want?" growled the man on the threshold.
"May Buddha bring the thousandth blessing to the soul of your virtuous mother," said Peter in solemn, benedictive tones. "It is my pleasure to desire entrance."
"Speak English, eh?" shrilled the man. "Dammit! Then come in!" And to this invitation he added blasphemy in Peter's own tongue that made his heart turn sour. It was the useless, raving blasphemy of a weakling. It was the man as Peter had known him of old. But a little worse. He still wore what remained of his Marconi uniform, tattered, grease-stained coat and trousers, with the ragged white and blue emblems of the steamship line by which he had been employed before he had disappeared. His bony hands trembled incessantly, and his face had the chalky pastiness native to the opium eater.
Peter, reflecting upon the honor which that uniform had always meant for him, felt like knocking this chattering, wild-eyed creature down and trampling upon him. But he bowed respectfully. The door clanged behind him, and his eye absorbed in an instant the details of the ponderously high-powered electrical apparatus.
"Speak God's language, eh?" whined the man. "Sit down and don't stare so. Sit down. Sit down."
"A mandarin never seats himself, O high one, until thrice invited."
"Thrice, four, five times, I tell you to sit down!" he babbled. "Men, even rat-eaters like you, who speak my language, are too rare to let go by. Mandarin?"
He stepped back and eyed his guest with stupid humor.
"I say, men who speak my language are rare. Nights I listen to fools on this machine, and tell them what I please. What is the news from outside? What is the news from home?"
"From America!" He stumbled over the words, and took in his breath with a long, trembling hiss between his yellow teeth.
"It is many years since I visited that strange land, O great one! It is many, many years, indeed, since I studied for the craft which you now perform so honorably."
"You—what was that?"
"I, too, studied to your honorable craft, my son. But it was denied me. Buddha decreed that I should preach his doctrines. It is my life to bring a little hope, a little gladness into the hearts——"
"You stand there and tell me that you know the code?" cried the white-faced man shrilly.
"Such was my good fortune," Peter replied gravely.
"Well, I believe you're a dam' liar, you Chink!" scoffed the other, who was swinging in nervousness or irritation from side to side.
Peter shrugged his shoulders, and permitted his gaze to fondle the monstrous transmission coil.
"I'll show you!" railed the man. "I'll give you a free chance, I will! Now, listen to me. Tell me what I say." He pursed his lips and whistled a series of staccato dots and dashes.
"What you have said," replied Peter in a deep voice, "is true, O high one!"
"What did I say?"
"You said: 'China, it is the hell-hole of the world!' Do I speak the truth?"
Peter thought that this crazy man—whose name had formerly been Harrison—was preparing to leap at him. But Harrison only sprang to his side and seized his hands in a clammy, excited grip. Tears of an exultant origin glittered in the man's eyes, now luminous.
"You stay with me, do you hear?" he babbled. "You stay here. I'll make it worth your while! I'll see you have money. I'll see——"
"But I have no need of money, O high one!" interrupted Peter in a somewhat resentful tone, striving to mask his eagerness.
"You stay!" cried Harrison.
"Lotus eater!" Peter said, knowing his ground perfectly.
"What if I am?" demanded Harrison defiantly. "So are you! So are we all! So is everybody who lives in this rotten country!"
"To the sick, all are sick," Peter quoted sorrowfully.
"Rot! As long as I must have opium, there's nothing more to be said. Now, I pry my eyes open with matches to stay awake. With you here——"
His thin voice trailed off. He had confessed what Peter already knew. It was the blurted confession, and the blurted plea, of a mind that was half consumed by drugs. A diseased mind which spoke the naked truth, which caught at no deception, which was tormented by its own gnawings and cravings to such an extent that it had lost the function of suspecting. Suspicion of a low, distorted sort might come later; but at its present ebb this mind was far too greedy to gain its own small ends to grope beyond.
The lids of Harrison's smoldering eyes drew down, and they were blue, a sickly, pallid blue. With their descent his face became a death-mask. But Peter knew from many an observation that such signs were deceptive; knew that opium was a powerful and sustaining drug; knew that Harrison, while weak and stupid and raving, was very much alive!
"There is little work to be done," went on the thin voice. "Only at night. Say you will stay with me!" he pleaded.
Peter permitted himself to frown, as if he had reached a negative decision. Harrison, torn by desire, flung himself down on his ragged knees, and sobbed on Peter's hand. Peter pushed him away loathfully.
