After a brisk rub-down he dressed quickly—he had barely had time enough to recover his suit-cases from the San Friole baggage-room when he had fled—and put in a call for the Marconi office.
Shortly he had the chief operator on the wire, and he explained briefly that out-of-town business had interfered with his calling the day before, but that he would drop around for a conference bright and early the next morning. He added that he intended to take the King of Asia back to China.
When he entered the chief operator's cubicle, the chief operator looked into the face of a man who had aged, a white, sad face, the face of a man who had found the sample of life he had tasted to be a bitter mouthful.
"Back again, as I live!" he chirruped, pumping Peter's hand exuberantly. "Where now, Peter?"
"China," said Peter; "my old love, the King of Asia, sails to-morrow. Can I have her?"
"Sure thing! By the way, here's a special delivery letter for you in the mail that hasn't been assorted—a nice square envelope. Looks to me like a wedding invitation!"
Peter examined the square, white envelope.
A wedding invitation with a San Friole canceling stamp.
Absently he dropped it into his pocket.
Making his way to the St. Francis he found that San Toy Fong had departed for parts unknown. So he sat down at a desk in the writing-room, and penned a brief note, addressing it in care of Ah Sih King. He knew that the letter would reach San Toy Fong as rapidly as a grape-vine telegraph could deliver it to him. He knew that it would be opened, coded and transmitted to the second coil of the vast, hidden government, wherever he might be—from Singapore to Singapore.
The import of that note was simply that he, Peter Moore, was returning to China, and promised to interfere in no way with the band's activities. If he should change his mind, he added, he would file notice of such decision with the duly accredited agents of Len Yang's monarch at the Jen Kee Road place, in Shanghai.
The purple shoulders of the Golden Gate were sinking into the silver-tipped waves when Peter, having despatched his clearance message, left the tireless cabin for a look at the glorious red sunset and a breath of the fresh Pacific air.
A room steward, who had just ascended the iron ladder, approached, touching his cap with a deferential forefinger. "A letter addressed to you, sir. Found it in the corridor outside your stateroom. Must have fallen from your pocket."
The wedding invitation with a San Friole date-mark!
With nerveless fingers Peter drew out, not an envelope, but a stiff card. And he stared at the card in the red twilight, and groaned in pain and astonishment.
Have I said that this was St. Valentine's Day? In the color of the dying sun, and painted carefully by hand, was a tiny heart, bleeding.
And that was the only message.
THE GREEN DEATH
"Oh! Chiang Nan's a hundred li, yet in a moment's space I've flown away to Chiang Nan and touched a dreaming face." —TS'EN-TS'AN.
A young man can get himself into trouble in China. He may refuse to eat the food that is pushed into his mouth at a Chinese banquet by the perfectly well-intentioned man sitting beside him. In that case he will hardly do more than arouse the contempt of his beneficiary and his host. He simply shows that he lacks good Chinese table manners, for at a Chinese banquet it is proper to stuff food into your companion's mouth, no matter how full his stomach may be.
Another way to offend the Chinese is to refuse a gift.
But these are minor things. The surest method to arouse the suspicion, dislike and animosity of China is deliberately to keep your affairs shrouded in mystery. Discuss your important business secrets in loud shouts; no one will pay the slightest attention. But whisper mysteriously in your friend's ear, and spies will attend you! Leave a note-book filled with precious data plainly in view upon your dressing-table, and your room-boy won't for the life of him peek into it. Lock that same note-book away in a dressing-table drawer, and your room-boy will move heaven and earth to find out what it's all about!
The time of the day was mid-forenoon; the time of the year was spring. The low, mournful voice of a temple gong floated across the race of brown water. River fokies, on sampans and junks, were singing their old work song, the Yo-ho—hi-ho! of the ancient river, as their naked, broad backs bent to the sweeps. A pleasant breath of perspiring new earth was drifting down the great stretch of yellow water on a light, warm wind.
Peter had taken his favorite stand on the upper-boat deck, where the wireless shack was situated, with one hand wrapped loosely about a davit guy, the other thoughtfully rattling a cluster of keys in his pocket.
Spring is for youth, and Peter was young; yet he did not reflect in any way the mood of the new season. He felt gloomy and depressed. Life seemed an empty, a dreary thing to Peter, because he could see himself getting nowhere.
In spite of the sweet candor of the young spring day, one of the first sounds that came to his ears as he stood there, in the shadow of the life-boat, was the brazen clamor of a death cymbal. One of China's four hundred millions had died in the night; now his spirit was being escorted to the seventh heaven of his blessed forefathers, by the death cymbal, clashing with a sober din to drive the devils away from his late abode.
The shadow of the life-boat was rather unaccountably attenuated; Peter turned around and looked into the bland, unsmiling face of Jen, a Chinese deck-boy. Pig-tails were coming back in style again. About six inches of wispy, purple-black braid extended downward from Jen's white cap. His face was quite yellow, and his eyes were green. An understandable light came and flickered across their satiny surface as Peter looked inquiringly into them.
"Wanchee my?" he asked.
The deck-boy took a cautious and all inclusive look of the broad, gray deck, bending head to look past the giant funnels, the first of which stood about twenty feet forward of them.
"Stay allatime on King Asia?" inquired the Chinese, moiling his hands together and bowing slightly.
Peter gave him a blue-eyed, indolent stare.
"Maybe. Maybe not," he said. "What's on your mind, Jen?"
"You tell me what going do," replied the yellow one meaningly. "Can do?"
"Mebbe can do," replied Peter, folding his hands. "You run up to the place on Jen Kee Road as soon as you catchee sampan. Tell man-man if I decide to do anything I will drop in and tell him. You don't know, Jen, but he knows that my word is good. If I decide to go up-river I'll tell man-man. If I decide to do nothing, I'll say nothing to man-man."
"Allee light, allee light," said Jen, backing away a few steps. "You tell man-man, eh?"
As Peter watched the retreating skinny shoulders bob up and down as they went away from him toward the after ladder, he felt just a little more undecided than he had five minutes earlier. He went into the wireless-room, to straighten up the apparatus before locking the door for the visit in Shanghai.
As he was locking the tool-box—the Chinese river thieves would steal anything they could lay hands on—he heard his name called in a silvery voice accompanied by a man's pleasant laugh, and he went out on deck to find that Mr. Andover, with the twins in tow, was all dressed up for a trip ashore.
The twins and Anthony Andover were passengers, bound on a sight-seeing trip through the East, and as Peter Moore was a very impressionable young man, it is only natural that the twins be discussed first, in virtue of their loveliness.
Peter had first contemplated Peggy and Helen Whipple in the King of Asia's dining-room. It would have been a rather impossible thing not to see Peggy and Helen Whipple, if you were young, and with fair eyesight.
At the first dinner after leaving the Golden Gate Peter had gone into the dining-room rather early, as he skipped tiffin (by reason of an empty pocket) and was ravenously hungry.
He had looked up over his first spoonful of mulligatawny a la Capron to meet the clear, undistilled, brown-eyed gaze of Peggy Whipple, who had seated herself at the captain's table. In that liquid, brown-eyed gaze had lurked a sparkle of mischief, a slightly arrogant look of inquisitive scrutiny, and perhaps a playful invitation.
As Peggy Whipple gave him that mischievous, liquid-brown glance when he was in the act of lifting a level soupspoonful to his lips, he did not, as a man might do under the circumstances, spill the soup upon the tablecloth, or back into the dish; nor did he pause in the work of lifting the liquid to his mouth.
He did not have to look at the spoon to guide its passage to his mouth. Without spilling a drop, he captained the spoon to its destination, maintaining his clear, deep-blue eyes upon the beautiful brown ones of the young passenger. And, without lowering his eyes once, he lifted the loaded spoon up twice in succession.
This skillful management brought a smile to the pretty face of the girl. Perhaps she had expected him to spill the soup under her glance; it was to be expected; more than probably the thing had happened in past episodes of Peggy, for she was distractingly fair to look upon, and her turned-up nose should have disarmed any man.
Her hair was golden and sleek and drawn back straight from her low, white forehead and knotted together in the back, calling attention to a neck that was slim and beautifully proportioned. Pink and white and gold described her. She seemed to bristle with a sort of fidgety energy, as if she had so much youth and loveliness stored up in her that she had a tremendous time keeping it all within bounds.
After Peter had slowly, but not at all insolently or impudently, taken all of this in, in the time required to stow away three heaping spoonfuls of mulligatawny a la Capron, by dead reckoning, she looked away from him with a little pout.
