Peter shook his head with a grave smile.
"I am discovered, Miss Borria. That is to say, I have just given myself away to the Manila navy station, not to speak of the commander of a gunboat, not far from us, off the coast of Mindanao. It seems"—he made a wry face—"Peter Moore is not popular with the authorities for deserting a certain ship in Shanghai."
"The Vandalia!" said the girl, and suddenly bit her lip, as though she would have liked to retract the statement.
Peter sank down on his elbows beside her, until his face was very close to hers, and his expression was shrewd and cunning.
"Miss Borria," he remarked stiffly, "I told you last night you're clever; and now you've given me just one more reason to stick to my guns; one more reason to believe that you know more than you're supposed to know. Now, let's be perfectly frank—for once. Let's not erase any more rouge stripes, so to speak. Won't you please tell me just what you do know about my activities in this neighborhood?"
His outflung gesture indicated the whole of Asia.
The girl pursed her lips and a hard twinkle, like that of a frosty arc-light upon diamonds, came into her eyes. "Yes, Mr. Moore," she said vigorously, "I will. But you must promise—promise faithfully—to ask no questions. Will you do that?"
Peter nodded with a willingness that was far from assumed.
Romola Borria placed the tips of her slender, white fingers together and looked down at them pensively. "Well," she said, looking up and raising her voice slightly, "you escaped from the liner Vandalia in the middle of the Whang-poo River, at night, in a deep fog, in a sampan, with a young woman named Eileen Lorimer in your arms. This occurred after you had delivered her from the hands of certain men, whom I prefer to call, perhaps mysteriously, by the plain word them.
"You sent this young lady home on the Manchuria, or the Mongolia, I forget just which. That night on the bund near the French legation, you met, quite by accident, another young lady who found your companionship quite desirable. Her name was Miss Amy Vost, a bright little thing."
"You don't happen to know," put in Peter ironically, "what Miss Lorimer had for breakfast this morning, by any chance?"
"At last accounts she was studying for a doctor's degree in the university at San Friole, Mr. Moore."
"Indeed!" It was on the tip of Peter's tongue to tell this astounding Romola Borria that she was nothing short of a mind-reader. Instead, he nodded his head for her to continue.
"As I was saying, you met Miss Vost, quite by accident, and danced with her at a fancy dress ball at the Astor House. You wore the costume of a Japanese merchant, I believe, thinking, a little fatuously, if you will permit me, that those garments were a disguise. A little later in the bar at the Palace Hotel, after you left Miss Vost, you met a sea captain, ex-first mate of the Toyo Kisen Kaisha steamer, the Sunyado Maru. He was an old friend.
"With Captain MacLaurin and Miss Vost you made a trip on the Yangtze-Kiang in a little river steamer, the Hankow, which foundered in the rapids just below Ching-Fu. This occurred after you had stabbed and killed one of their most trusted spies.
"When the Hankow sank, you followed what now appears to be your professional habit of a trustworthy gallant, by taking a lady in distress into your arms, and swam the whirlpools to the little village across the river from Ching-Fu. Then Miss Vost was met by her father, an incurable missionary from Wenchow, and by devious routes, well known to them, you joined a caravan, owned by a garrulous old thief who calls himself a mandarin, the Mandarin Chang, who told you many lies, to amuse himself—
"Of course they were lies, Mr. Moore. Chang is one of his most trusted henchmen. He even permitted you to kill one of his coolies. The coolie would have died anyway; he was beginning to learn too much. But it tickled Chang, and him, to let you have this chance, to see how far you would go. And Chang had orders to help you reach Len Yang. It gave you confidence in yourself, did it not?"
"I don't believe a word," declared Peter in a daze. He refused to believe that Chang, kindly old Chang, was in league with that man, too.
"Then you entered Len Yang, the City of Stolen Lives, and he watched you, and when you heard a difficult wireless message on the instruments at the mine, he gave you a present of money—five hundred taels, wasn't it?—hoping, perhaps, that you would 'give up your foolishness,' as he expressed it, and settle down to take the place of the opium-befuddled wireless man you fooled so cleverly. He valued you, Mr. Moore, you see, and he was not in the least afraid of you!
"A dozen times, yes, a hundred times, he could have killed you. But he preferred to sit back and stroke those long, yellow, mandarin mustaches of his, and watch you, as a cat watches a foolish mouse. I can see him laughing now. Yes! I have seen him, and I have heard him laugh. It is a hideous, cackling laugh. Quite unearthly! How he did laugh at you when you rescued Miss Vost, dear little clinging Miss Vost, from the jaws of his white palace!
"But he let you go; and he and his thousand sharpshooters who lined the great, green walls, when you and Captain MacLaurin and Miss Vost galloped bravely out, with one poor little mule! A thousand rifles, I say, were leveled upon you in that bright moonlight, Mr. Moore. But he said—no!"
Peter looked up at the stolid rigging of the Persian Gulf, at the sunlight dancing brightly on the blue waves, which foamed at their crests like fresh, boiling milk; at the passengers sleeping or reading in their deck chairs; and he refused to believe that this was not a dream. But the level voice of Romola Borria purred on:
"Then you joined a caravan for India, and, for a little while, they thought your trail was lost. But you reappeared in Mandalay, attired as a street fakir; and you limped all the way to Rangoon. Why did you limp, Mr. Moore?"
"A mule stamped on my foot, coming through the Merchants' Pass into Bengal."
"It healed rapidly, no doubt, for you were very active from that time on. You took passage to Penang, to Singapore, doubling back to Penang, and again to Singapore, and caught a blue-funnel steamer for Batavia."
"But, Miss Borria," writhed Peter, "why, with all this knowledge, hasn't he done away with me? You know. He knows. You've had your chance. You could have killed me in your stateroom last night. Please——" And Peter cast the golden robe of the adventurer temporarily from him, becoming for the moment nothing more than a terribly earnest, terribly concerned young man.
"I gave you an inkling last night," replied Romola Borria composedly. "Until you left Batavia he believed that you had given up your nonsense. The coolie you threw overboard in Batavia was there, not to stab you, but to warn you away from China. Those warnings, of which you have had many, are now things of the past. You have thrown down the glove to him once too often. He is through toying.
"It was great fun for him, and he enjoyed it. He treats his enemies that way—for a while. You have now entered upon the second stage of enmity with him. Last night was a sample of what you may expect from now on. Only the sheerest luck saved you from the coolie's bullet—and my almost-too-tardy intervention."
Peter gave her a hard, thoughtful and a thoroughly respectful stare.
"I take it," he said, "that you are a special emissary, a sort of minister plenipotentiary, from the Gray Dragon. As a matter of fact, you are here simply to persuade me to correct my erring ways; to persuade me to give you my promise for him that I will put China and Len Yang forever out of my plans."
"Express it any way you please, Mr. Moore. I have told you about all that I am able. I know this game, if you will permit me, a little, just a little better than you do, Mr. Moore. I know when fun stops and downright danger begins. The moment you put your foot in China, you are putting your foot in a trap from which you can never, never so long as you are permitted to live, extricate yourself. And, believe me, seriously, that will not be for long. A day? Perhaps. An hour? Very likely not any longer than that.
"Call me a special emissary if you choose. Perhaps I am. Perhaps I am only a friend, who desires above everything else to help you avoid a most certain and a most unpleasant death. I have given you your opportunity. From my heart I gave you, and I still do give you, the chance to leave—with me. Yes; I mean that. Your promise, backed by your word of honor, is a passport to safety for both of us. Your refusal, I might as well confess, means to me—death! Won't you stop and consider? Won't you say—yes?"
Peter's head had snapped back during this epilogue; his white-clad shoulders were squared, and his blue eyes were lighted by a fire that might have made a Crusader envious.
"You may report to him," said he, "that I have listened to his proposal; that I have considered it calmly; and that, as long as the gauntlet is down—it is—down! I want but one thing: a man's chance at that beast. You can tell him just that from me, Miss Borria. I am sorry."
She seemed on the point of uttering a final word, a word that might have been of the greatest importance to Peter the Brazen; but the word never got beyond her lips.
Into her eyes crept a look of despair, of mute horror. She half raised her hand; withdrew it. Her shoulders sagged. She staggered to a deck chair, and sank into it, with her head back, her eyes closed, her long, dark lashes lying upon cheeks that had become marble.
Standing there with his eyes glued to the blue of the sea, Peter the Brazen felt the confidence oozing from him as water oozes out of a leaky pail. He felt himself in the presence of a relentless power which was slowly settling down upon him, crushing him, and overpowering him.
It occurred to him as his thoughts raced willy-nilly, to flash a call of help to the gunboat which prowled south of Luzon, a call which would have met with a response swift and energetic.
Yet that impulse smacked of the blunderer. It would put an end forever to his high plan, now boiling more strongly than ever before, in the back of his racked brain: to meet and some day put down the beast in Len Yang.
A bright, waving hand distracted his attention from the sea. The maid from Macassar was endeavoring to attract him. He looked down with a pale, haggard smile.
"You have not forgotten—Kowloon, busar satu?" said her tinkling little voice.
"Not I, small one!" Peter called back in accents that entirely lacked their accustomed gaiety.
During the remainder of the voyage Romola Borria did not once, so far as Peter was aware, leave her stateroom. Her meals were sent there, and there she remained, sending out word in response to his inquiries that she was ill, could see no one—not that Peter, after that latest astounding interview, cared particularly to renew the friendship. He was simply thoughtful.
Yet he felt a little angry at his demonstration of frank selfishness, and not a little uneasy at the uncanny precision of her recital of his recent history, an uneasiness which grew, until he found himself waiting with growing concern for the rock-bound shore-line of Hong Kong to thrust its black-and-green shoulders above the horizon.
The Persian Gulf anchored outside at night, and in the morning steamed slowly in amidst the maze of masts, of sampans and junks, which latter lay with their sterns pointing grotesquely upward, resembling nothing so closely as great brown hawks which had flown down from a Brobdingnagian heaven, to select with greater convenience and fastidiousness what prey might fall within reach of their talons.