"What is my task?"
Harrison sank back on his heels, oblivious of the wet streak which ran down from his eyes on either side of his thin, sharp nose, and delved nervously into his pocket. He withdrew a lump of black gum, about the size of a black walnut, broke off a fragment with his finger-nails, and masticated it slowly. He smirked sagely.
"He won't care. Why should he care?"
"Who, my son?"
"That man—that man who owns Len Yang, and me, and these rat-eaters. All he wants is results."
"Ah, yes. He owns other mines?"
"What does he care about the mines? Of course he directs the other mines by wireless. He owns a sixth of the world. He does. He is rich. Rich! You and I are poor fools. He gives me opium"—Harrison glared and gulped—"and he does not ask questions."
"Wise men learn without asking questions, my son," said Peter gravely.
"Certainly they do! He knows everything, and he never asks a question. Not a one! He answers them, he does!"
"You have asked him questions?"
"I? Humph! What an innocent fool you are, in spite of that gold on your collar! Have I seen him to ask questions?"
"That is what I meant."
"Not I. He is no fool. You may be the Gray Dragon for all of me. No one in Len Yang sees him. No one dares! It is death to see that man! Didn't I try? But only once!"
"You did try?"
"That was enough. I got as far as the first step of the ivory palace. Some one clubbed me! I was sick. I thought I was going to die! There is a scar on my neck. It never seems to heal!"
The senile whine trailed off into a thin, abusive whimper. His bony jaws moved slowly and meditatively. He went on:
"He is crazy, too. Women! Beautiful women for the mines! Men—men—men everywhere know the price he will pay. In pure silver!"
"He pays well, my son?"
"A thousand taels, if he is satisfied. That is where this hole got its name. You know the name—the City of Stolen Lives? It should be the City of Lost Hope. For none ever leave. The mines swallow them up. What becomes of them?"
"Ah! What does become of the stolen lives?"
The sunken eyes stared playfully at him. "What is a thousand taels to him? He is rich, I tell you! They say his cellar is filled with gold—pure gold; that his rooms and halls run and drip with gold, just as his rat-eaters run and drip with the cinnabar poison. And the wireless—he has stations, and this is the best. Mine is the best. I see to that, let me tell you!"
"To be sure!"
"These hunters, these men who know his price for beautiful women—he will have none other—and who are paid a thousand taels——"
"Where did you say these stations are?"
"In all parts. There is a station in Afghanistan, between Kabul and Jalalabad, and one in Bengal, in the Khasi Hills, and another in northern Szechwan Province, and one in Siam, on the Bang Pakong River——"
"A station on the Bang Pakong?"
"Yes, I tell you. All over. These hunters find a woman, a lovely girl; and they must describe their prize in a few words. He is sly! The fewer the better. If the words appeal to him, he has me tell them to come. Lucky devils! A thousand taels to the lucky devils! Some day I myself may become a hunter."
"It is tempting," agreed Peter. "But why does he want beautiful young girls for his mine, my son?"
Harrison ignored the question.
"To-night I will listen. You can watch me. Then you can see how simple it is. It is time."
Peter was aware that the door had opened and closed behind his back, and now he heard the faint scraping of a sandaled foot, heavy with the red slime. A Chinese, in the severe black of an attendant, stood looking down at him distrustfully. His eyebrows were shaved, and a mustache drooped down to his sharp, flat chin like sea-weed.
He asked Harrison a sharp question in a dialect that smacked of the guttural Tibetan.
"He wants to know where you came from," translated Harrison irritably.
"From Wenchow. A mandarin. He should know."
The man in severe black bowed respectfully, and Peter looked at him frigidly.
Harrison slipped the Murdock receivers over his ears, and his voice went on in a weak, garrulous and meaningless whimper.
"Static—static—static. It is horrible to-night. I cannot hear these fellows. Ah! Afghanistan has nothing, nor Bengal. Hey, you fool, I cannot hear this fellow in Szechwan. He has a message. Yes, you, I cannot hear him. Not a word! He is faint, like a bad whisper. They will beat me again if I cannot hear!"
He tried again, forcing the rubber knobs against his ears until they seemed to sink into his head.
"Have you good hearing?"
"I will try," said Peter.
"Then sit here. You must hear him, or we will both be beaten. This fellow goes straight to him."