Peter followed her glance. He had not noticed the other girl before. It was evident that they were of the same blood, but the other girl seemed older. She, too, had sprung from a brown-eyed ancestry, and she, too, was blond and pink and lovely, with the prettiest fingers and finger-nails Peter had seen for some time.
Her glance, arising to meet his, was brown and very calm; unlike her sister, she appeared to be grave, more of the deliberate, thoughtful type.
It was in the shop of a Japanese silk merchant on Motomatchi Chome that he had met them for the first time. Several times on the trip across he had passed them on the deck, always escorted by proud young men.
They were the most popular girls on shipboard. Beauty rarely travels in pairs; these were unusual twins.
Once, as Peter was swinging down the ladder from topside, he came upon Peggy alone, looking rather blue. It may have been that she was simply in repose; and the contrast gave him that impression. Her eyes dreamingly encountered his, and the mischievous light flickered in them and instantly went out.
She ran her eyes down the white uniform with the gold emblems of his profession at the lapels, dropped her eyelids demurely, and seemed to wait. He hesitated, and she stood still; but he passed on, leaving her staring after him with a little pout. Obviously the twins had traveled much!
It was on the night that the King of Asia cleared Nagasaki for the short run across the Yellow Sea into the flow of the Yangtze-Kiang that Peter was sought out by that pleasant young man, Anthony Andover.
Ordinarily passengers were not allowed in the sacred quarters of the wireless house. However, those who possessed daring spirits came up anyway. Peggy Whipple came up there soon after that meeting on deck, with permission from nobody, and Peter gave her about fifteen minutes of his extremely important time on the average of nine times a day, permitting her to adorn the extra chair in the wireless shack, where she unconsciously revealed in her sudden and unexpected shiftings of posture, several inches of adorable silken ankle. I think Peggy was sadly in need of an elderly chaperone, and I am somehow under the impression that Peggy very badly wanted Peter to make love to her. How he resisted her speaks volumes for his quaint, mid-Victorian views regarding woman.
And at the end of the fifteen minutes, after regaling her with tales of the lands she was about to visit, he dismissed her, kindly but with great firmness, and she was as obedient as a lamb.
Anthony Andover, who knew more about plows perhaps than the Egyptians, gave him something else to think about. He looked up from his instruments that evening to see a young man of medium height, slim of build, and rather pale and sharp of mien.
"My name is Anthony Andover," he said in a brisk and business-like voice. "I wonder if I could have a talk with you."
Peter told him to sit down, and he removed the heavy nickeled head-pieces from his ears. He expected an important radio from the Shanghai Station; but that could wait. He wondered what Anthony Andover might have on his mind.
"Mr. Moore, I'm in something of a devil of a fix, and I think you're the man who can get me out of it."
"Shoot," said Peter, lighting a yellow cigarette and passing the box. "Chinks?" Trouble to Peter always meant Chinks; they were his symbol of danger.
"No, no! You see, all of my life I've been—well, a city man. The biggest adventure I ever had was a fist fight with my foreman. Now——"
"Did you lick him?" asked Peter with concern.
Anthony nodded reminiscently. "Blacked his eyes and busted his nose!"
"Good for you! Go ahead with your story."
"I've met a girl on the steamer, and according to her way of looking at things, I lack about five thousand different parts of being a hero. You know the girl. That's why I'm bothering you like this."
"Not bothering me a bit. Who's the girl?"
"Peggy." Anthony caressed the word as if it were honey. "Peggy Whipple. Of course, the first thing I want to make sure of is, am I stepping on anybody's toes? If I am, I'll just go ahead, and play my own game my own way. If it's to be a case of a fight——"
"Hold on a moment," interrupted Peter. "I don't quite follow you. Whose toes do you think you're stepping on?"
"Well, Peggy comes up here to the wireless shack so much, that I—I——"
"Oh, not a bit of it, old man. Peggy's a nice girl. I like her. That's all."
"I—I'm mighty glad," said Anthony earnestly. "You know, she's pretty mad about you, but as long as you're not interested the way I am, well——" He bit his lip nervously, and went on: "I think you'd agree with me that it would be rather foolish of her, and very disappointing and disillusioning later on for her to marry the kind of a man she thinks she wants to marry. She has a notion that the man she marries must be a cross between Adonis, and—and Diamond Dick! She wants a man who carries six-shooters in all his pockets, and who fears neither God, man, nor the devil!"
"A regular hell buster!"
"That's it! Down in her heart I think she cares for me a little bit. But I'm nothing but a plain, ordinary business man. I never did anything devilish in my life. There's nothing romantic about me. Look at this necktie! Did you ever see a hero wearing a plain black four-in-hand? Never! Did you ever see a hero wearing nice tan oxfords without a spot of mud on them? If I can somehow manage to make her think for a few minutes that I've got heroic stuff in me, she may listen to a little sense. She tells me—rather she threw it in my face—that you are going to take Helen and her on a sight-seeing trip into some of the darkest holes in Shanghai. You know the ropes, and there's no danger, of course."
"None at all," said Peter.
"Well, I want to know if you'll let me go along. I'll stand every expense; I've got money to burn! Let me in on it, and——"
"But there isn't going to be a chance for anybody to be a hero. I'm going to take those girls to the safest place in Shanghai. A New England church would be a cavern of iniquity alongside of it!"
Anthony laid his fingers along his knees.
"Well, couldn't you stir up something? That's my idea. I'll leave it to you to crack up some danger, not real danger, of course—we can't let those girls get near any real danger. But we can start a fake fight—or something—and give me a chance to play the hero, to rescue Peggy in my arms; that sort of stuff, you know." He looked at Peter foolishly.
Peter stroked his nose. "It might be done," he said. "I'll see what I can do."
Anthony arose, extended his hand, and said: "Of course, I'll need a revolver."
"Load it with blanks," advised Peter. "You know, some people think it's bad luck to kill a Chink."
Anthony was eyeing him curiously. "Do you?" he asked.
Peter nodded his head slowly. "Sometimes," he said.
Anthony and the twins called for Peter as soon as they could tear themselves away from the many fascinating incidents attendant upon coming to an anchorage in the Whang-poo-Kiang.
It was late in the afternoon when the first company tug came down-river from Shanghai for passengers. And it was nearly dusk, the golden-brown evening of China, when they were decanted upon the public landing stage at the International Concession.
Anthony was for going directly to the Hotel Astor for dinner, but at Peter's suggestion he and the twins boarded a street-car for the ride to Bubbling Wells.
Peter stood for a number of moments in indecision as the Bubbling Wells tram went up the bund with the slow flood of victorias, rickshaws, and wheelbarrows. It was now about seven o'clock, with the sun hidden under a horizon of dull bronze. Street lights were coming on, twinkling in a long silver serpent along the broad thoroughfare, rising in a grotesque hump over the Soochow bridge, and becoming lost in the American quarter.
He would meet Anthony and the twins in the dining-room. Whoever got there first would wait. He expected to be there long before his three friends came back from Bubbling Wells.
A rickshaw coolie was wheedling him at his elbow but he paid no attention. His eyes were searching the street. It took him several seconds to reconcile himself to the fleeting apparition. What was this girl doing in Shanghai?
The rickshaw had passed, proceeding at unabated speed in the direction of Native City.
The rickshaw boy was still making guttural sounds, softly plucking at his sleeve. The shafts of the rickshaw were close to his feet. But Peter was still undecided.
"Allee right," said Peter, briskly. "French concession."
That was the direction in which the other rickshaw was headed.
He climbed aboard, and they veered out into the north-bound traffic. The girl in the rickshaw was about one block in the lead, and had no intention evidently of accelerating her coolie's pace or of turning back. She had left all decision to him, and his decision was to ask her a few questions.
His coolie trotted heavily, looking neither to the right nor left, with his pigtail snapping from side to side, as his head bent low.
"Follow lan-si veil—savvy?"
"My savvy," returned the coolie, heading toward the narrow alley of filth and sputtering oil dongs, breathing the odor of refuse, of cooking food.
Peter's heart was beginning to respond to the excitement. Did she have some message to convey to him that she could not trust to the openness of the bund at the jetty?
Suddenly the rickshaw ahead swerved sharply to the right into an alley that was perfectly dark. Its single illumination was a pale-blue light which burned before a low building set apart from the others at the far end.
Here the first rickshaw stopped. A ghostly figure seemed to float to the ground. There was a clink of coins. A door opened, letting out a wide shaft of orange light which spattered across the paving, flattening itself against the grim wall of the building across the way.
Peter caught the bronze glint of wires on the roof under a pale moon.
He knocked sharply on the door, and stood to one side. It was a habit he had learned from long experience—that trick of stepping to one side when he knocked at a suspicious door. The door moved outward a few inches. A long, yellow face, with a thick, projecting under lip, peered out. Peter pushed the man aside and entered.