Peter was aware that many of these junks were pirate ships, audacious enough to pole into Victoria Harbor under the very guns of the forts, under the noses of battleships of every nation.
When the launch from quarantine swung alongside, Peter went below and changed from the uniform to a light, fresh suit of Shantung silk, a soft collar, a soft Bangkok hat, and comfortable, low walking shoes, not neglecting to knot about his waist the blue sarong.
The steerage passengers were lined up when he came above a little later, sticking out their tongues for the eagle-eyed doctors, and giggling at a proceeding serious enough, had they known it, to send every mother's son and daughter of them back to the land whence they came, if they displayed so much as a slight blemish, for Hong Kong was then in the throes of her latest cholera scare.
Satisfied at length that the eyes and tongues of the steerage and deck passengers gave satisfactorily robust testimony, the doctors came up to the first-class passengers, who stood in line on the promenade deck; and Peter saw the change that had come over Romola Borria.
Her face bore the pallor of the grave. Her large, lustrous eyes were sunken, and lines seemed to have been engraved in a face that had previously been as smooth and fair as a rose in bloom.
He felt panic-stricken as she recognized him with an almost imperceptible nod, and he stared at her a trifle longer than was necessary, with his lips slightly ajar, his nails biting into his palms, and he sensed rather than saw, that her beauty had been transformed into one of gray melancholy.
At that juncture, a tinkling voice shrilled up at him from the after cargo-well, and Peter turned to see his small charge, the maid from Macassar, smiling as she waited for him beside a small pile of silken bundles of the rainbow's own colors. He had not forgotten the Eurasian girl, but he desired to have a parting word with Romola Borria.
He called over the rail, and instructed her of the black pigtail to wait for him in a sampan, and he yelled down to one of the dozens of struggling and babbling coolies, whose sampans swarmed like a horde of cockroaches at the ladder's lower extremity.
Romola Borria, alone, was awaiting him, adjusting her gloves, at the doorway of the wireless cabin when he made his way back to that quarter of the ship. She greeted him with a slow, grave smile; and by that smile Peter was given to know how she had suffered.
Her face again became a mask, a mask of death, indeed, as her lids fluttered down and then raised; and her eyes were tired.
He extended his hand, trying to inject some of his accustomed cheerfulness into the gesture and into the smile which somehow would not form naturally on his lips.
"This—is adieu—or au revoir?" he said solemnly.
"I hope—au revoir," she replied dully. "So, after all, you refuse to take my counsel, my advice, seriously?"
Peter shrugged. "I'm rather afraid I can't," he said. "You see, I'm young. And you can say to yourself, or out loud without fear of hurting my feelings, that I am—foolish. I guess it is one of the hardships of being young—this having to be foolish. Wasn't it to-day that I was to become immortal, with a knife through my floating ribs, or a bullet in my heart?
"As I grow older I will become more serious, with balance. Perish the thought! But in the end—shucks! Confucius, wasn't it—that dear old philosopher who could never find a king to try out his theories on—who said:
"The great mountain must crumble. The strong beam must break. The wise man must wither away like a plant."
"I am afraid you will never become serious, Mr. Moore. And perhaps that is one of the reasons why I've grown so—so fond of you in this short while. If I could take life—and death—as stoically, as happily, as you—oh, God!"
She shut her eyes. Tears were in their rims when she opened them again.
"Mr. Moore, I'll make a foolish confession, too, now. It is—I love you. And in return——"
"I think you're the bravest girl in the world," said Peter, taking her hands with a movement of quick penitence. "You—you're a brick."
"I guess I am," she sighed, looking moodily away. "A brick of clay! Perhaps it is best to walk into the arms of your enemies the way you do, with your head back and eyes shining and a smile of contempt on your lips. If I only could!"
"Why speak of death on a day like this?" said Peter lightly. "Life is so beautiful. See those red-and-yellow blossoms on the hill, near the governor's place, and the poor little brats on that sampan, thinking they're the happiest kids in the world. What hurts them, hurts them; what pleases them, pleases them. They're happy because they don't bother to anticipate. And think of life, beautiful old life, brimming over with excitement and the mystery of the very next moment!"
"If I could only see that next moment!"
"Ugh! What a dreary monotony life would become!"
"But we could be sure. We could prepare for—for—well——" She threw up her head defiantly. "For death, I'll say."
"But please don't let's talk of death. Let's talk of the fine time you and I are going to have when we see each other again."
"Will there be another time, Peter?"
"Why, of course! You name that time; any time, any place. We'll eat and drink and chatter like a couple of parrots. And you will forget all this—this that is behind us."
Her teeth clicked.
"To-night," she said quickly. "I'll meet you. Let me see. On the Desvoeux Road side of the Hong Kong Hotel balcony, the restaurant, upstairs, you know."
"Right!" agreed Peter with enthusiasm. "Will we let husband go along?"
Her face suddenly darkened. She shook her head.
"I will be alone. So will you, at seven o'clock. You'll be there, without fail?"
A coolie guarded her luggage near by impatiently. They could hear the sobbing of the J. C. J. passenger launch as it rounded the starboard counter.
"I forget," said Peter, with his flashing smile. "I'll be dead in an hour. The steel trap of China, you know."
"Please don't jest."
"I'll tell you what I will do. I'll put a tag on my lapel, saying, deliver this corpse to the Desvoeux Road balcony of the Hong Kong Hotel restaurant at seven sharp to-night! Without fail! C. O. D.!"
These last words were addressed to the empty wireless cabin doorway. The white skirt of Romola Borria flashed like a taunting signal as she hastened out of his sight with the boy who carried her grips.
Wearing a slight frown, Peter made his way through piles of indiscriminate luggage to the port ladder, where his sampan and the maid from Macassar were waiting.
As he descended this contrivance he scanned the other sampans warily, and in one of these he saw a head which protruded from a low cabin. The sampan was a little larger than the others, and it darted in and out on the edge of the waiting ones.
The head vanished the instant Peter detected it, but it made a sharp image in his memory, a face he would have difficulty in forgetting. It was a long, chalk-white face, topped by a black fedora hat—a face garnished at the thin gray lips by a mustache, black and spikelike, resembling nothing more closely than the coal-black mustache affected by the old-time melodrama villains.
An hour of life? Did this man have concealed under his black coat the knife which had been directed by the beast in Len Yang to seek out his heart, to snuff out his existence, the existence of a trifling enemy?
As Peter reached the shelving at the foot of the ladder the thought grew and blossomed, and the picture was not a pleasant one. The man in the sampan, as Peter could judge by his face, would probably prove to be a tall and muscular individual.
And then Peter caught sight of another face, but the owner of it remained above-board. This man was stout and gray, with a face more subtly malignant. It was a red face, cut deep at the eyes, and in the region of the large purple nose, with lines of weather or dissipation. Blue eyes burned out of the red face, faded blue eyes, that were, despite their lack of lustre, sharp and cunning.
The hand of its owner beckoned imperiously for Peter, and he shouted his name; and Peter was assured that in the other hand was concealed the knife or the pistol of his doom.
With these not altogether pleasant ideas commanding his brain he jumped into the sampan in which the maid from Macassar was smilingly waiting.
Peter saw that his coolie was big and broad, with muscles which stood out like ropes on his thick, sun-burned arms and legs. He gave the coolie his instructions, as the sampan occupied by the red-faced man was all the while endeavoring to wiggle closer. Again the man called Peter by name, peremptorily, but Peter paid no heed.
"To Kowloon. Chop-chop!" shouted Peter. "Cumshaw. Savvy?" He displayed in his palm three silver dollars and the coolie bent his back to the sweep, the sampan heeling out from the black ironside like a thing alive.
Behind them, as this manoeuvre was executed, Peter saw the two duly accredited agents of the Gray Dragon fall in line. But Peter had selected with wisdom. The coolie verified with the passage of every moment the power his ropy muscles implied. Inch by inch, and yard by yard, they drew, away from the pursuing sampans.
Then something resembling the scream of an enraged parrot sang over their heads, and he instinctively ducked, turning to see from which of the sampans this greeting had come.
A faint puff of light-blue smoke sailed down the wind between the two. Which one? It was difficult to say.
They were beginning to leave the pursuit decidedly in the lurch now. Peter's coolie, with his long legs braced far apart on the running-boards, bent his back, swaying like a mighty metronome from port to starboard, from starboard to port, whipping the water into an angry, milky foam.
The pursuers crept up and fell back by fits and starts; slowly the distance widened.
The girl crouched down in the cabin, and Peter, with his automatic in his hand, waited for another tell-tale puff of blue smoke.
Finally this puff occurred, low on the deck of the larger craft. The bullet plunked into the water not two feet from the sweep, and the coolie, inspired by the knowledge that he, too, was inextricably wrapped up in this race of life and death, sweated, and shouted in the savage "Hi! Ho! Hay! Ho!" of the coolie who dearly loves his work.
Satisfied as to the origin of both bullets, Peter took careful aim at the yellow sampan and emptied his magazine, slipping another clip of cartridges into the oblong hole as he watched for the result.
The yellow sampan veered far from her course, and a sweep floated on the surface some few yards aft. Then the sampan lay as if dead. But the other plunged on after.
This exciting race and the blast of Peter's automatic now attracted the earnest attention of a gray little river gunboat, just down from up-stream, and inured to such incidents as this.
A one-pound shell snarled overhead, struck the water a hundred yards further on, near the Kowloon shore, and sent up a foaming white pillar.
The pier at Kowloon loomed close and more close. It was unlikely that the gunboat would follow up the shot with another, and in this guess, Peter, as the French say, "had reason."
The fires under the gunboat's boilers were drawn, and there was no time for the launching of a cutter.
A great contentment settled down upon Peter's heart when he saw that the oncoming sampan could not reach the pier until he and his charge were out of sight, or out of reach, at least.
He examined his watch. The gods were with him. It lacked three minutes of train-time.
It was only a hope that he and the girl would be safe on board the Canton train before the red-faced man could catch up.