Peter slipped into the vacated chair and strapped down the receivers. A long, faint whisper, as indistinguishable as the lisp of leaves on a distant hill, trickled into his ears. Ordinarily he would have given up such a station in disgust, and waited for the air to clear. Now he wanted to establish his ability, to demonstrate the acuteness of hearing for which he was famous.
Behind him the black-garbed attendant muttered, and Peter scowled at him to be silent.
With deftness that might have surprised that wretch, Harrison, had his wits been more alert, he raised and closed switches for transmission, and rapped out in a quick, professional "O.K."
He cocked his head to one side, as he always did when listening to far-away signals, and a pad and pencil were slid under his hand.
The world and its noises and the tense, eager figures behind him, retreated and became nothing. In all eternity there was but one thing—the message from the whispering Szechwan station.
His pencil trailed lightly, without a sound, across the smooth paper.
A message for L. Y. An American girl. Brown hair. Eyes with the moon's mystery. Lips like a new-born rose. Enchantingly young.
The blood boiled into Peter's brain, and the pencil slipped from fingers that were like ice. There was only one girl in the world who answered to that description. Eileen Lorimer! She had been captured again, and brought back to China!
He grabbed for the paper. It was gone. Gone, too, was the black-garbed attendant, hastening to his master.
Harrison was pawing his shoulder with a skinny, white hand, and making noises in his throat.
"You lucky fool! He'll give you cumshaw. God, you have sharp ears! Only one man I ever knew had such sharp ears. He always gives cumshaw. Na-mien-pu-liao-pa! You must divide with me. That is only fair. But—what difference? Here you can enter, but you can never leave. You have no use for silver. I have."
The face of Eileen Lorimer swam out of Peter's crazed mind. Miss Vost, that lovely innocent-eyed creature, fitted the same description!
Peter stared stupidly at the massive transmission key, and disdained a reply. Miss Vost—and the red mines! He shuddered.
Harrison was whining again at his ear. "He says yes. Yes! Tell that fellow yes, and be quick. The Gray Dragon will give him an extra thousand taels for haste. Oh, the lucky fool! Two thousand taels! Tell him, or shall I?"
How could Peter say no? The ghastly white face was staring at him suspiciously now.
While he hesitated Harrison pushed him aside, and his fingers flew up and down on the black rubber knob. "Yes—yes—yes. Send her in a hurry. A thousand taels bonus. The lucky devil!"
Out of Peter's anguish came but one solution, and that vague and indecisive. He must wait and watch for Miss Vost, and take what drastic measures he could devise to recapture her when the time came.
The pallid lips trembled again at his ear. "Here! You must divide with me. A bag of silver. Yin! A bag of it! Listen to the chink of it!"
Peter seized the yellow pouch and thrust it under his silken blouse. He was beginning to realize that he had been exceptionally lucky in catching the signals of the Szechwan station. He was vastly more important now than this wretch who plucked at his arm.
"Give me my half!" whined Harrison.
Peter doubled his fist.
"Give me my half!" Harrison clung to his arm and shook him irritably.
Peter hit him squarely in the mouth.
As night melted into day and day was swallowed up by night, the problem which confronted Peter took on more serious and baffling proportions. His hope of entering the ivory palace was dismissed. It was imperative for him to give up the idea of entering, of piercing the lines of armed guards and reaching the room where the master of the City of Stolen Lives held forth until some later time.
That had been his earlier ambition, but the necessity of discarding the original plan became hourly more important with the drawing near of the girl captive.
If he could deliver Miss Vost from this dreadful city, that would be more than an ample reward for his long, adventurous quest.
He could not sleep. Perched on an ancient leather stool upon the roof of the wireless building, he kept a nightly and a daily watch with his eyes fixed upon the drawbridge. A week went by. Food was carried up to him, and he scarcely touched it. The rims of his eyes became scarlet from sleeplessness, and he muttered constantly, like a man on the verge of insanity, as his eyes wandered back and forth over the red filth, from the shadowy bridge to the shining white of the palace.
Drearily, like souls lost and wandering in a half world, the prisoners of Len Yang trudged to the scarlet maws of the mine and were engulfed for long, pitiless hours, and were disgorged, staggering and blinking, in Tibet's angry evening sun.