He found himself in a low corridor of smoked wood, with fat candles disposed along the walls at intervals of several yards, on a narrow, lacquered rail. One of three doors was open.
A match was struck, the head glowing in a semi-circle of sputtering iridescence before the wood itself kindled. The hand holding the match was trembling; the weak flame fluttered to such an extent that he was denied momentarily a glimpse of the owner of the hand.
A whisper was conveying an order to him. "Please shut the door, Mr. Moore."
He reached for the door and closed it firmly in the face of the man who had let him into this place.
When he turned, the trembling hand was applying the match flame to the wick of an open lamp, a rather ornate dong. As the flame rose higher, casting its steady, mild luminance, he caught a glitter of metal, of polished rubber; one end of the room was almost filled with machinery.
She seemed to have undergone a great change. The beautiful face that had lured him once into the jaws of death was dominated now by a wistful and tender sadness, as though this girl had gone through an epoch of self-torture since they had last been together.
Yet she was still beautiful; it was as if her beauty had been refined in an intense fire. Her mouth was sad, her great brown eyes glowed with an inexpressible sadness, and her face, once oval and proud, seemed narrower, whiter, and, by many degrees, of a finer mold.
She was examining him broodingly; there was a reluctant timidity in her eyes; it was such a look as you may see years afterward in the woman you once have cast aside for some other, perhaps not quite so worthy.
"Well, you have found me, Peter," she said in a faint and tired voice, coming slowly toward him.
"Yes," he admitted, lamely: "I saw you passing the jetty. I followed—naturally. I have just come from America."
"Oh." Her voice expressed no surprise. "You came for me, Peter?"
"I thought you were dead," he confessed.
"Well, I am a hard one to kill!" A tiny smile flickered across her fine lips. "You are not married—to Eileen?"
"No—and never!" he said dully.
"But you must be in love! You are always in love—with some one."
"I am in love with no one."
"I am in love with no one."
"Nor am I," said Romola Borria quietly. It seemed to come from her as a vast and reluctant confession. "I loved only one man, and my love for him is quite dead. If I should rake over the embers—oh, but I have raked them over, Peter, many, many times—and I have found not one single small ember glowing! When love dies, you know, it requires a great fire to rekindle it. Oh, I have suffered!"
She smiled again, rather ironically. "Can a man live with a bullet in his heart?"
"I—I saw. I thought—but what does it matter what I thought?" He was trying to inject some of his old spirit into his voice. It was rather difficult, this business of laughing at the funeral of love. "Romola, you are more beautiful!"
"I have suffered," she said, in the same restrained voice.
He turned away with a shrug. He, too, had suffered, but in a somewhat different light. He was examining with a professional eye the heap of apparatus which was arranged in splendid order along the back of the small room.
"I am studying. You see, Peter," she explained, in the same rather recriminatory tones, "I was rather fond of you at one time——"
"And because it was your profession I became interested in it. I heard the message you sent last night—to—to the place on Jen Kee Road. I was quite worried for a while."
"That was why you happened along the bund about the time the boat came up-river?"
"Perhaps." She smiled vaguely.
"You wanted to find out if I still cared enough for you to——"
"Follow me? Yes, Peter; I think that was why."
"Then you didn't know I was on my way to China?"
"No, Peter, I knew nothing."
"Aren't you connected with my good friend, the man with the sea-lion mustaches, in Len Yang?"
Romola gave a short gasp. "I never was connected with him."
"But you told me you were—back there on the Persian Gulf!"
She shook her head slowly, with a gentle firmness.
"No. I did not tell you that. I have seen him; yes. But I was never in his employ. It was Emiguel Borria, my late and—may I say?—my unlamented husband, who made me do those things. Peter——"
Her attitude seemed to undergo some sort of subtle change, as if she were bitterly amused. "You say you are not in love. Then what of the little golden-haired girl—the two little golden-haired girls—you left this afternoon on the bund?"
"They and the young man are passengers on the King of Asia. I brought them ashore to give them an insight into China-as-it-really-is."
"They are in very capable hands, then, Peter. Aren't you running some risk, though? Isn't there some chance that the men in the Jen Kee Road place may take it into their heads——"
"I am on my word of honor, Romola. I have come back to China, not to start trouble, but simply because—well, why are you in China?"
"Because I haven't the will to leave, perhaps. I stay here in the same spirit that a man or a woman lingers before a dreadful oil painting, like the shark picture of Sorolla; it is terrible, but it is fascinating. I cannot leave. If I did, I would come back, as you come back, time after time. Is that why you've come back?"
"And you imagine you're running no risk with the two golden-haired maids in tow?"
Peter shook his head thoughtfully. "Perhaps I shouldn't have exposed them to danger. But they were determined, and it's partly to help the young man. Anthony is a plain American business man. He's in love with the youngest. And she, a hero worshipper. He wants to demonstrate himself."
She interrupted in a whisper. "Peter, tell me, why is it? What have you ever done? What do you say? Why—why is it?"
Peter the Brazen was looking at her blankly.
She made a gesture of resignation with her beautiful white hands.
"Well, never mind. Tell me more about Anthony."
"Anthony believes that if he can demonstrate his valor to Peggy, she will come to his arms. He really is a fine, upstanding fellow. I had intended bringing them to Ching Tong's place out Bubbling Wells way, harmless enough and watched by the police of nine nations. Ching Tong, being a friend who will put himself out for me, will play the part of a very bad villain. Anthony's revolver is loaded with blanks. Mine isn't, but that's just my cowardly nature. You can never tell what might turn up, you know."
"Naturally. Go on."
"I intend to have Ching Tong stage a very realistic fight down in his cellar, in which Anthony can overpower eight or ten Chink giants, escape out of the window with the fainting Peggy in his arms, and—and——"
"Simple enough," admitted Romola, with a mild frown. She drew him to a broad, low bench. "Somehow," she went on, "your idea rather appeals to me, too. I liked Anthony's looks—what I saw of him. And I rather liked the two little girls—twins, aren't they?"
Peter nodded. "The heavenly twins!"
"I think I'd quite agree with that plan, Peter, if you didn't happen to be in such disrepute in this neighborhood. You must realize that the Gray Dragon's men are watching you. Of course, you didn't recognize your rickshaw coolie. He is one of the Gray Dragon's men—naturally. Don't you think you are exposing those two nice girls unnecessarily to danger?"
Peter lighted two cigarettes, and passed one of them to Romola. She accepted it with an air of abstraction and puffed slowly, blowing out a thin stream of pale smoke.
"But circumstances are changed now. You see, I am on the fence—perfectly safe."
"They are still anxious for you to come with them?"
"That's it. They sent a representative last trip all the way to San Francisco."
"Of course you refused? Peter——" Her soft, white hand was resting on his; her red lips were very close to his face. "Why don't you join them? You and I!"
"You and I?"
She nodded earnestly.
Peter drew back a few inches. "I said 'no' when you asked me that before. No, I'll have nothing to do with that band—never! Going out into the wilderness, up into the mountains on some of their risky errands—with you—might have appealed to me. Not now!"
"Peter, I am afraid I still love you!"
"And yet, Romola, I'm not afraid of falling in love with you—again! But let's not speak of joining that man in Len Yang. What you're offering is—too tempting. I might give in! You are altogether too fascinating!"
"I've told you that before."
"Then you will go up-river with me?"
"No—never! Why, you almost make me suspect that you're still in that beast's employ."
"I never was. I told you that."
"You've said many things that didn't stand the acid, Romola."
He stood up, looking down at her with whimsical tenderness. She was very beautiful, and when she took on that forlorn air she had the appearance of a helpless, small girl. He wondered if he would ever regret his refusal.
"Ching Tong must have time to make arrangements, and I have a dinner engagement at the Astor House with Anthony and the heavenly twins. Can't you and I have tea to-morrow afternoon?"
Romola came to him and put her two hands on his shoulders. "No," she said. "We must not be seen together. It may mean danger for you. I've been thinking over your plan to convert Anthony into an adventurer. Why not bring them all here. I have seven servants, all Chinese, and they would give their lives for me. Let me see——" She bit her upper lip thoughtfully.
"You can tell them that this place is—well, the heart of the Chinese smuggling trade. It's ridiculous, but it will appeal to them. I will dress up as a Chinese woman—oh, I've done it dozens of times in the past—and I shall be very mysterious. That will seem much more romantic to Peggy than a mere opium den. And it will be safer. I know Ching Tong's shop. It might do, if you were an ordinary person, Peter, but such an adventure should be provided with at least five times as many exits! I have them here."