The sampan rubbed the green timbers of the Kowloon landing stage. Peter tossed up the girl's luggage in one large armful, lifted her by the armpits to the floor of the pier, and relieved himself hastily of four dollars (Mexican), by which the grunting coolie was gratefully, and for some few hours, richer.
They dashed to the first-class compartment, and Peter dragged the girl in beside him.
"To Canton, too?" she inquired in surprise.
Peter nodded. He slammed the door. A whistle screamed, and the station of Kowloon, together with the glittering waters of the blue bay, and the white city of Hong Kong, across the bay, all began moving, first slowly, then with acceleration, as the morning express for Canton slid out on the best-laid pair of rails in southern China.
Had his red-faced pursuer caught up in time? Peter prayed not. He was tingling with the thrill of the chase; and he turned his attention to the small maiden who sat cuddled close to his side, with hands folded demurely before her, imprisoning between them the overlap of his flaunting blue sarong.
"We are safe, brave one?" she was desirous of knowing.
He patted her hand reassuringly, and she caught at it, lowering her green-blue eyes to the dusty floor, and sighing.
Peter might have paused in his rapid meditations long enough to be aware that, here he was, dropped—plump—into the center of another ring of romance; nothing having separated him from his last love but two misdirected revolver shots, the warning boom of a gunboat's bow cannon, and a mad chase across Victoria Bay.
Holding hands breaks no known law; yet Peter was not entirely aware that he was committing this act, as his eyes, set and hard, stared out of the window at the passing pagodas with their funny turned-up roofs.
His mind was working on other matters. Perhaps for the first time since the Persian Gulf had dropped anchor to the white sand of Victoria Harbor's bottom, he began to realize the grim seriousness of Romola Borria's warning. He was hemmed in. He was helpless.
An hour to live! An hour alive! But he was willing to make the very best of that hour.
Absently, then by degrees not so absently, he alternately squeezed and loosened the small, cool hands of the maid from Macassar. And she returned the pressure with a timid confidence that made him stop and consider for a moment something that had entirely slipped his mind during the past few days.
Was he playing quite squarely with Eileen Lorimer? Had he been observing perhaps the word but not the letter of his self-assumed oath? On the other hand, mightn't it be possible that Eileen Lorimer had ceased to care for him? With time and the miles stretching between them, wasn't it quite possible that she had shaken herself, recognized her interest in him as one only of passing infatuation, and, perhaps already, had given her love to some other?
A silly little rhyme of years ago occurred to him:
Love me close! Love me tight! But Love me when I'm out of sight!
And perhaps because Peter had fallen into one of his reasoning moods, he asked himself whether it was fair to carry the flirtation any further with the girl snuggled beside him. He knew that the hearts of Oriental girls open somewhat more widely to the touch of affection than their Western sisters. And it was not in the nature of women of the East to indulge extensively in the Western form of idle flirtation. The lowering of the eyelids, the flickering of a smile, had meaning and depth in this land.
Was this girl flirting with him, or was hers a deeper interest? That was the question! He took the latter view.
And because he knew, from his own experience, that the hearts of lovers sometimes break at parting, he finally relinquished the cool, small hands and thrust his own deep into his pockets.
There was no good reason, apart from his own selfishness, why he should give a pang of any form to the trustful young heart which fluttered so close at his side.
"Where does your aged grandmother live, small one?" he asked her briskly, in the most unsentimental tones imaginable.
"I have the address here, birahi," she replied, diving into her satin blouse and producing a slip of rice paper upon which was scrawled a number of dead-black symbols of the Chinese written language.
"A rickshaw man can find the place, of course," he said. "Now, look into my eyes, small one, and listen to what I say."
"I listen closely, birahi," said the small one.
"I want you to stop calling me birahi. I am not your love, can never be your love, nor can you ever be mine."
"But why, bi—my brave one?"
"Because—because, I am a wicked one, an orang gila, a destroyer of good, a man of no heart, or worse, a black one."
"Oh, Allah, what lies!" giggled the maid.
"Yes, and a liar, too," declared Peter venomously, permitting his fair features to darken with the blackest of looks. Was she flirting with him? "A man who never told the truth in his life. A bad, bad man," he finished lamely.
"But why are you telling such things to me, my brave one?" came the provocative answer.
She was flirting with him.
Nevertheless, he merely grunted and relapsed again into the form of meditative lethargy which of late had grown habitual if not popular with him.
A little after noon the train thundered into the narrow, dirty streets of China's most flourishing city, geographically, the New Orleans of the Celestial Empire; namely, Canton, on the Pearl River.
As Peter and his somewhat amused young charge emerged into the street he cast a furtive glance back toward the station, and was dumfounded to glimpse, not two yards away, the man with the red, deeply marked face. His blue eyes were ablaze, and he advanced upon Peter threateningly.
It was a situation demanding decisive, direct action. Peter, hastily instructing the girl to hold two rickshaws, leaped at his pursuer with doubled fists, even as the man delved significantly into his hip-pocket.
Peter let him have it squarely on the blunt nub of his red jaw, aiming as he sprang.
His antagonist went down in a cursing heap, sprawling back with the look in his washed-out eyes of a steer which has been hit squarely in the center of the brow.
He fell back on his hands and lay still, dazed, muttering, and struggling to regain the use of his members.
Before he could recover Peter was up and away, springing lightly into the rickshaw. They turned and darted up one narrow, dirty alley into a narrower and dirtier one, the two coolies shouting in blasphemous chorus to clear the way as they advanced.
After a quarter of an hour of twisting and splashing and turning, the coolies stopped in front of a shop of clay-blue stone.
Paying off the coolies, Peter entered, holding the door for the girl, and sliding the bolt as he closed it after her.
He found himself in the presence of a very old, very yellow, and very wrinkled Chinese woman, who smiled upon the two of them perplexedly, nodding and smirking, as her frizzled white pigtail flopped and fluttered about in the clutter on the shelves behind her.
It was a shop for an antique collector to discover, gorged with objects of bronze, of carved sandalwood, of teak, grotesque and very old, of shining red and blue and yellow beads, of old gold and old silver.
On the low, narrow counter she had placed a shallow red tray filled with pearls; imitations, no doubt, but exquisite, perfect, of all shapes; bulbular, pear, button, and of most enticing colors.
But the small girl was babbling, and a look of the most profound surprise came slowly into the old woman's face. A little pearl-like tear sparkled in either of her old eyes, and she gathered this cherished grand-daughter from far away Macassar into her thin arms.
At that sight Peter felt himself out of place, an intruder, an interloper. The scene was not meant for his eyes. He was an alien in a strange land.
As he hesitated, conjuring up words of parting with his little friend, he gasped. Peering through the thick window-pane in the door was the red-faced man, and his look sent a curdle of fear into Peter's brave heart. Would he shoot through the pane?
The girl, too, saw. She chattered a long moment to her wrinkled grandmother, and this latter leaped to the door and shot a second strong bolt. She pointed excitedly to a rear door, low and green, set deep in the blue stone.
Peter leaped toward it. Half opening this, he saw a tiny garden surrounded by low, gray walls. He paused. The maid from Macassar was behind him. She followed him out and closed the door.
"Birahi," she said in her tinkling voice, and with gravity far in advance of her summers, "we must part now—forever?"
He nodded, as he searched the wall for a likely place to jump. "It is the penalty of friendship, birahi. You do not mind if I call you birahi in our last moment together?"
"I am curious, so curious, my brave one, about the red-faced man, and the one with the black coat. But we women are meant for silence. Birahi, I have played no part—I have been like a dead lily—a burden. Perhaps, if you are in great danger——"
"I am in great danger, small one. The red toad wants my life, and you must detain him."
"I will talk to him! But the others, the black-coated one—what of them? They would like the feel of your blood on their hands, too!"
Peter nodded anxiously. He was thinking of Romola Borria.
"I will do anything," declared the maid from Macassar patiently.
"Has your grandmother a sampan, a trustworthy coolie?"
"Aie, birahi! She is rich!"
"Then have that coolie be at the Hong Kong landing stage with his sampan at midnight. Have him wait until morning. If I do not come by dawn he will return immediately to Canton. By dawn, if I am not there, it will mean——"
"Death?" The small voice was tremulous.
"If the fokie returns with that message, you will write a short note——"
"To one you love?"
"To one I love. In America. The name is Eileen Lorimer; the address, Pasadena, California. You will say simply, 'Peter Moore is dead.'"
"Ah! I must not say that. It will break her heart! But you must go now, my brave one. I will talk to the red toad!"
The green door closed softly; and Peter was left to work out the problem of his escape, which he did in an exceedingly short space of time. Even as he took the fence in a single bound he fancied he could hear the panting of the red-faced man at his heels.
He found himself in a crooked alleyway, which forked out of sight at a near-by bend. Speeding to this point, he came out upon a somewhat broader thoroughfare. He looked hastily for a rickshaw but none was in sight.
So he ran blindly on, resorting at intervals to his old trick of doubling back, to confuse his pursuers. He did this so well that before long he had lost his sense of direction, and the sun having gone from the sight of man behind a mass of dark and portentous clouds.
At length he came to the City of the Dead, and sped on past the ivy-covered wall, circling, doubling back, and giving what pursuit there might have been a most tortuous trail to follow.
He was hooted at and jeered at by coolies and shrieking children, but he ran on, putting the miles behind him, and finally dropped into a slow trot, breathing like a spent race-horse.
At the pottery field he found a rickshaw, estimated that he still had time to spare to make the Hong Kong train, and was driven to the station. Dead or alive, he had promised to deliver himself to Romola Borria at the Hong Kong Hotel at seven.
Visions of the malignant face of his red-featured enemy were constantly in his mind.
But he breathed more easily as the train chugged out of the grim, gray station. He sank back in the seat, letting his thoughts wander where they would, and beginning to feel, as the miles were unspun, that he was at least one jump ahead of the red death which had threatened him since his departure from the friendly shelter of the Persian Gulf.