The woeful sight would madden any man. And yet each day new souls were born to the grim red light of Len Yang's day, and clinging remorsefully to the hell which was their lot, other bleeding souls departed, and their shrunken bodies fed to the scarlet trough, where they were washed into oblivion in some sightless cavern below.
It was a bitterly cold night, with the wind blowing hard from the ice and snow on the Tibetan peaks, when Peter's long vigilance was rewarded. A booming at the gate, followed by querulous shouts, aroused him from his lethargy. He looked out over the crenelated wall, but the cold moonlight revealed a vacant street.
The booming and shouting persisted, and Peter was sure that Miss Vost had come, for in cities of China only an extraordinary event causes drawbridges to be lowered.
He slipped down the creaking ladder into the wireless-room. Harrison was in a torpor, muttering inanely and pleadingly as his long, white fingers opened and closed, perhaps upon imagined gold.
Peter opened the heavy brass door, and let himself into the deserted street. The jeweled sandals with which Chang had provided him sank deep into the red mire, and remained there.
He sped on, until he reached the black shadow of the great green wall. Suddenly the bridge gave way with many creakings and groanings and Peter saw the moonlight upon the silvery white road beyond.
A group of figures, mounted on mules, with many pack-mules in attendance, made a grotesque blot of shadow. Then a shrill scream.
Hoofs trampled hollowly upon the loose, rattling boards, and the cavalcade marched in.
A slim figure in a long, gray cloak rode on the foremost mule. Peter, aided by the black shadow, crept to her side.
"Miss Vost! Miss Vost!" he called softly. "It is Peter, Peter Moore!"
He heard her gasp in surprise, and her moan went into his heart like a ragged knife.
Peter tried to keep abreast, but the red clay dragged him back. Behind him some one shouted. They would emerge into the sharp moonlight in another second.
"Help me! Oh, help me!" she sobbed. "He's following! He is too late!"
She was carried out into the moonlight. At the same time, countless figures seemed to rise from the ground—from nowhere—and in every direction Peter was blocked. The stench of Len Yang's miserable inhabitants crept from these figures upon the chill night air.
Naked, unclean shoulders brushed him; moist, slimy hands pressed him back. But he was not harmed; he was simply pushed backward and backward until his bare foot encountered the first board of the bridge which was still lowered.
Behind him an order was hissed. He placed his back to the surging shadows. Coils of heavy rope were unfolding. The drawbridge was being raised.
Down the white road, veering drunkenly from one side to the other, came a leaping black dot.
The drawbridge creaked, the ropes became taut, and the far end lifted an inch at a time.
Peter shouted, but no one heeded him. His breath pumped in and out of his lungs in short, anguished gulps. He leaped out upon the bridge, and shouted again. The creaking ceased; the span became stationary.
The drunken dot leaped into the form of a giant upon a galloping mule which swept upon them in a confusion of dust. Hoofs pounded on the bridge; the giant on the mule drew rein, and to Peter it was given to look upon the face of the man he thought dead. The raging eyes of Bobbie MacLaurin swept from his face to his muddy feet.
"Moore! Where have they taken her?" ripped out the giant on the mule.
"Dismount and follow me. To the white palace! Are you armed?"
"And ready to shoot every dam' yellow snake in all of China!"
He jumped heavily to the boards, and Peter caught the gleam of steel-tipped bullets in the narrow strap which was slung from shoulder to waist.
The foreman of the rope-pullers dared to raise his head, and Bobbie kicked him with his heavy-shod foot in the stomach, and the coolie bounded up and backward, and lay draped limply over the side.
As they ran under the broad, dark arch into the street, he gave Peter in one hand the thick butt of an army automatic, and in the other a half-dozen loaded clips.
And they began blazing their way to the palace steps. Weird figures sprang up from the muck, and were shot back to earth.
They reached the hill top, and the green moon of Tibet scored the roof of the white palace.
A handful of guards, with rifles and swords, rushed down the broad, low flight.
The two men flung themselves upon the clay, while high-powered bullets plunked on either side of them or soughed overhead. The two automatics blazed in shattering chorus. The guards parted, backed up, some ran away, others fell, and Peter felt the sudden burn of screaming lead across his shoulder. He slipped another clip of cartridges into the steel butt; they leaped up and raced to the white steps. A rifle spurted and roared in the black shadow. Bobbie groaned, staggered, and climbed on. Now they were guided by a woman's sharp cries issuing from an areaway. And they stopped in amazement before a majestic white-marble portal.