Peter looked at her doubtingly, although the idea appealed to him. Outriding his admiration of the idea, however, was a recurrence of his old impression of Romola Borria. He knew that he never had been a match for her cunning, her esoteric knowledge of China.
"I have plenty of make-up pots. I'll paint up these fokies to look like bandits! I'll have knives in their belts. And I'll plan the rehearsal before you come. Everything will be arranged." She seemed to hesitate. "You—you won't bring that dreadful automatic revolver of yours loaded—will you?"
Peter smiled faintly.
A light spring rain was drizzling down when Peter ordered four rickshaws of the proud Sikh who stood guard over the porte cochere of the Astor House. Long bright knives of light slithered across the wet pavement from the sharp arc lights on the Soochow bridge. The ghostly superstructure of a large and silent junk was thrown in silhouette against the yellow glow of a watchman's shanty across the dark canal, as it moved slowly in the current toward the Yellow Sea.
It was a desolate night. The streets were deserted except for an occasional rickshaw with some mysterious bundled passenger, the footfalls of the coolies sounding with a faint squashing as of drenched sandals, slimy with the heavy sludge of the back-village streets. The world was lonely and awash.
Peter busied himself with Peggy's comfort when the first rickshaw, dripping and wet, rattled up. He drew the waterproof robe up under her chin and fastened the loops, then tucked it in under her feet. Her cheeks were glowing with the pink of her excitement.
Anthony meanwhile gave similar attention to the other twin.
Peter glanced at his watch as they climbed in. He wondered how Anthony might be taking his first and relatively unimportant lap of their adventure, and he instructed his coolie, in "pidgin," to drop behind.
Clear gray eyes shone with a confident reassurance.
"You mustn't hit too hard, and be careful if you shoot your revolver to discharge it in the air. At close range even the wads from the blank cartridges are rather deadly."
Anthony's clear voice came across to him: "Of course."
They stopped at length before the rambling structure which was the abode of Romola Borria. The lamp was extinguished, probably beaten out long before by the pelting rain. Only a pale glow emanated from the place, this from a tiny upstairs window, covered over with oiled paper, and the only sounds were the ceaseless drip of the rain and the low gibberings of the coolies as they examined the coins given them in the greasy light of the rickshaw lanterns.
Peggy, slipping her arm through Peter's and hugging him close to her, trembled with the excitement of anticipation.
"We must not be separated," he warned them in a whisper. "Whatever happens—Peggy and Helen—stand close to us. In case of trouble, each of you stand behind whichever of us is nearest. Don't scream. Don't show any money. Peggy, put your pocketbook in your shirt-waist. Now—ready?"
"Yes!" came the threefold whispering chorus.
He raised his knuckles, and brought them down sharply—three times rapidly, twice slowly. Silence followed, the bristling silence of an aroused house.
Slowly the door gave way, and a villainous-looking old Chinese in black beckoned with a long snake-like finger for them to enter.
Only two candles now were burning on the lacquered rail in the smoky corridor. Curtains at the rear parted; there was a sweep of heavy silken garments, and a white-faced and beautiful woman made her way toward them.
Deft employment of the make-up pot and painstaking searchings through a great number of trunks had blended a picture that was all but melodramatic.
Romola Borria's wonderful dark hair was arranged in a great heap which sloped backward from her head. Her face was chalk white, from a bath in rice powder; her fine lips were curled in the most sinister of smiles; and her eyes glowed with a splendid abandon. She looked wicked; she radiated cruelty.
And the twins gasped in sweet horror. It is probable that twin trickles of icy excitement chased up and down their twin spines. Anthony gaped, and his gray eyes expressed an unbounded infatuation.
With a gracious stealth she moved beyond them, not once lowering her magnificent eyes, and shot a huge brass bolt in the door.
They formed an expectant, a worshipful semicircle. In a low voice Peter made the introductions, dwelling at fastidious length upon the tremendous villainy of this slender sorceress, who swept him all the time with a proud and disdainful fire. She nodded stiffly at intervals.
"The Princess Meng Da Tlang has a word to say to you." He bowed profoundly.
"It is only this," said Romola Borria in tones as rich as the Kyoto temple gong, "what you have thus far seen, and what you are about to gaze upon, must always—forever—remain a secret within your hearts. Follow me." Romola, or the Princess Meng Da Tlang, floated down the dim corridor with a further silken rustle of skirts, and drew back the curtain at the far end.
The quartette filed into a large and lofty room, flickering under the pallid flames of candles. The wax dripping from some of these hung like icicles or stalactites from the shallow bronze cups, and they illuminated a scene that was bizarre.
The walls were burdened with heavy rugs which responded with a waxen sheen to the mystic light of the candles, and they were of the sombre hues of the China that passed its zenith many centuries ago. They served to give this place a solemn air of vast dignity and richness.
Along the inner wall, placed so that it squarely commanded the doorway, grinned a huge green image of Buddha, surrounded by a clutter of brass candlesticks and mounted on a splendid throne of brass filigree underneath which red flames were burning.
The odor of costly incense was heavy and sweet, the smoke from a brazier arising in a thin, motionless blue spar which, when it had climbed up through the air for a distance of about four feet, broke into a sort of turquoise fan and this drifted on up to the ceiling in heavy wisps. The incense pot was very old, of black lacquer and brass, greened with blotches of erosion.
And above the green image of Buddha, before which the Princess Meng Da Tlang was now kneeling and moaning in a faint voice, reposed a very realistic skull and cross-bones. Across the forehead of this hideous reminder of the hereafter was a deep green notch, attesting in all probability to the cause of the luckless owner's death.
"Please be seated—there," Romola requested.
Her graceful, ivory-white arm indicated with a queenly gesture a heavily carved ebony bench, and her guests filed expectantly to this seat.
Peggy, with a long sigh, dragged Peter into the corner. "I'm almost scared. Oh, oh, isn't this simply romantic!" she whispered.
Helen and Anthony gravely occupied the space on the other side of them. The Princess Meng Da Tlang was moving gracefully toward the doorway through which they had entered.
"I—I'm really a little afraid!" whispered Peggy, with her lips so close to Peter's ear that he could feel her warm breath against his neck. "Put your arms around me—please!" Peter slipped his arm behind her and around her. He squeezed her. "Oh," sighed Peggy, "this is grand!"
Helen gave her a sidelong look of surprise. "Peggy, I think you're hardly discreet."
"Let me die while I'm happy!" grinned Peggy. She turned a wistful face to Peter. "Did you ever put your arm around another woman before?" she whispered.
"Heaven forbid!" groaned Peter. "Don't I act like an amateur?"
"No; you don't!"
Romola was holding back the curtains while a troop of four men, muddy and wet, as if from long travel, moved silently into the large room.
"Mongolian smugglers," Peter whispered.
The four large men crossed the room with dignified tread, depositing four small bundles wrapped in blue silk at the altar of Buddha. Then they removed straw-matting rainproofs which dangled from their broad shoulders to their muddy sandals. They were garbed in black silk and fastened at the belt of each was a kris, curved and flashing where the golden candle light skimmed along the whetted steel.
After depositing their slight burdens they bowed low before the altar, muttered deep in their throats, arose and salaamed gravely, until the four pigtails flapped on the heavy blue rug at Romola's bare feet. She wore no sandals, which was probably the custom among pirate princesses. When the men were gone, Romola drew back a rug which hung close to the altar, revealing a small cupboard flush with the wall. Even Anthony looked at the black door and the brass hasp with his gray eyes round in wonder and interest.
After disposing of the four silken parcels, Romola addressed them in a mysterious voice: "Those packages contain gems; diamonds, rubies, pearls from the Punjab, from Bengali, from Burma."
"Can we see them?" pleaded Helen in rapt tones.
"Aw, please!" inserted Peggy in an angelic whisper.
Romola raised both of her hands as if in horror. "They would tempt even a saint," she muttered.
"Be careful," warned Peter, laying his lips to Peggy's pink ear, "the princess has a terrible temper. She has been known to strangle a man for less than that!"
"I don't believe it!" retorted Peggy. "I think the princess is just too sweet for anything."
Romola gave Peter a look of indolent inquiry. She arose abruptly.
"You must have some of my spiced wine. It is really delicious. P'eng-yu Moore, we won't bother the servants; won't you help me?"
Peggy folded her hands demurely in her lap. "I hope it isn't intoxicating," she murmured.
Romola had moved graciously across the room, where in a bronze jardiniere protruded the dusty, slender necks of tall bottles. She knelt before this. "Nearer," she whispered, as he followed suit. "Peter, tell me——"
"What does this little girl mean to you?"