The shadows were lengthening, the sky was of a deeper and vaster blue, when the train came to a creaking stop in the Kowloon Station.
Peter emerged, scanning the passengers warily, but catching not a glimpse of his red-faced enemy. What did that one have in store for him now? This chase was becoming a game of hide-and-seek. But in Hong Kong he would feel safer. Hong Kong was a haunt of civilized men and of able Sikh policemen, who detested the yellow men of China.
He took the ferry-boat across the bay to the city, which rose tier upon tier of white from the purple water; and he made his way afoot to the American consulate.
With auspicious celerity the sad-eyed clerk bowed him into the presence of an elderly gentleman with white side whiskers and an inveterate habit of stroking a long and angular nose.
This personage permitted his shrewd, grave eyes to take in Peter from his blond hair to his tan walking shoes, and with a respectful mien Peter prepared his wits for a sharp and digging cross-examination.
"I have been advised," began the American consul, giving to Peter's blue eyes a look of curiosity in which was mingled not a little unconcealed admiration, as he might have looked upon the person of Pancho Villa, had that other miscreant stepped into his gloomy office—"I have been advised," he repeated importantly, "by the commander of the auxiliary cruiser Buffalo that you contemplated a visit to Hong Kong."
He sank back and stared, and it took Peter several moments to become aware that the content of the remark was not nearly so important as its pronunciation. The remark was somewhat obvious. The American consul desired Peter to make the opening.
Peter inclined his head as he slowly digested the statement.
"I was told by Commander Eckles to report to you," he replied respectfully, "for orders."
The American consul laid his hands firmly upon the edge of the mahogany desk.
"My orders, Mr. Moore, are that you leave China immediately. I trust——"
"Why?" said Peter in a dry voice.
"That is a matter which, unfortunately, I cannot discuss with you. The order comes, I am permitted to inform you, from the highest of diplomatic quarters. To be exact, from Peking, and from the American ambassador, to be more specific."
It was crystal clear to Peter that the American consul was not cognizant of what might be behind those orders from the American ambassador; yet his face, for all of its diplomatic masking, told Peter plainly that the American consul was not entirely averse to learning.
"Have I been interfering with the lawful pursuits of the Chinese Empire?" he inquired ironically.
The American consul stroked his long nose pensively.
"Well—perhaps," he said. "On the whole, that is something you can best explain yourself, Mr. Moore. If you should care to give me your side of the question, ah——"
"I haven't a thing to say," rejoined Peter. "If the United States Government chooses to believe that my presence is inimical to its interests in China——"
"Pressure might have been brought to bear from another quarter."
"Quite so," admitted Peter.
"Now, if you should desire to make me acquainted with your pursuits during the past—ah—few months, let us say, it is within the bounds of possibility that I might somehow rescind this drastic—ah—order. Suffice it to say, that I shall be glad to put my every power at your aid. As you are an American, it is my duty and my pleasure, sir, if you will permit me, to do all within my power, my somewhat restricted power, if I may qualify that statement, to reinstate you in the good graces of those—ah—good gentlemen in Peking."
It was all too evident that, back and beyond the friendly intentions of this official, was a hungry desire for information regarding this young man whose dark activities had been recognized by the high powers to an extent sufficient to set in motion the complicated and bulky wheels of diplomacy.
Peter shook his head respectfully, and the consul permitted his reluctantly admiring and inquisitive gaze to travel up and down the romantic and now international figure.
"I am able to say nothing," he expressed himself quietly. "If the American ambassador has decreed that I ought to go home—home I go! I'll confess right now that I did not intend to go home when I stepped into this office, but I do respect, and I will respect, the authority of that order."
"If the President, for example, should request you to continue—ah—what you have been doing, for the good, let us say, of humanity, you would continue without hesitation, Mr. Moore?"
Peter gave the long, pale face a sharp scrutiny. Did this innocent-faced man know more than he intimated, or was he merely applying the soft, velvet screws of diplomacy, endeavoring to squeeze out a little information?
"I certainly would."
The consul rose, with a bland smile, and extended his hand.
"It has been gratifying to know one who has become such a singular, and, permit me to add, such a trying figure, in diplomatic circles, during the past week. Good-day, sir!"
Peter walked down Desvoeux road in a state of mental detachment. A week! Only a week had passed since he had sailed from Batavia, a week since he had thrown overboard the emissary of the Gray Dragon. He concluded that in more than one way could his presence be dismissed from the land of darkness and distrust.
How had the Gray Dragon brought pressure upon the American ambassador, a man of the highest repute, of sterling and patriotic qualities? The answer seemed to be, that the coils of the Gray Dragon extended everywhere, like an inky fluid which had leaked into every crevice and crack of all Asia.
He was still under orders to pay a visit to J. B. Whalen, the Marconi supervisor. That cross-examination he was glad to postpone.
He called at the office of the Pacific Mail, and found that the King of Asia was due to leave for the United States the following morning at dawn. He made a deposit on a reservation.
The hour lacked a few minutes of seven when Peter ascended in the lift to the second floor of the Hong-Kong Hotel and made his way between the closely packed tables to the Desvoeux Road balcony.
Romola Borria was not yet in evidence.
He selected a table which commanded a view of the entrance, toyed with the menu card, absent-mindedly ordered a Scotch highball, and slowly scrutinized the occupants of the tables in his neighborhood. He felt vaguely annoyed, slightly uneasy, without being able to sift out the cause.
For a moment he regretted his audacity in encountering the curious eyes of Hong Kong society, a society in which there would inevitably be present a number of his enemies. It cannot be denied that a number of eyes studied him leisurely and at some pains, over teacups, wine-glasses, and fans.
But these were for the larger part women, and Peter was more or less immune to the curious, bright-eyed glances of this sex.
His attire was somewhat rakish for the occasion; and it appeared that sarongs were not being sported by the more refined class of male diners, who affected as a mass the sombre black of dinner jackets. At all Hong Kong hotels the custom is evening dress for dinner, and Peter felt shabby and shoddy in his silk suit, his low shoes, his soft collar.
An orchestra of noble proportions struggled effectively in the moist, warm atmosphere somewhere in its concealment behind a distant palm arbor with "Un Peu d'Amour," and also out of Peter's sight, an impassioned and metallic tenor was sobbing:
"Jaw-s-s-st a lee-e-e-edle lof-f-ff— A le-e-e-edle ke-e-e-e-e-e-s—"
And Peter in his perturbation wished that both blatant orchestra and impassioned tenor were concealed behind a sound-proof stone wall.
He was tossing off the dregs of the highball when there occurred a low-voiced murmur at his side, and he arose to confront the pale, worn face of Romola. She gave him her hand limply, and settled down across from him, her eyes darting from table to table, and occasionally nodding rather stiffly and impersonally as she recognized some one.
"You see"—he smiled at her, as she settled back and fostered upon him a look of brooding tenderness—"you see, my dear, I am here, untagged. Nearly twelve hours have passed since you sounded that note of ominous warning. I have yet to feel the thrill, just before I die, of that dagger sliding between my ribs."
She accepted this with a nod almost indifferent.
"Simply because I have persuaded them to extend your parole to one o'clock. If you linger in China, you have—and need I say that the same applies to me—six more hours in which to jest, to laugh, to love—to live!"
"For which I am, as always in the face of favors, duly grateful," said Peter in high humor. "None the less I have this day, since we parted this morning, indulged in one pistol duel between sampans, with one of your admirable confreres——"
"Yes, I heard of that. But it stopped there. You winged his sampan coolie."
"And at the Canton station, if I may be pardoned for contradicting, I encountered the red-faced one. To tell you what you may already know, I punched him in the jaw, dog-gone him!"
She seemed to be distressed.
"You must be mistaken."
Peter shook his head forcibly. "A choleric gentleman born with the habit of reaching for his hip-pocket," he amplified.
She studied him with wide, speculative eyes. "He must be from the north. Some of them I do not know. But all of them have been informed."
"To permit me to live and love until one to-morrow morning?"
The aspiring and perspiring orchestra and the impassioned tenor had again reached the chorus of "Un Peu d'Amour."
"I could ge-e-e-eve you al-l-l my life for the-e-e-e-s—"
"Badly sung, but appropriate," commented Romola Borria.
Peter's countenance became a question mark.
"It may mean that I am giving you all my life for—this," she explained.
"For these few minutes, when we were to chatter, and make love, and be happy?" Peter demanded indignantly. "My dear——" He reached out for her hand, and she let him fondle it, not reluctantly. "I'd give all my life, too, for these few minutes with you. Do you know—you're perfectly adorable to-night! There's something—something irresistible about you—to me!"
"Yes," he said in a deep voice, and sincerely. "I'd come all the way 'round the world, and lay my life at your feet—thus." And he placed his knuckles on the white cloth, as if they were knees.
"Ah! But you don't mean that!"
"When I'm in love, I mean everything!"
"I know. You are fickle. Miss Lorimer—Miss—Vost—Romola—they come, they love, they are gone, quite as fatefully and systematically as life follows death, and death follows life."
"I do wish you wouldn't talk about death in that flippant manner," he gibed, wondering how under the sun he might get her out of this gloomy mood.
"But death is in my mind always—Peter. When you have gone through——"
"Romola, I refuse to be lectured."
"Very well; I refuse to talk of anything but love and death."
"Excellent, my own love! Tell me now how it feels when you are in the heavenly condition."
"Most hopeless, Peter; because death, you see, is so close upon the heels of my love."
"No—my heart. The death of love and the death—of life follow my love. Now I want to pick up the threads of a moment ago. Peter, don't hold my hand. That woman is—staring. You said—you said, you would come away around the world to see me, to help me, possibly, if I were in trouble. You weren't serious."
"Cross my heart!"
"On the Persian Gulf that day—that day I told you something of your recent adventures and your apparently miraculous escapes, I intended to ask you——"
"Seeress, I am all ears——"
"I intended asking you a favor, a most important one, an alternative——"
"The trip to Nara?"