With two coolies struggling to pinion her arms, the girl was kicking, scratching, biting with the fire of a wildcat, dragging them toward the broad, white veranda.
Bobbie shot the foremost of them through the brain, and the other, gibbering terribly, vanished into the shadow.
Peter caught Miss Vost by one hand and raced down the steps. Bobbie, holding his head in a grotesque gesture, ran and staggered behind them.
Bobbie waved his free arm savagely. "Don't wait for me! Get her out of this place! Don't take your eyes from her till you reach Wenchow!"
He wheeled and shot three times at a figure which had stolen up behind him. The figure spun about and seemed to melt into a hole in the earth.
Peter wrapped his arm about Bobbie's waist and dragged him down the hill. Miss Vost, as he realized after that demonstration in the areaway, could handle herself.
The bridge was up. Lights glowed from hovel ways like evil red eyes. Peter released the rope and the bridge sprang down to the road with a boom that shook the solid walls. Bobbie's mule nosed toward them, and Peter all but shot the friendly little animal!
Between Peter and Miss Vost, who was chattering and weeping as if her heart was breaking, their wounded companion was lifted into the saddle. They crossed the bridge, and the bridge was whipped up behind them.
Not until they attained the brow of the hill did they look back upon the gloomy walls, now black and peaceful under the high clear moon. And it was not until then that Peter marveled upon their easy escape, upon the snatching up of the bridge as they left. Why had no shots been fired at them as they climbed the silver road?
They trusted to no providence other than flight. All night long they hastened toward the highway which led to Ching-Fu—and India. And they had no breath to spare for mere words. At any moment the long arm of the Gray Dragon might reach out and pluck them back.
Only once they paused, while Peter ripped out the satin lining of his robe and bound up the wound in Bobbie's dazed head.
Miss Vost sat down upon a moss-covered rock and wept. She made no effort to help him, but stared and wiped her eyes with her hands.
A misty, rosy dawn found them above the valley in which ran the connecting road between Ching-Fu and the Irriwaddi.
Miss Vost was the first to see the camp-fires of a caravan. She laughed, then cried, and she tottered toward Peter, who stood there, a lean weird figure in his tattered blue robe and his tangled beard.
She extended her arms slightly as she approached, and her gray eyes were luminous with a soft and gentle fire.
Bobbie staggered away from the mule's heaving sides, with one hand fumbling weakly at the satin bandage, and in his eyes, too, was the look that rarely comes into the eyes of men.
In a single glance Peter could see to the very depths of that man's unselfish soul. It was like glancing into the light of a golden autumn morning.
Miss Vost lifted both of Peter's hands, and one was still blue from the back-fire of the automatic. She lifted them to her lips and kissed them solemnly. With a little fluttering sigh she looked up at Bobbie, standing beside her and towering above her like a strong hill.
They looked long at one another, and Peter felt for a moment curiously negligible. He had cause to feel that his presence was absolutely unessential when, with a happy, soft little laugh, Miss Vost sprang up and was crushed in the cradle of Bobbie's great arms.
Peter looked down into the green valley with tears standing in his grave, blue eyes. The caravan was slowly winding out upon the trail. In five weeks it would leave Kalikan, the last soil of China, on the frontier of India.
Peter felt exceedingly happy as he hastened down the hillside to catch the caravan.
THE BITTER FOUNTAIN
She bends over her work once more: "I will weave a fragment of verse among the flowers of his robe, and perhaps its words will tell him to return." —LI-TAI-PE.
The newly arrived wireless operator of the Java, China, and Japan liner, Persian Gulf, deposited his elbows upon the promenade deck-rail, and cast a side-long glance at the Chinese coolie who had taken up a similar position about a bumboat's length aft. And the coolie returned his deliberate stare with a look of dreamy interest, then quickly shifted his glance to the city which smoldered and vibrated across Batavia's glinting, steel-blue harbor.
Without turning his head the wireless man continued to watch sharply the casual movements of this Chinese, quite as he had been observing him since they had left Tandjong Priok in the company's launch and come out to the Persian Gulf together.
He had suspected the fellow from the very first, and he was prepared, on the defensive; yet he was willing and eager to take the offensive should this son of the yellow empire so much as show the haft of his kris, or whisper a word of counsel in his ear. The latter he feared quite as much as the former, for it would mean many things.