Peggy's clear voice sounded: "Peter, my throat is dusty!"
"In a minute, Peggy," he called back. Lowering his voice again: "She's merely a child. But why——"
"Peter, I've gone to more trouble to-night than you realize, perhaps——"
"What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to stop making love to that innocent child."
The innocent child's sweet voice was clamoring again. "Peter, the Sahara Desert is a flowing river compared with my throat!"
"All right, Peggy; in a minute."
"You said once that you—loved me."
"I still stand by my guns. But I don't love any one now. You're a temptress, Romola. Why, you are a princess! I never saw you more beautiful than to-night!"
"Peter, can't you realize what a dreary life I've led since that night you ran away from me in Hong Kong? Won't you—for me—because I want it—because I want you—reconsider, won't you stop, and think, and——"
"We're getting back to forbidden grounds, Romola."
"Oh, God! I know, I know! But what is there left in my life? Why, what is there left in yours? Perhaps you are the best operator on the whole Pacific Ocean; you've had that reputation now—how long—five years? But it is aimless! Where are you drifting? What will become of you as the years pass? You must be nearly thirty now, Peter. I? I am younger, but I have suffered more. The only happiness I have known has been with you."
Peggy's voice became petulant. "Peter, is that cork awfully obstinate?"
"In a minute," he said absently.
"Do you remember those wonderful days and evenings we spent together on the Java Sea, on the old Persian Gulf? Do you remember those evenings, Peter, under the moon and the Southern Cross?"
"I remember a great deal of treachery!"
"But there is to be no more treachery," she said passionately. "Think, Peter, think! You are penniless—I have only a little money; it will not last long. What follows? Do you know what happens to white women when they are stranded, penniless, friendless, in this country?" She shivered. "And it would be such a simple thing to do—-to go with me—to him. We would be together forever then—you and I! Tibet! The Punjab! The merchant's trail into Bengal! You and I with our caravan—in the blue foot-hills!"
"I'm sorry," confessed Peter sadly.
Romola hung her head with a bitter sigh.
Peggy pitched her voice: "Smash the neck, Peter; I don't mind a little broken glass!"
Romola was pushing two silver cups along the floor to him.
He spilled an amount of the sparkling golden liquid on the carpet, where it formed a dark, round stain. With slightly unsteady hands he conveyed the cups across the room, and Peggy, without another word, following a rather vexed: "Thank you, m'lord," emptied the cup in a single swallow. She licked her lips daintily, and her eyes were sparkling.
As Peter moved into the seat beside her, he saw the curtain over the doorway slowly drawn back by an unseen hand. He looked smilingly toward Romola, and her eyes were fixed on the moving curtain, her face rigid in surprise and concern. The thing seemed to puzzle her.
White metal flashed coldly. A lean hand and arm appeared, and a short, fat knife, the haft sparkling with drops that resembled blood, was projected into the room, point down, quivering, in the wood, not five feet from Romola's lacquered bench!
"Is this a part——" began Peter.
"No, it is not."
Romola's face seemed thin with her growing anxiety. Obviously the tossed knife was not a part of the evening's performance.
"A part of what?" Peggy was inquiring.
"Oh, another joke of the Mongolian smugglers," he explained.
There was a sudden and astounding explosion in the midst of them. The flame of a revolver bathed the whole room in reddish-yellow for an instant. Smoke was rising, the pungent, pale-blue, nitrous smoke of so-called smokeless powder. Anthony Andover had arisen, had delivered his shot at the waving curtain.
Peter gave a grunt of disapproval. "Why did you do that——"
The candle directly above the curtains had flickered out; in fact, on closer examination Peter discovered that the candle had been split in crude halves, one of the white fragments lying on the rug not far from the incense burner. This proved one point conclusively. Anthony Andover had put real bullets, not blank cartridges, into the six chambers of his revolver. He had reseated himself calmly beside Helen, who was staring at him with eyes like pools.
Peggy found her voice first. "Gracious! Why did you do that? It was only in fun—that dagger, I mean. Why, you might have killed somebody!"
Anthony shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not so sure about that."
"This is really a most dangerous spot," added the Princess Meng Da Tlang in a mysterious voice. But she was looking at Peter with deliberate meaning.
He accepted what he supposed was intended to be a cue, crossed to the far side of the room, and approached the curtains prudently. He drew the nearest one back inch by inch until the wall of the corridor was given back to them blankly. So far it was quite empty.
Dropping his hand leisurely into his coat-pocket, he sauntered into the hall. As he dropped the curtains behind him, glancing swiftly up and down the apparently deserted hallway, he heard the familiar sound again of a gently closed door.
The sound seemed to originate from the direction of the street. He looked about for the old watchman, and he nearly stumbled over him in the half-darkness as he approached.
Peter struck a match, and a gasp of horror came from his lips. The man was dead—stabbed!
Was this killing a part of an elaborate plan? He would not have permitted himself to walk with such apparent innocence into a snare if he had not relied upon the word of that band. His experience had been that their code was a peculiar one whose foundation was the word of honor. For the first time that evening he began to regret a little his arrogance in defying the request of their messenger to report his intentions immediately upon landing to the men in the place on Jen Kee Road.
He dragged the body into the darkest corner, where he covered it with a mat.
Laboring above his keen anxiety regarding the intention of the band was an eagerness to keep away from the two girls the sense of death, of danger, which seemed to pervade this house.
A way would have to be found to break through the line outside; perhaps they would be compelled to wait for daylight. Again sliding the bolt which had been pushed back by the last trespasser, Peter slowly paced the length of the hall in the meditation of active and acute worry. He was still undecided when he pulled back the rug which cloaked the entrance into the large room.
The room was in total darkness!
An eye, red like the play of fire about a distant volcano crater, glowed a number of paces in front of him. But not a candle, of the dozens that had been burning when he last went out of this room, was now lighted.
The scarlet glow he took to be the illumination under the altar of Buddha. He heard a long sigh, a vague murmur of voices.
"Light the candles," he ordered angrily.
"What is the matter?" This was Anthony's voice; it sounded very drowsy.
A tiny flame appeared as if suspended by an unseen cord and moved to the candle rail. One wick glowed; another; then another.
"Moore—Moore——" This was again the sleepy voice of Anthony.
A garish, gray figure arose and stumbled into the candle-light. It was Anthony. His eyes were half shut. He seemed desperately sleepy, and gibbering as if in a dream.
Peter turned savagely upon the girl. She seemed to cower away from him, half lifting her hands as though in fear that he would strike her.
"Romola! Damn you——"
"Peter, I—I——" Her faint voice trickled off into a sigh of anguish.
"Drugs?" he demanded.
She shook her head anxiously.
"No, no. I—I——"
"What have you done to these people? What have you——"
She lifted up her head imperiously. "You are forgetting——" she began.
He had the fingers of her left hand between his, crushing them. She dropped her head. Her fine lips were quivering. "What am I forgetting?"
Anthony had grasped his elbow. "It's not right, Moore; not right to talk to the princess like this. She's really noble. She's fine!"
"You're drunk, Anthony!"
"No, no, no," he babbled. "Sleepy; that's all. Oh, that wine! Perfectly fine! Makes you feel like climbing a moonbeam!"
"So it appears. Where are the girls?"
"Over here. Say—say, Moore, when does the fight start? I—I'm just itching to get at somebody!"
"You'll have your chance in a moment. And it isn't in fun. Understand?"
"Of course I understand! Isn't my gun loaded with bullets? Are we in a trap?"
"We are! And according to my calculations there's exactly one way out. I think you and the girls will have no difficulty in breaking through. Make a dash for it. Run for all you're worth!"
"Hold on there," remonstrated Anthony, as his eyes lost a trifle of their sleepy look. "What's to become of you? Going to make a break for it, too?"
Peter shook his head. "It's me they're after. I can look out for myself, Anthony; this business isn't quite a novelty in my line. You must get out—and get quick!"
"And leave you behind? Not Anthony! I stick!"
Anthony was flashing a length of highly polished gunmetal in his fist.
Romola with a trembling hand was applying a taper to the other candles. Peter, observing that the twins were, to all appearances, sound asleep, approached her.
She paused in her work, holding the taper above her head, so that its gaunt rays flickered on his face. "Because you loved me so?"
Her shoulders drooped, and her head rolled backward slightly, as though she were very tired. She nipped her lower lip between pearl-white teeth.
"Because I love you so?" she repeated dully.
"In some respects," he said bitterly, "you are like a certain snake in India. You can't lock those damned snakes up! They can always find a tiny hole, a slit in the cage, and—out they slip!"