"Yes; an alternative to that. Tell me truly how much at heart you hate the man at Len Yang. Wait. Don't answer me yet. At heart, do you really hate him, as you pretend, or are you simply bowing down to your vanity, to the pride you seem to take in these quixotic deeds? For one thing, there is very little money in what you are doing. If you should approach these adventures a little differently, perhaps, you might put yourself in a position to be rewarded for the troubles you take, the dangers you risk. I mean that."
"I admit I'm not a money hater," frowned Peter, striving without much success to feel her trend.
"It would be so easy for you to make all the money you need in only a few years by—how shall I say it?—by 'being nice.' Wait! I have not finished. You said I was a special emissary from him. You hit the mark more squarely than you thought. Oh, I admit it! I was sent to Batavia to meet you, to intercept you, and, to be quite frank, to ask you your terms."
"Yes. He has observed you. He can use you, and oh!—how badly he wants you and your boldness and that unconquerable fire of yours! He needs you! He wants you, more than any man he has known! And he will pay you! Name your price! A half million gold a year? Bah! It is a drop to him!"
"Don't," begged Peter in a whisper. "Please—don't—go on."
His face had become almost as white as the tablecloth, and his lips were trembling, ashen.
"God! I put my confidence in you, time after time, and each time you show me treachery, deeper, more hideous, than before. Please don't continue. I'm trying, as hard as I know how, to appreciate your position in this wretched mess—and trying to find some excuse for it. For you! And it's hard. Damned, brutally hard. Let's part! Let's forget! Let's be just memories to each other—Romola!"
Her face, too, had lost its color, like life fading from a rose when the stem is snapped. Her hand sought her throat and groped there, as it always did in her moments of nervousness, and she drummed on the cloth with a silver knife. She stared curiously at him, with the other light dying hard.
"Then I can only hope—a slender hope—to bring you back to the favor I asked you originally, and I place that before you now, my request for that favor—my final hope. You cannot refuse that. You cannot! You profess to be chivalrous. Now, let me—test you!"
"Romola, I said no to Nara long ago."
She threw up her head.
"A woman should need to be informed but once that her love is not wanted. This is not what I meant."
"Ah! Another scheme! Your little brain is nothing short of an idea machine. Remarkable! Go on."
"No," she said, rather sullenly, at this flow of bitterness, "a variation of my plan. If you will not accompany me to Nara, then I must go alone. I must have money. Do you understand? I am penniless. The King of Asia leaves for Japan to-morrow, at dawn. I will never return to China. Will you—help me?"
"What do you mean by that? Will I break into the house and help you rob?"
"There is no other way. The money is in a desk, locked. I am not strong enough to break the lock. You can. Then, too, there are some papers of mine——"
"Romola, will this give you the contentment you desire?" he said sternly.
"I—I think so. I hope so."
"Then I will help you."
"Oh, Peter, how can I——"
He lifted his hand. "You see, my dear, you can't frighten me—easily. You can't bribe me, Romola. But you can appeal to my weakness——"
"A woman in distress—your weakness!" But there was no mockery in either her voice or her eyes. It was more like a whisper of regret.
"Romola, will you answer a question?"
"Why are beautiful women—girls—from all parts of the world stolen—to work in that mine?"
Romola looked at him queerly. "I do not know, Peter."
They attacked the dinner, and by deft stages Peter led the conversation to a lighter vein. It was nearly ten when they left, the dining-room was all but deserted and they departed in high spirits, her arm within his, her smile happy and apparently genuine.
"We must wait until midnight," she informed him. "He will be asleep; the servants will have retired."
Peter suggested a rickshaw ride through the Chinese city to while away the hours in between, but the girl demurred, and amended the suggestion to a street-car ride to Causeway Bay. He consented, and they caught a car in front of the hotel, and climbed to seats on the roof.
He felt gay, excited by the thrill of their impending danger. She was moody. In the bright moonlight on the crystal beach at Causeway Bay he tried to make her dance with him. But she pushed his arms away, and Peter, suddenly feeling the weight of some dark influence, he knew not what, fell silent, and they rode back to the base of the peak road having very little to say.
At a few minutes past midnight they alighted from sedan chairs in the hairpin trail beside the incline railway station at the peak, and as they faced each other, the moon, white and gaunt, slipped from sight behind a billowing black cloud, and the heavens were black and the night was dark around them.
She took his arm, leading him past the murky walls of the old fort, and on up and up the sloping, rocky road, dimly revealed at intervals by points of mysterious light.
They came at length to a high, black hedge, and, groping cautiously along this for a number of yards, found a ragged cleft. He held the branches aside while she climbed through with a faint rustle of silken underskirts. He followed after.
By the dim, ghostly glow of the clouds behind which the moon was floating he made out ominous shapes, scrawny trees and low, stunted bushes.
Hand in hand, with his heart beating very loudly and his breath burning dry in his throat, they approached the desolate, gloomy house—her home!
A low veranda, perhaps a sun-parlor, extended along the wing, and toward this slight elevation the girl stealthily led him, without so much as the cracking of a dry twig underfoot, peering from left to right for indications that their visit was betrayed.
But the house was still, and large and gloomy, and as silent as the halls of death.
They climbed upon the low veranda. The girl ran her fingers along the French window which gave upon the hedged enclosure, and drew back upon greased hinges the window, slowly, inch by inch, until it yawned, wide open.
He followed her into a room, dark as black velvet, weighted with the indescribable, musty odors of an Oriental abode, and possessed of an almost sensuous gloom, a mystic dreariness, a largeness which knew no dimensions.
As Peter cautiously advanced he was impressed, almost startled, by the sense of vastness, and he was aware of great, looming proportions.
Close at hand a clock ticked, slowly, drearily, as if the release of each metallic click of the ancient cogs were to be the last, beating like the rattling heart of a man in the arms of death. This noise, like a great clatter, seemed to fill all space.
And he was alone.
Suddenly a yellow light glowed in the dark recesses of the high ceiling, and Peter sprang back with his hand on the instant inside his coat, where depended in its leather shoulder-sling the automatic.
Across the great room the girl raised a steady hand, indicating a desk of gigantic size, of ironwood or lignum-vitae.
He found himself occupying the center of an enormous mandarin rug, with letterings and grotesque designs in rich blood-reds, and blues and yellows and browns. He gave the room a moment's survey before falling to the task.
The walls of this cavern were of satin, priceless rugs, which hung without a quiver in the breathless gloom. Massive furniture, chairs, tables, settees, of teak, of ebony and dark mahogany, with deep carvings, glaring gargoyles and hideous masks, were arranged with an apparent lack of plan.
And against the far wall, with a face like the gibbous moon, stood a massive clock of carved rosewood, clacking ponderously, almost painfully, as if each tick were to be its last.
Peter crouched before the desk, examining the heavy lock on the drawer, and accepted from the girl's hand a tool, a thick, short, blunt chisel. He inserted the blunt edge of this instrument in the narrow crack, and——
A muffled sob, a moan, a stifled cry!
He sprang to his feet, with his hand diving into his coat, and the fingers he wrapped about the butt of the automatic were as cold as ice.
Romola Borria was cringing, shrinking as if to efface herself from a terrible scene, against the French window, and staring at him with a look of wild imploration, of horror, of—death!
From three unwavering spots along the wall to his left glittered the blue muzzles of revolvers!
Peter dropped to his knees, leaped backward, pointed by instinct, and fired at the lone yellow light in the ceiling.
Darkness. An unseen body moved. Metal rattled distantly upon wood. And metal clanked upon metal. Darkness, black as the grave, and as ominous.
A white, round spot remained fixed upon his retina, slowly fading. The face of the clock. The hands, like black daggers, had pointed to ten minutes of one. Ten minutes of life! Ten minutes to live! Or—less?
Silence, broken only by the reluctant click-clack, click-clack of the rosewood clock.
If he could reach the window! Then a low, convulsed sobbing occurred close to his ear. The girl groped for his arm. She was shaking, shaking so that his arm trembled under it.
"Your final card!" he whispered. "The final trick! God! Now, damn you, get me out of this!"
"I can't. I—I—— Oh, God! Kill me! I gave you every chance. They forced me—forced me to bring you here. They would have strangled me, just as they strangled the other!" She seemed to steady herself while he listened in growing horror.
"Safe!" he groaned. "Safety for you. Death—for me! You—you led me into their hands, and I—I trusted you. I trusted you!"
She laid a cold, moist hand over his lips, this devil-woman.
"Hush! If they, if he, so much as guessed that I cared for you, that I loved you, it would mean my death. I was forced—forced to bring you here. Don't you understand? And if he even guessed. But you had your chance. You had your chance!"
Almost hysterically she was endeavoring to extenuate her crime, her treason.
"Stand up and face them. Meet your death! Escape is—impossible! Impossible! They are watching you like a rat. In a moment they know you can stand this strain no longer! Face them, I say! Show them that——"
Peter pushed her away from him in loathing, and she lay still, only whimpering.
Yet the devils of darkness—where were they? And slowly, yet more slowly, the rosewood clock ticked off its seconds. It should be nearly one. At one——
A fighting chance?
On his hands and knees he crouched, and began crawling, an inch at a time, toward the French window, dragging the automatic over the thick satin carpet. He reached the window. It was still ajar. Far, far below twinkled the lights of Hong Kong, of ships anchored in the bay, and the glitter of Kowloon across the bay. Out there was life!
A board creaked near him, toward the heart of that darkened vault. He spun about, aimed blindly, fired!
The floor shook as an unseen shape collapsed and writhed within reach of his hand. In his grasp, was the oily, thick queue of a coolie.
And suddenly, as he groped, the wall spat out angry tongues of corrosive red flame.
A white-hot iron seemed to shoot through the flesh of his left arm. The pain reached his shoulder. His left arm was useless—the bone cracked!
Groaning, he pushed himself back. His knees struck the sill, slid over, and he felt the coarse, peeled paint of the veranda. He reached the ledge—dropped to the ground, and in dropping, the revolver spilled from his hand as it caught on a projecting ledge of the floor, bounded off into the darkness.