"Ah, Peter——" Romola dropped the taper to the bronze altar, where it flickered a moment and went out. She fondled his reluctant hand between cold fingers. Her face became utterly miserable, and there were sparkling tears in her eyes. "My heart is your heart. I have given my love to you. I would give my life for you!"
He drew away from her slowly, turning his head to avoid the anguish in her eyes.
He went on briskly: "If my death is arranged for to-night——"
He stopped to watch her. She was fumbling at her waist. A little silver of light appeared. The thing was a slim stiletto. Her teeth were clicking as she extended the handle toward him. Their eyes met. In hers was shining a brute command. In his slowly came shock, amazement. She placed her fingers slowly over her heart; her hand slipped down and fell again at her side.
"There!" she murmured.
"Is—is my end so close?" he whispered.
She nodded slowly. "You are in great danger. This may be your final opportunity. See? I am offering no resistance. Why—why do you hesitate?"
With the tiny blade lying like a flame of pure silver across the palm of his hand, Peter experienced a moment troubled and exceedingly awkward. That threat, perhaps, was hardly more than the spilling out of bitterness which she had created in him.
In silence he handed the thing back to her almost furtively; and she accepted it without removing her shining gaze from his. Somehow she seemed to have come out victorious in a conflict that had had nothing to do with knives, with broken promises. And with the restoration of the dagger the spell seemed to be swept aside.
Turning abruptly, with a slight straightening of his shoulders, he walked away from her.
Anthony was like a guardian angel, a statue gravely symbolic of protection, standing over the golden heads, with the revolver dangling from his hand and shooting out metallic gleams. Their eyes were tightly closed; the twins were sleeping as if drugged.
They heard a low, hushed scream.
Peter turned quickly, searching both entrances. At first he was conscious of no intrusion. Then a yellow face, long, narrow, with a stub of purple-black hair protruding behind, and which for a moment he took to be a part of the curtain, slowly withdrew, arising upward—vanishing!
The phantom was not unlike the wisps of yellow smoke from a green-wood fire, despatched by a lazy dawn wind. The face of Jen, the deck steward!
Apparently Anthony had not observed this specter.
Peter seized his arm, the left one. "We must start. Wake them up."
Anthony shook a nervous negative. "I've tried. That wine!"
"Arracka. Comes from Java. Tastes like May wine, and is stronger than cognac." He was tilting Peggy's chin, shaking her head. No response. He tried the same experiment with Helen, and begot identical results.
Romola Borria had vanished.
Peter stepped out first, supporting his limp freight with his left arm, and in his right brandishing a revolver. He hoped it wouldn't be necessary and he was sure that underneath the splendid varnish of Anthony's fine bravado larked the belief that this entire evening was nothing more than an exciting romantic game.
In the pinch, would Anthony react after the fashion of heroes-to-the-manner-born, or would the sight and smell of blood, if it Was written that blood be shed, unnerve him, make him out to be what he was at heart, the secretary of a prosperous and peaceful plow company?
On his part, Anthony was still babbling incoherently but earnestly, impressing upon Peter the undeniable virtues of the golden wine. He was not prepared, although the nickeled revolver still flashed in his unoccupied hand, for the tumultuous event which was being shaped for the two of them around the corner.
They did not attain the outer door. Out of the drab recesses leaped dusky shadows. There seemed to be a large number of jostling men; perhaps only three or four were at hand by actual count; the insufficient lighting and their shocking and determined appearance lent them plurality.
A sparkling flame roared from the hand of the foremost of these before Peter could bring his hand out of his pocket.
Anthony's nickeled revolver went off twice, from his hip, and the giant faltered, going back shapelessly among the shadows from which he had emerged.
Peter's original scheme to hack a way through the line underwent hasty revision. Escape would have to be made by different channels, and his only choice was the device nearest at hand. It was a long chance, an aimless one, perhaps, fraught with new, dangers and complications. But he did not hesitate.
Beating off a hand that pawed for his shoulder, he flung open the door which faced the dwelling's entrance, and pushed the reluctant Anthony inside.
Peter locked the door, throwing a bench across it for temporary barricade, then lit candles, wondering if any one would have had enough foresight to disconnect the aerial wires. He dropped his burden to the divan against the side wall, and examined Anthony, who had gone very pale. He was shaking, and his gray eyes seemed to have climbed half way out of his head. He propped Peggy tenderly beside her sister, and laid an unsteady hand upon Peter's shoulder. He seemed to be fighting down a very definite fear.
Peter was backing toward the apparatus. "Watch the door. If any one tries to break in, shoot straight at the sound! You're not hurt, are you? Did that fellow get you?"
Anthony shivered all over. "Christ!" he muttered. His lips were white. "That man! I shot him! He's dead! Dead!"
"And we are still alive," said Peter quietly.
He sat down at the instrument table, fixed silvery disks to his ears, twanged the detector wire and made a few quick alterations in connections. Fortunately his inspection of the equipment earlier in the day had given him a grasp of its arrangement. In an instant he had the tuner adjusted, was listening, with those keen ears of his focussed for the ethereal voices which might be abroad at this untimely hour. Distant splashes of heat lightning occurred faintly, like the quivering of sensitive metal.
Casting a glance over his shoulder, to make sure that Anthony was following instructions, he rearranged levers and lowered the heavy switch which drew upon the storage batteries underneath the table.
He tapped the large brass key experimentally. A hissing blue spark lighted up the walls and his features in a ghostly glow. Tightening the vibrator at the terminus of the rubber-covered coil, he spelled out an inquiry in the International Code. Any station within hearing would answer that call.
He wondered if the Shanghai station was closed up for the night, or if by any chance his assistant on the King of Asia would be on the job.
Peter waited for several anxious moments, with no sound in the telephones other than the faint spattering of the lightning down the coast. Then his inquiry was given a response, startlingly harsh and close.
The station might have been across the street, the signals were beating in his ears so loudly. The operator was having some difficulty adjusting his spark; it was rough, ragged, like the drumming of hailstones on a metal roof.
A series of test letters followed, exasperatingly slow. "V—V—V—V—— What station is that? This is the Madrusa."
Peter hesitated, although interference was unlikely. He felt tremendously relieved. The Madrusa's rough spark meant more to him than help close by. He knew the Madrusa well; a gray, swift gunboat, lying close to the water, whose purpose was to sweep the lower Whang-poo and Yangtze clear of pirates. She could spit streams of bullets for hours without let-up. And the knowledge of her closeness to this death-trap keyed him up, not entirely because she was manned by British sailors who would rather fight than eat. His hand reached out for the key.
"Who is on watch? This is Peter Moore. That you, Johnny Driggs?"
If the man at the Madrusa's key did happen to be Jonathan Driggs, he could afford to breathe more easily. Driggs was another man who had found in China the irresistible attraction, and who for some years had sat behind the radio machines of many ships that plied these yellow waters.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" roared the Madrusa's spark. "Where are you? What are you doing up at this time of night playing with a baby coil?"
For the next three minutes the spitting blue spark flared and jumped as Peter spelled out his plight. He sketched their predicament by abbreviated code, and he impressed upon his friend the necessity for utter secrecy, hoping that the night had no other ears.
"Damn it!" replied the quick fingers of the gunboat's operator. "Damn it! But I can't get shore leave! Impossible—you can guess why! Our gunnery officer, Lieutenant Milton Raynard, is jumping to go! He'll fetch you five or six sailors. He knows the lay of the land, and I've sketched him a map of the locality from your description. Cinch! They'll be off at once, soon as they can get the engine started in the launch. Don't give up the ship, old boy! Don't——"
Peter dropped the receiver, walked over to the divan and endeavored to awaken the girls, slapping their hands, shaking them. They did not appear to be drugged. Evidently they had underestimated the power of the smooth, yellow arracka. Faint color glowed in their cheeks, and under the treatment Peggy slowly opened one very sleepy brown eye.
It drooped again. She muttered something that was not intelligible. It had something to do with a princess, and even that word was indistinct.
Anthony lifted a cautioning hand. "Some one's outside," he whispered. Slowly, as they watched it, the knob described a single revolution. Anthony lifted his revolver. "Who is there?"
"Let me in!" It was Romola Borria.
"Open the door," said Peter quietly, stepping aside.
Anthony removed the bench, twisted the key.
"You must not go with them," Romola whispered.
"Shut the door—put the bench back," directed Peter. He followed Romola across the room.
Evidently she had read the spark. "Let these people go—yes! But you remain. You will—or won't you?"
Peter looked skeptical. "Why should I? I've decided that life is pretty sweet, after all! Why haven't Jen and his gang broken in here? Why is he waiting? Have you told him help is coming?"
She shrugged impatiently. "I have not seen Jen. I have talked with no one."
"Then you will stay in this room until we leave?"
"But why did you send for them? It was foolish! How will you explain?"
"They are friends. Such men ask no questions."
"But there was no need!" She made a despairing gesture with her hands. "Your friends could have gone safely. Jen has no interest in—them!"
Peter nodded indifferently. "But my ship sails."
"Very good. But you must not leave this house until sunrise."
"When the sailors come from the Madrusa I shall walk out of here——"
"And into the arms of death, Peter!"
Peter lighted a cigarette and puffed thoughtfully in silence. Romola's gaze was upon his lips, as though the next words he would utter meant to her the difference between life and death.
And what he might have said was forestalled by a heavy battering at the outer door. These deep vibrations seemed on the sudden to stir Peggy out of her sleep. She sat upright, digging fists into tired eyes.
"Gracious! Where's everybody?"
The hammering ceased, and a high-pitched crash followed an instant of hush.
"The men from the Madrusa!" cried Anthony. He dragged the bench away; flung the door open with a grand gesture.
And into the room strode a blandly smiling Chinese, magnificent in gold and blue and red. He was flanked by three large and watchful coolies, armed with clubs.
"Mr. Moore; I am the man from the Jen Kee Road place!" He radiated a splendid calm.
Peggy cowered against her sister, with a look of sleepy mystification, while Anthony, glancing to Peter for command, was fingering his revolver in anxious indecision. Already one of the coolies was sidling toward him.
"You were a deck coolie this morning," Peter replied.
The Chinese took a step toward him. Peter felt Romola cringe at his side. He wondered at this.
"Shall we wait until sunrise, or——"
A sudden babble of men's voices on the other side of the partition checked the Chinese, while a look of misunderstanding came over his bland countenance.
"Moore! Moore! Where are you?" These were the rich tones of a man accustomed to command.
And instantly the small room seemed to be overflowing with the white and blue of uniforms.
Peggy stood straight up with a wondering gasp. Confronting her was a tall and handsome youth with the gold-and-black epaulets of his majesty's service at the shoulder-straps of his splendid white uniform. A cutlass in a nickeled case hung from a polished leather belt, and depending from it also was an empty leather holster. Gripped threateningly in his right hand was a blue revolver.
The shrill voice of the man from the Jen Kee Road place rose sharply above the momentary tumult.
In this quick confusion a pale, obnoxious odor, like opium fresh from the poppy, yet with the savor of almonds, flooded Peter's throat. He was vaguely aware of a fumbling in his coat-pocket. Explosions sounded as from afar and a vast redness settled down and encompassed the world.
The interval of dark was surprisingly short-lived. Swimming in and out of his distorted vision was a face. He was conscious for a while of no other impression. The face reeled, came closer—danced away from him! Bright eyes sparkled, leaped, and hung motionless.
He inhaled a new perfume, deliciously like flowers in a summer meadow. It injected fresh life into him. His hands found power, and he clutched at a soft wrist. The owner of this face was talking eagerly.
"We are alone—alone!"
With great effort he found he could incline his head a little. He was struggling. Hot vapors clogged his brain. Where were the girls, Anthony, the young lieutenant from the Madrusa?
"Where are they?"
He could recognize the features now distinctly; yet they stirred up in him no longer a feeling of repugnance, but a vague longing.
"Yes, Peter. You are feeling stronger?"
"What am I doing here? What is this place?"
"We are in the cellar."
It was very dim, with an odor of moldy dampness. The rock foundation, the walls, and floor were perspiring whitely.
Peter's brain became clogged again. The voice came to him softly but quite distinctly, with each word clear and emphatic:
"He is waiting outside. They will not dare come into my house again!"
"I am dizzy. Who will not dare? Who is outside?" he demanded feebly.
"The man from the Jen Kee Road place. He is waiting outside that window. No, No! He cannot see. It is covered with silk."
Peter fell back against the arm. "What does he want?"
"Your answer. I told him to wait. I promised him; I will hold the candle to the window."
"But I am dizzy," he groaned. "I do not understand."
"Once—means 'yes.' Twice—means 'no.'"
He delivered every ounce of his mental energy against the drug in his brain; it was like struggling against the tide. "Once—means 'yes?' Twice—means 'no?'" The meaning suddenly became clear to him. "The up-river trip?"
She nodded slowly, anxiously. "And twice—means death, also, Peter!"
He tried to drag himself erect, tried to twist his head, and he sank back with a bitter groan. "You drugged me!"
"There was no other way. I could not let you go into the night—into death!"
A bitter smile came to his white lips. "I am quite powerless?"
"I—I am afraid you are, Peter."
"If I decide yes—or if I decide no—how can I defend myself?"
"You are quite helpless," she confessed in a whisper. "No. You cannot defend yourself." Her expression showed an inward struggle. "You are in my hands. You are in my arms! Yes! What have you to say?"
The smile of bitterness came and flickered again over his pale lips. He tried to throw back his head, but the redness was settling down upon him again. "What shall I say?" he muttered. "I say—two lights! I say—no! No!"
The fingers at his neck were icy. Gently he was lowered to the pavement.
Romola had taken the candle down from the rafter, and she went swiftly to the tiny window. She raised her hand, once, then pinched out the flame between her fingers.
Foggy consciousness. A roaring like that of the ocean on a rockbound coast. He seemed to be floating in a medium of ice. Once his dragging arm scraped a wet, slippery timber. The journey seemed to be taking him down—down—into the earth, and slowly he began to rise.
Gradually he became aware of innumerable pinpoints of light in a shield of purple darkness. These might have been stars, or the lights of a great city. Next he heard the low gurgle of water, as of a stream splashing through wilderness.
He felt very faint, but the vapor clouds in his brain were beginning to clear away. Next he was badly shaken up, yet he was conscious of no pain. Remorseful eyes stared into his from the face of a candle-white spectre, and in the background a tall, half-naked giant swayed from side to side in a pink glow.
Where, then, were Jen and his Chinese?
He vaguely sensed the dawn; it came to him as an old experience, a sort of groping memory out of a gloriously romantic past. And the swaying giant he decided in a moment of rare clarity to be a sampan coolie.
The pink glow increased, became pale yellow, while a deep blueness figured in it. A swollen sun came and paved a bloody path across a lake of roiled brown, and the water hissed with a white foam.
His jaws were aching; a queer emptiness in his chest caused him long and perplexing speculation. There were shouting voices aloft, and a gleaming black wall slowly took form above him. He made out the pointed heads of rivets.
"Are you awake?" The voice, low and sibilant, emerged from the candle-white face.
He had been dreaming, too, during this fantastic journey. Once he had plainly distinguished a field of waving corn. He seemed to be back in California.
"Eileen," he murmured, surprised at the feebleness of his voice.
"No, no," came the reply. "It is Romola. I—I am leaving you!"
"Ah! Where is Jen?"
Bellowing inquiry came down to them: "Who is that? What do you want?"
The girl called back: "The wireless operator. He is sick. Drop the ladder. Send down some one to carry him."
The sampan was swinging about, and the coolie was paddling like mad.
"River boat—for Ching-Fu?" Peter gasped.
"No. The King of Asia. Peter—can you understand? I am leaving you! This is good-by! I—I—we will never see each other again. I—I couldn't turn you over to that man!"
"But the candle——" Peter was miserably confused. "You raised it—once! I said no!"
Romola seemed to become rather hysterical. "I tricked them, Peter! Oh, won't you understand? I do love you, Peter! I couldn't give you to them!"
"No," he muttered; "I don't understand. I—I'm dizzy."
The voice was bellowing again.
"Is that Peter Moore? What's happened to him?"
"He's sick—sick! Send down a watchman. Hurry! This tide is carrying us away!"
Something bounded into the sampan. A brown coil was flattened against the gleaming black wall.
But Peter could not understand. He was back again in the cellar under Romola's house, mumbling insanely about a candle-light. Perhaps he dreamed that hot lips were pressed lingeringly against his own. Over and over he heard a fading voice; it was saying: "Good-by!—Ch'ing!"
The glaring sun was in his face. He shut his eyes. The lips seemed to be torn from his in a cry of anguish. Strong arms encircled his waist, and he was no longer aware of the motion of the sampan.
It was late in the day when Peter opened his eyes again, closed them, and stared at the mattress and springs of a bunk over his head. He was lying on his back in his stateroom. Smoky afternoon sunlight, reflected from a shimmering surface, sparkled and bubbled against the white enameled wall.
His head was aching a little, and there were numerous jumping pains in various parts of his body. He had been dreaming. All of these things that had come and gone with the fading of the night were figments of a slumbering brain. The last portion of the dream which he could visualize distinctly was his act of arising from a wireless machine in a house that had gone mad, to confront a tall Chinese who wore a ridiculously stubby pigtail, like that of Jen, the deck-steward.