He groveled to retrieve it, muttering as his hands probed through the tufted grass.
Light glimmered in the room above. There occurred sounds of a struggle, of feet scraping, a muffled oath, a short scream.
Peter leaped back, looking up, prepared to dash for the road.
A yellow light within the room silhouetted the slender figure of Romola Borria against the French window. Her arms went out in frantic appeal to the darkness, to him.
"Wait!" she cried in an awful voice. "I love you! Wait!"
At that confession, a hand seemingly suspended in space was elevated slowly behind her. The hand paused high above her head. A face appeared in the luminous space above her head, an evil face, carved with a hideous brutality, wearing an ominous snarl; and above the writhing lips of this one was a black growth, a mustache, pointed, like twin black daggers.
Emiguel Borria, ardent tool of the Gray Dragon? Emiguel Borria, husband of the girl Romola?
Emiguel Borria, in whose lifting hand Peter now caught the glint of a revolver, attempted to crowd the girl to one side. But she held her ground, and then this woman who had on a half-dozen successive occasions tricked and deceived Peter, who had deliberately and on her own confession lured him into this trap, upset, womanlike, the elaborate plan of her master.
In a frenzy she spun upon Emiguel Borria, seized the white barrel of the revolver in her two hands and forced it against his side. Tiny red flames spurted out on either side of the cylinder and smeared in a smoky circle where the muzzle was momentarily buried in the tangled black coat. And Emiguel Borria seemed to sink into the great room and entirely out of Peter's sight.
Romola leaned far into the darkness.
"Run! Run! For your life!"
And as Peter started to run, out of the compound for the dubious safety of the cloistered road, other men of the Gray Dragon, posted for such a contingency, let loose a shower of bullets from adjoining windows.
But the gods were for the time being on the side of Peter. These shots all went wild.
Shuddering, with teeth chattering and eyes popping, Peter dove through the matted hedge, dashed into the street, and down the street, lighted at intervals with its pin-points of mysterious light.
He came to the incline station, and his footsteps seemed weighted, dragging. And the clock in the station, as he dashed past, showed one o'clock.
He plunged down the first sharp twist of the hair-pin trail, fell, picked himself up dusty and dizzy, with his left arm swinging grotesquely as he ran.
And behind him, riding like the dawn wind, he seemed to feel the presence of a companion, of a silent rickshaw which rattled with a grisly occupant; and a voice, the voice of Romola Borria, shrill and terrible in his ear, cried: "Wait! Oh, wait!"
But the spectre was more real than Peter could imagine.
It was quite awful, quite absurd, the way Peter stumbled and plunged and fell and stumbled on down the hill; past the reservoirs which glittered greenly under their guardian lights.
How he managed to reach Queen's Road in that dreadful state I cannot describe. He dashed down the center of the deserted road, with rudely awakened Sikhs calling excitedly upon Allah, to stop, to stop!
But on he sped, straight down the center of the mud roadway, past the Hong Kong Hotel, now darkened for the night, and past the bund.
Would the sampan be waiting? Otherwise he was now bolting headlong upon the waiting knives of the Gray Dragon's men. No sampan in the whole of Victoria Harbor was safe to-night, but one. Would the one be waiting? Upon that single hope he was staking his safety, his dash for life.
He sped out upon the jetty.
Where could he seek refuge? The Persian Gulf? The King of Asia? The transpacific liner lay far out in a pool of great black, glittering under sharp, white arc-lights forward and aft as cargo was lifted from obscure lighters and stowed into her capacious hold.
Yet he must go quickly, for in all China there was no safety for him this night.
A shadow leaped out upon the jetty close upon his heels. But Peter did not see this ghost.
The sampan coolie, asleep upon the small foredeck of his home, shivered and muttered in his strange dreams. By his garb and by the richness of the large sampan's upholsterings Peter guessed this to be the craft sent to him by the small Chinese girl.
Peter leaped aboard, awakening the fokie with a cry.
Dark knobs arose from the low cabin hatchway, and by the yellow lamps of the jetty Peter made these out to be the heads of the maid from Macassar and her old grandmother.
A dong was burning in the cabin, and Peter followed the girl into the small cabin of scrubbed and polished teak, while the old woman gibbered in sharp command to the fokie.
Crouching like a beast at last cornered, Peter, by the shooting rays of the dong, glared dazedly into an angry red face, a face that was limned and pounded by the elements, from which stared two blue, bloodshot eyes.
The girl said nothing as she nestled at his side, and Peter permitted his head to sink between his hands.
Yet, strange to say, the red-faced man did not fire, made no motion of stabbing him.
Peter looked up, snarling defiance.
"You've got me cornered," he whispered harshly. "It's after one o'clock. The parole is up. Why prolong the agony? Damn you, I'm unarmed!" He shut his eyes again.
Again there was no premonitory click, no seep of steel upon scabbard.
The red-faced man seized his shoulder, shook him.
"Say, you young prize-fighter," he sputtered, "you drunk? Crazy? Or just temporarily off your nut? Who in thunder said anything about prolonging the agony? What agony are you talking about? Why the devil 've you been dodging me all over South China to-day? You dog-gone young wildcat, you! I've got an assignment for you. The King of Asia's wireless man is laid up in the Peak Hospital with typhoid. I want you to take her back to Frisco! Blast your young hide, anyhow!"
The wizen face of the girl's grandmother appeared in the hatchway. She seemed annoyed, angry. She said something in the Cantonese dialect, which Peter did not understand.
"A sampan is following," translated the girl in her tiny voice, "but we are nearly there. In a moment you will be safe."
"Where?" demanded Peter, staring over the red-faced man's shoulder for a glimpse of the other sampan.
"The King of Asia," she told him. "In a moment, birahi, in a moment."
Her tones were those of a little mother.
But Peter was staring anxiously into the red face, trying to decipher an explanation.
"I told the red-faced one to be here, too, at midnight," the girl was whispering in his ear. "He came. He is a friend. Your fears were wrong, birahi."
The sampan lurched, scraping and tapping along a surface rough and metallic.
The yellow face of the old woman again appeared in the hatchway. A bar of keen, white light thrust its way into the cabin. It came from somewhere above. No longer could Peter hear the groan and swish of the sweep, and the cabin no longer keeled from side to side. He guessed that the sampan was alongside.
The old woman motioned for him to come out.
"I am not coming aboard; I am going back to my hotel," said the red-faced man. "You will not leave this ship? You will promise me that?"
"I will promise," said Peter gravely. "You, I presume, are Mr. J. B. Whalen, the Marconi supervisor?"
The red-faced man nodded. As if by some prearranged plan, Whalen, after slight hesitation, climbed out of the cabin, leaving Peter alone with this very small, very gentle benefactor of his. He wanted to thank her, and he tried. But she put her fingers over his lips.
"You are going to the one you love, birahi," she said in her tinkling little voice. "Before we part, I want you—I want you to——" and she hesitated. "Come now, my brave one," she added with an attempt at briskness. "You must go. Hurry!"
Peter found the side ladder of the King of Asia dangling from the upper glow of the liner's high deck. He put his foot on the lower rung and paused. A vast number of apologies, of thanks and good-byes demanded utterance, but he felt confused. The slight relaxation of the past few minutes had left him exhausted, and his brain was encased in fog.
He remembered that the little maid from Macassar had wanted him to do something, possibly some favor. The glow high above him seemed to swim. His injured arm was beginning to throb with a low and persistent pain. And the climb to the deck seemed a tremendous undertaking.
"You were saying," he began huskily, as she reached out to steady the ladder. "You wanted me——"
"Just this, my brave one." And she reached up on tiptoes and kissed him ever so lightly upon his lips. "When you think of me, birahi, close your eyes and dream. For I—I might have loved you!"
Half-way up the black precipice, Peter stopped and looked down. For a moment his befuddled senses refused to register what now occupied the space at the ladder's end.
The sampan was no longer there; another had taken its place, a sampan long and as black as the night which encompassed it.
Wide, dark eyes stared up across the space into his, and these were set in a chalky-white face, grim, fearful—startling!
It was Romola Borria. Her white arms were upheld in a gesture of entreaty. Her lips were moving.
Peter descended a step, and stopped, swaying slightly.
"What—what——" he began.
"He is dead!" came the whisper from the small deck. "I killed him! I killed him! Do you hear me? I am free! Free! Why do you stare at me so? I am ready to go. But you must ask me! I will not follow you. I will not!"
And Peter, clutching with a sick and sinking feeling at the hard rope, found that his lips and tongue were working, but that no sound other than a dull muttering issued from his mouth. Momentarily he was dumb—paralyzed.
"I am not a tool of the Gray Dragon," went on the vehement whisper. "I am not!"
And to Peter came full realization that Romola Borria was lying, or endeavoring to trick him, for the last time.
"Go back—there," he managed to stammer at last. "Go back! I won't have you! I'm through with this damned place."
Painfully he climbed up a few rungs.
Then the voice of Romola, no longer a whisper, but loud, broken, despairing, came to him for the last time:
"You are leaving me—leaving me—for her—for Eileen!"
Peter made no reply. He continued his laborious climb; first one foot, then a groping few inches upward along the hard rope with his right hand, and then the other foot. Nor did he once again look down.
He finally gained the deck. It was blazing with incandescent and arc-lights. Under-officers and deckhands were pacing about, giving attention to the loading. Donkey engines hissed, coughed, and rattled, as the yellow booms creaked out, up and in with their snares of bales and crates which vanished like swooping birds of prey into the noisy hatchways.
Peter took in the bustling scene with a long sigh of relief. He still heard that lonely, anguished voice; the black sampan still rested on his eyes, heaving on the flood tide upon which the great ship strained, as if eager to be gone. And out there—out there—beyond the black heart of mystery and the night, was the clean dawn—the rain-washed spaces of the shimmering sea.
But he could not look down again. He would not. For a while—or forever—he had had his fill of China. Before him now lay the freedom of the open sea, the sunshine of life—and his homeland!
Peter the Brazen had drunk all too indulgently at the bitter fountain.
In the months which had passed since their romantic parting on the bund at Shanghai, Peter the Brazen had founded all of his roseate notions of Eileen Lorimer upon the one-sided data furnished by those spirited few hours.
He had thought of her as a lonely little creature, sole inhabitant of a world apart, to which he would some time go and claim her.
He had not taken into his calculations at any time such prosaic objects as parents, brothers, sisters, and, more vital than all, other young men who might have found the same qualities in Eileen to adore as had attracted and bound him.
When, from a long-distance telephone-booth in the Hotel St. Francis, he finally was connected with the Lorimer residence in Pasadena, it was to hear the gruff, masculine accents of a person who claimed to be her father, and who was brusque and impulsive in his inquiries regarding Peter's identity.
Peter did not know, or realize, that Mr. Lorimer would have willingly cut off his right hand for the young man who had restored his daughter to him nearly a year before. He was simply struck more or less dumb, with a schoolboy sort of feeling, when he was aware that, five hundred miles overland, a gruff father wanted righteously to know his business.
By adroit parrying, without giving out his identity, Peter at length secured the information he wanted. Romola Borria had been truthful; Eileen was attending the university at San Friole.
With her San Friole address jotted down in the back of his red note-book, Peter endeavored to be connected with Miss Lorimer by telephone. After a trying pause the long-distance operator advised him that the residence in question did not possess a telephone.
Quartering what remained of his capital by the costly Pasadena call, Peter resorted to the telegraph stand, and waited in the lobby for an answer.
The first of the several bits of unpalatable news he was to be given during the day was delivered to him as he waited, when, unnoticed at first, a Chinese gentleman, a Mr. San Toy Fong, a passenger from Shanghai on the King of Asia, came out of the dining-room and occupied a chair at his side, cordially and candidly revealing an identity which Peter had suspected during the entire voyage.
"Mr. Moore," the emissary began in a low, confident voice, "I am returning to China to-night on the Chenyo Maru. Before I sail, if there is some message——"
Peter shook a slow decision. "I'm through with China, through with Len Yang, through with wireless. I intend settling down on my little ranch near Santa Cruz. That may save your trailers annoyance."
The polished Chinese gentleman smiled. "Evidently you are not aware that your little ranch is no longer in your possession. You see, Mr. Moore, when we are interested in a person, we take pains to exhaust the tiniest details. Your ranch was sold about three months ago; in a moment of absent-mindedness, perhaps, you neglected to pay the taxes. However, if you but say the word——"
"Thank you," Peter headed him off in a tired and indifferent voice. "You've saved me a trip for nothing. After all, the property is probably better off in other hands. Now I have nothing in the world to worry about but myself. Bon voyage, Mr. Fong! And my respects to——"
But San Toy Fong had departed.
After an exasperating wait, a bell-boy brought to Peter a telegraphic reply to his San Friole message, which read:
"Take the twelve-thirty train. Will meet you at station."
And it was signed by Eileen Lorimer.
Peter was again conscious of his diminishing funds when he peeled off a bill at the railroad ticket-window and paid the round-trip fare. But any thoughts upon his possible financial embarrassment were set aside as the train rolled out into the open country, and his mind pictured his reception at the hands of the young woman who meant quite as much to him as life.
He pictured a dozen greetings, each different and each the same, with Eileen in every case weeping with joy at beholding him, and wrapping her slim, warm arms about his neck.
He became more nervous and excited as the villages passed by, and presently the trim concrete structure lettered in gold and black as San Friole came into sight around a curve.
Alighting, he gave his grips to a boy with instructions to have them checked; and he looked eagerly among the crowd of students for the lovely face of Eileen.
At length he discovered her, and simultaneously she must have discovered him; for she elbowed her way through the mob, flushed and breathless, and seized his hands, looking at him with eyes that seemed to glow.
And to Peter the Brazen she was quite the same Eileen as the girl of a year ago; no older, and quite as lovely, with the same pretty flush in her cheeks, the same rosebud mouth, the same sweet and lovable expression.
The little speech he had prepared on the train would not leave his lips; and he could only look, with the color heating his cheeks, as Eileen smiled tenderly and a little meekly, as she had smiled when they parted at the consulate in Shanghai over a year before.
He began to realize, even as he considered and reconsidered his motive, that she was mutely begging him not to kiss her at this time. Perhaps the pressure of her fingers, a subtle pressure away from her instead of toward her, gave him this understanding.
He became aware gradually of another presence, as he was jostled from this side to that by other new arrivals, conscious of the sidelong look that Eileen was giving another man.
With a slight feeling of resentment, Peter examined this interloper, finding himself gazing into the unfriendly, tanned face of a man of about his own age, with keen, sharp, brown eyes, a dimple in his chin, and a thick, blue book under his arm. Through a maze Peter heard his name spoken, then the words "Professor Hodgson;" and he found himself shaking hands briskly with the invader.
Then Peter excused himself, returning with the baggage-checks, and he discovered both Eileen and Professor Hodgson examining him with the frank curiosity that one might bestow upon some wandering minstrel, a foreigner, an alien. He felt, as the odd member of any triangle is sure to feel, that he was a lone bird; that Eileen and her glowering professor were drawn together by some bond unknown to him, but whose nature he warmly resented.
And thus began the crumbling of the rosy crystalline little world that Peter had created for the sole occupation of Eileen Lorimer.
As the three walked slowly down the station platform, he felt the tension, the exaggerated repugnance, which any outdone suitor is bound to feel toward his successful rival. He felt sick and useless, and somehow he wished he was back aboard the train again. He had blown his dream-bubble, rapturously contemplating the shining, dancing, multicolored surface as it expanded and became of size. And this bubble had been rudely pricked.
He felt Eileen's light hand upon his arm, and he heard her voice suddenly become weighted with feminine importance. She was saying:
"Mr. Moore and I have a great deal to talk over. You will excuse me, won't you, until to-night?"
Professor Hodgson, frowning, nodded courteously. "Perhaps Mr. Moore would like to go, if he cares to stag it. I'm afraid every girl in town has been invited by now."
"Stag what?" queried Peter in a dry voice.
"There's to be a St. Valentine's ball to-night," enthused the girl. "St. Valentine's Day is the fourteenth, you know. I'm sure you'd enjoy it! You'll go, won't you?"
"But—but——" stammered Peter. "I had hoped that you and I could spend the evening by ourselves."
"Oh, but I couldn't do that!" cried Eileen, with reproach in her big, gray eyes. "Professor Hodgson invited me ages ago! Can't we talk this afternoon and to-morrow. I'll cut classes all day. Please go! I'll give you every other dance! The professor won't mind. He's an old dear!"
The old dear frowned a shade more darkly, and Peter derived some encouragement from the sign.
"I'll go on that condition," said Peter gaily. "Every other dance with Miss Lorimer!"
"That's fine!" Professor Hodgson rejoined. "Have you a costume?"
"Your wireless uniform!" cried Eileen. "You look wonderful in that!"
Professor Hodgson was preparing to remove his dour look from their vicinity. "I'll be around at eight," he said. "See you later, Mr. Moore."
"So-long!" Peter retorted affably, and Eileen squeezed his arm ever so lightly.
"I want to talk to you all afternoon!" she declared with her adorable smile, when the professor was out of earshot. "Shall we take a car-ride?"
They climbed into the front seat of an open car, and Peter was glad when the girl linked her arm through his and snuggled close to his side.
"I want you to tell me everything from the very beginning," she said with a bright smile. "I want to know why you left me so suddenly in Shanghai. I had a hundred questions to ask. You were mean!"
"You can begin wherever you please," said Peter amiably.
"Then, why," demanded Eileen, giving him a hungry little look, "didn't you let me stay in Shanghai?"
"Because I was in love with you," Peter replied abruptly. "You were in danger. So was I. I wanted to get you out of China as quickly as possible, because, you see, my dear, the man who had his agents kidnap you, and who was having you transported to China on the Vandalia, would have recaptured you without difficulty. Do you mind if I tell you, Eileen, that it broke my heart when I realized that we wouldn't see one another for goodness knows how long a time?"
Eileen glanced pensively at the green lawns and the flower-gardens which flowed past the car, and her eyes returned to his face with a question in them. Her hand snuggled into his.
"Tell me the truth, Peter. You thought I was just an innocent, helpless little thing, now didn't you? You said to yourself, 'I'll get myself into all sorts of trouble with her on my hands.' Didn't you say that to yourself, Peter?"
"I did. You're right. You were not made for that place. If you'll let me, I'll tell you what you were made for."
"You needn't," said Eileen with a sigh. "Because I know. You are going to tell me that I am just the right size for a bungalow for two, of which you are the second, and that I need some big man like yourself to have around, to shield and protect me, to smooth and round off the sharp corners of this harsh old life."
"How did you guess?" gasped Peter.
"Maybe your eyes said that when you told me to go home that day, and maybe other men have told me the same thing! Anyway, that is what you have come here to tell me—or haven't you?—that you are all ready now to leave behind the terribly wicked and adventurous life you've been leading, and settle down, and live respectably forever after! Isn't that the truth?"
"You're something of a mind-reader."
"No, I'm not. But I have sense. Peter, I still think, just as I thought that terrible night when you slid down the rope from the Vandalia with me dangling from your neck, that dreadful night on the Whang-poo in the fog, that you're the finest and bravest man on earth. That's why I let you make love to me on the bund; because—well, because I wanted you to come back!"
"In return," Peter responded with enthusiasm, "I have kept you next to my heart all of that time, thinking of you every time I felt discouraged, looking upon you always as a refuge, exactly as you say, when China got the best of me."
"Has China got the best of you, Peter?"
"It has! I was chased out of the Yellow Empire with a broken arm, by agents of the same man who tried to kidnap you. I removed the splints only this morning. Since I saw you, I have paid a visit to the dreadful red city where you were being taken, escaped, and made my way through India and the Straits Settlements and back to Hong Kong."
"And they shot you!"
He nodded, and she shivered again, while the fingers against his palm stirred.
"I've put China behind me forever, I hope, and now, a little older, a little wiser, and very weary, I've come to lay the same worthless old heart at your dear little feet!"
"And the worthless old feet will have to kick the dear, big heart aside," said Eileen sadly. "Oh, Peter," she exclaimed, suddenly contrite as she saw the look of pain that came into his face, "you know I wouldn't hurt you for anything in the world! But I am in earnest, deadly in earnest, Peter! I refuse positively to have you consider me any longer as a poor, helpless, clinging little thing, made only to be petted and protected! I'm not like that, Peter! If you'd only written, I would have told you. You're not afraid of anything in the world; nor am I! I love adventure quite as much as you do, Peter, and the moment you told me, back there in Shanghai, that I must hurry home because it wasn't safe, I made up my mind that I would equip myself to go into some of those wonderful adventures with you! Professor Hodgson, the Chinese language professor, is an expert shot with a revolver, and I've wheedled him into giving me lessons. That's for self-protection. Then the Japanese woman who is general chambermaid in my rooming-house is teaching me jiu-jitsu.
"In addition to that, I'm studying for a doctor's degree. When the course is finished I am going to join you in China. We'll invade that dreadful mining city alone, just you and I, and we'll make it the most wonderful place in China! You see, Peter, I intend to be a medical missionary; and you won't have to worry your dear old brain about me the least bit. If you won't take me, I'll go by myself!"
"Sweetheart," Peter declared with difficulty, "you are talking through your hat!"
She shrugged and smiled. "Won't you take me?"
"You know I'd fetch you the man in the moon if you wanted him badly enough!"
"And you'll get that silly old notion of a bungalow for two out of your head?"
"I'll try. It will be a hard job. And, Eileen——"
"You don't care about this Professor Hodgson, do you?"
"Oh, no, Peter! Once or twice he's tried to make love, and you could see, couldn't you, how furious he was when we left him?"
"I thought my goose was cooked," sighed Peter.
"Silly old goose!" said Eileen, squeezing his thumb.
With shaken but immeasurably higher notions of this girl, whose appealing gray eyes suffocated him with longing, Peter helped his charge to alight when the end of the car line was reached, and at her suggestion they tramped through the blossoming California fields, back to the village, talking seriously most of the way upon that ardent subject which lay warmly upon both of their young hearts.
There was a noticeable ripple when Eileen Lorimer walked into the ballroom that evening in the winsome attire of a Quaker maid, with Professor Hodgson, as Pierrot, on one side, and the tall, commanding figure of Peter the Brazen, in a spick-and-span white-and-gold uniform of the Pacific Mail Line, on the other.
For Peter the Brazen, in any garb, was that type of man at whom any normal woman would have looked twice—or, if only once, just twice as long.
Knotted about his lean waist was a flaunting blue sarong. The sarong gave to his straight, white figure the deft touch of romance. It verified the adventurous blue of his deep-set eyes, and the stubborn outward thrust of his tanned, smooth-shaven jaw.
When the young women of Eileen's acquaintance, to whom had been whispered some of the details of this man's thrilling past, crowded about for introductions, Peter had little difficulty in filling the remaining half of his program.
And when the music started for the second event Peter recovered his flushed and glowing Quaker maiden from the reluctant arms of Professor Hodgson, upon whom had fallen, like a dark shroud, a gloom heavy and profound, and the man who had that morning said good-by forever to China and the wireless game and to ships and the sea, found himself floating in and out upon a sea of gold, with a sprite from elf-land dazzling him with her rosebud smile.
He would have liked to shock their beholders then and there by kissing her squarely upon that smile! And all the while, from the side line, Professor Hodgson, the professor of Chinese, watched their every movement with a face as long and as gray as an alley in the fog.
A little later in the evening, when Peter looked for his partner, a Miss Somebody or Other, whose penciled name had been smudged on his program so that it had become an unintelligible blue, he looked in vain.
He looked then among the dancers for the face of his Quaker maiden, and, unable to see her in the syncopating throng, elected to hunt for her, despite the known fact that she was in the company of his defeated rival, the professor.
Peter searched the refreshment room futilely, and decided that the pair had probably retired to the palm garden, where Eileen was possibly engaged to the best of her ability in soothing the ruffled feelings of her revolver and Chinese instructor.
As Peter parted the golden velvet hangings which shrouded the entrance to the dimly lighted conservatory, he espied a half-dozen couples disposed on as many small benches under the drooping fronds in varied attitudes of tete-a-tete.
The curtains fell in alignment behind him; he caught the angry glare of two brown eyes from a bench, and realized that Eileen's versatile professor was not yet pacified. At Professor Hodgson's side, with her back toward Peter, was a young woman attired in Quaker costume. Her head was not intimately close to that of the young professor; but it was close.
As Peter started to cross the waxed floor to her side, he saw Hodgson's head dip low; saw the girl apparently yield herself into his arms; and as Peter stopped, stock-still, he saw the long arms of the professor wrap themselves about the slim shoulders, drawing the hidden face toward him until the lips met his.
In that dreadful instant the heart of Peter the Brazen deliberately skipped a beat. Black swam into his eyes, and he trembled, then became stiff, as his gaze was glued to that ghastly pantomime. He hesitated, then leaped across the intervening distance.
Both Eileen and her professor leaped up.
Her face was white, and her fingers clutched in convulsion at her throat; but Peter's face was equally as white and strained as hers.
He stared in pain and utter disbelief, while a smile slowly crept over the features of Eileen's professor. She seemed about to faint, and sank back, with eyes tightly closed, against Hodgson's breast.
Peter tried to speak, but a moment passed before he could find words.
"Eileen—Eileen," he muttered, "you said—you told me—oh, God!"
He wheeled and dashed out of the hall, as he proposed to dash out of her life, with terrible, sinking thoughts in his brain, and his heart pounding dismally against his ribs. He recovered his coat and hat in the cloak-room.
Hardly had he vanished than Eileen, recovering slowly from her daze, sprang after. But Hodgson detained her, gripping her arm.
She seemed to realize for the first time what had been done, and to the profound astonishment of the several round-eyed couples, she wiped her hand fiercely across her mouth, the recent repository of the professor's sudden and unexpected kiss.
"You—beast!" she stammered. "You—you saw him come in! How dared you! How dared you! I thought you were a—gentleman—you—you beast!"
Her professor merely grinned, as though the tragedy were a comedy of the most amusing order.
"One stolen kiss——" he chuckled.
And Eileen slapped him smartly across the mouth. She started to bolt for the door, but he dragged her back, clinging to her struggling hand. "You—one of that band!" she cried.
"Oh, let me apologize," he laughed, rubbing the red mark about his mouth with his free hand. "If your hero resents my robbing him of one stingy, little kiss—— Band? What band?" But there was no question in his eyes.
"Stop him!" cried Eileen shrilly. "Oh, please, somebody call him back!"
A sophomore, always willing to aid a lady in distress, sprang to the chase, and Eileen, breaking loose, stumbled after him out upon the dance floor. A waltz was under way, and the floor was jammed.
They tried to break through, but were thrust aside by laughing dancers, who seemed to take this to be a new and diverting game.
They tried again, and now Professor Hodgson, smiling blandly, came upon the scene and interposed further interference. Dodging past him and narrowly avoiding collision with a whirling couple close to the wall, Eileen scurried down the side in the direction of the cloakroom, with big, hot tears burning down her flushed cheeks.
When she reached the cloak-room she searched it in anxious haste for the Marconi cap, the light-blue overcoat. Both were missing.
With the sophomore atow, and conscious of the romantic nature of his errand, she ran into the moonlit street, looking up and down the black-shadowed sidewalk for signs of the straight, tall figure.
Down the street, perhaps a quarter of a mile distant, she made out the motionless streamer of lights of a train, the San Francisco train.
With her gray Quaker dress flapping, and the clutter of white petticoats hindering the rhythm of her knees and ankles, Eileen sped down the middle of the road with the excited sophomore bringing up a mad rear.
The fate of her life lay in the train's waiting. She knew what Peter Moore would do. And if she could not stop him, she would be nothing less than his murderer. Had the evidences of her apparent infidelity been less damning she knew that Peter Moore would have waited, would have listened to her explanation, and believed her.
If she could only reach the train, she could tell him, could compel him to wait, and thereupon have it out with that cad Hodgson. It would be folly to pursue by later train, because Peter, as was customary with that young philanderer, had neglected to leave his forwarding address.
But Eileen never reached the train. The engine screamed scornfully when she was less than a block distant. The red and green tail-lights were dwindling away along the throbbing rails when she arrived at the station.
The night had swallowed up her love and her high hopes. Before long, miles, and thousands of miles, would soon stretch between her and her lover.
With a broken sob she wilted upon the station steps, while the sophomore stood awkwardly above her, bursting with questions, misty-eyed with youthful sympathy and fidgeting in acute discomfort.
And thus was Peter the Brazen swept out of her life and into his next adventure.
At about five o'clock the next afternoon Peter, in his hotel bedroom, called for a pitcher of ice-water, the major portion of which he disposed of before considering the next move.
Afternoon sunlight, entering by the single large window, mapped out a radiant oblong of red on the heavy carpet. The long, insolent shriek of a taxicab arose from the square. The bedroom was redolent of the sour odor of last night's cigarette smoke. He had forgotten, for perhaps the first time in his memory, to throw open the window upon retiring. As he arose stiffly from the bed an empty brown bottle bounded to the floor with a thump, and the latter riotous portion of last evening came slowly back to him. He had decided to do something. What had he made up his mind to do? He sat down on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands and frowned. He remembered now.
He was going back to China!
With a throbbing head and a recurrence of the sticky feeling in his mouth, he stripped off his pajamas, went into the bath-room, and shivered and grunted under an icy shower for five minutes, by which time some of the despondency which last night's affair had brought over him was shaken, his headache was loosened a bit, his wits were more clearly in hand, and the warm blood was shooting through him.