He sat up, governed by a sudden worry. Where were the Whipple girls and Anthony? What had become of that dashing British lieutenant, Milton Raynard?
Peter arose hastily from bed, and examined a pale and gaunt countenance in the small mirror above the wash-stand. Dark lines had come under his eyes, and the deep-blue pupils seemed to kindle with a peculiar brilliancy. He had seen that look in other eyes, and another fragment of the dream came back to him. He licked his dry lips, tasting a flavor not unlike that of opium fresh from the poppy, and of almonds.
He filled the wash-basin with cold water, took a long breath, and immersed his face for a half minute. Gasping, he came out of it with pink starting into his cheeks, and his mental faculties somewhat better organized.
When he emerged from his stateroom, attired in a fresh white uniform, with his gold-and-white cap set at a jaunty angle on his head, he looked like a different man. His skin was glowing, and a youthful heart was sending recuperative tingles all over his body.
Peter took a turn about the promenade deck in search of Anthony, and was hailed by his room-boy, who had some mail for him.
He dropped these missives absently into his pocket, made further inquiries, and learned that Anthony and the Misses Whipple had come to the steamer shortly before sunrise in the launch belonging to the river gunboat Madrusa.
Then he knocked at Anthony's door. A tired snore, emanating from the transom, broke into a sleepy complaint.
The door opened; Anthony stared at him as if in the presence of a ghost. "Great Scott! I thought you were dead!" He rubbed his eyes to accelerate wakefulness.
Peter chuckled. "What happened? Both girls safe?"
"How did you get here alive?"
"I came down by sampan. The princess detained me."
Anthony shivered. "We thought you were with us. Somebody put out all the lights!" He shivered again. "Raynard wanted to go back—so did I. We didn't dare! The girls, you know." He dropped his head, as if ashamed.
"How is Peggy?"
Anthony frowned, hesitated. "Peter, she—she thinks you're a quitter! She thinks you ran away at the big moment!"
Peter grinned. "That can be cleared up. Did you enjoy—the game? Did you succeed? That's all I'm worrying about."
Anthony looked at him suspiciously. "That was not a put-up job. Why—I shot a man!" He became anxious. "Will there be a row?"
"Not a bit—if you keep your mouth shut."
"Oh, I'll do that! But that dead Chink! Ugh!"
"Forget him," advised Peter cheerfully. "I still don't know what Peggy had to say."
"What do you mean?" Anthony gave him a blank stare.
"Does she think——"
A light of understanding came into Anthony's clear gray eyes. "Oh, I made a little mistake," he confessed weakly. "It—it isn't Peggy; it's Helen! We're engaged! You see, Helen is such a—a quiet and reserved sort of girl. Just my kind! Peggy—well, you know, I decided she was a little too—too wild!"
A long, low gray launch was chugging alongside when Peter made his way back to the promenade-deck. At the upper extremity of the companion-ladder which reached down to the river's surface was standing a slim and youthful figure in blue, with wisps of golden hair flying about in the soft spring breeze.
She leaned anxiously and expectantly over the rail as a tall and commanding young man in the white uniform of his majesty's naval service climbed up eagerly toward her. The young officer leaped gracefully over the rail, seized both hands of the girl, and his eyes were shining.
Peter's deep-blue eyes unaccountably took on an expression of moist sadness; yet he was grinning.
He climbed up to the boat-deck, unlocked the wireless room, and for the first time recalled the mail in his hip-pocket. Leisurely he scanned the post-cards first, highly colored ones, which had been forwarded from the San Francisco Marconi office, emanating from friends scattered in many parts of the world. One was from Alaska; another from Calcutta, India, from that splendid fellow, Captain Bobbie MacLaurin.
He opened the letter, and his eyes fell upon familiar handwriting. He suddenly felt shocked; the sentences began swimming. The letter was from Eileen, dated Nanking. Words stood out whimsically, like thoughts assailing a tired brain, clamoring for recognition.
... You are the stubbornest man! ... Do you imagine I ever cared for that puppy? Why, Peter—why didn't you wait? I'd have scratched his eyes out! Of course, he kissed me! But the point is, my dear, I didn't realize until it was all over.... I suppose I should have jumped into the ocean when you left me so angrily. But I didn't. I came to China on the Empress of Japan. I am now at the Bridge Hotel, in Nanking, on my way to Ching-Fu, where you may find me. Just to show you that I can have adventures, too!
"Great guns!" said Peter. He wondered if he could catch the Nanking express; there was a Chinese steamer leaving Nanking for up-river to-morrow noon.
There was a humble voice at his elbow. A deck-boy was grinning dreamily at him; a queer flicker darted across his green eyes, vanished.
"Jen!" exclaimed Peter, glimpsing an abbreviated pigtail.
"Aie!" said the deck-boy.
"The man from the Jen Kee Road place!"
The deck-steward seemed puzzled. "My no savvy," he said. His look became dreamy again, reminiscent.
"But you can speak English as well as 'pidgin,'" declared Peter, frowning. "You did last night!"
"My savvy 'pidgin,'" said Jen brightly. "China allatime funny place! China no can savvy allatime funny people! Funny!"
"What's that?" snapped Peter. He was baffled and angry. Had Jen played the leading part in the mysterious and grim comedy of last night, or was he only a work coolie, a deck-steward, harmless, innocuous, babbling happily in his limited knowledge of a strange language?
The deck-boy was pointing up-river with a long, yellow finger.
Peter stared. And he saw nothing, nothing but a great red sun with its lower half enveloped in a glowing pool of green and red smoke into which arose the black spars of ships from all over the world.
The sky was clearing. Rain had ceased dripping from the bulging black clouds, and a slender rod of golden sunlight pierced through and marked a path upon the red bricks of the inn courtyard. Hazy in the green-and-purple distance could be glimpsed the yellow withers of the western range. Cooking smells, the sour odor of fish-and-rice chow, were wafted from the braziers of village housewives.
Peter loafed against a spruce post, and moodily contemplated the stamping animals in the enclosure. His hat was in his hand, and the mountain breeze assailed his blond hair, which, rumpled and curly, gave him something of the appearance of a satyr at ease. He was worried. He had, an hour before, come to Ching-Fu from the boat; and Eileen had left Ching-Fu for a trip to Kialang-Hien, a village of the third order some fifty li distant, the morning before. Whether to follow or wait was the question.
Somewhere afield a valiant bronze gong called infidels to the feet of an insufferable clay god.
Peter's flow of thought was interrupted. Unnoticed a girl—at first glance the virtuous daughter of a mandarin—was approaching. Her abruptness and her appearance caught him so completely off guard that he held his breath and stared at her rather wildly. And she in turn, as if fascinated, stared back as wildly at him.
His first guess was inaccurate. She was no mandarin's daughter, this one. She was young and exquisitely slim, with wisdom and sadness written upon her colorless face, and he was informed by a single glance at her exploring bright eyes and the straightness of her fine black brows, that she was half-breed, Eurasian.
Those shining eyes, not unlike twin jade beads, were sparkling. Her lips were thin and as red as betel. Her garb was satin, bright with gold filigree and flashing gems; and her dainty feet were disfigured rather than adorned by bright-red sandals. Her feet, however, were not the "feet of the lily," for the lithe grace of her stride was ample proof that they had not been bound.
The dying sun outlined through the folds of her bizarre garment ankles straight, slender, and probably naked.
Rosy color moved swiftly into her satiny complexion while, with a pretty, inquisitive frown, she scrutinized him; and then, with a flick of her black eyelashes, she ran toward the arched doorway, leaving Peter to ponder, and scratch his blond head, and demand amazing explanations of himself.
It was a dominating trait in Peter never to lose time securing information that was interesting to him; but the old proprietor, with his wise and varnished smile, could vouchsafe very little of consequence.
The young woman, he admitted, was named Naradia. She was accompanied by her husband, a young Chinese of high birth, who manifested no more signs of activity to an outward world than a baffling secretness.
The two of them had arrived from down-river on a sailing junk the week before. The husband's name was Meng, he believed, and since he had come, the old man declared, many strange and warlike faces had mysteriously appeared in Ching-Fu.
Such visitors were not uncommon in the villages which bordered the merchants' trail, from the Yangtze to the Irriwaddi, but Peter's interest was kindled. As he made off in the direction of the most reliable village mule-seller, he decided that the secretive young bridegroom, Meng, might be worth cultivating.
From a soft-tongued and hardened swindler Peter procured a mule, and arranged to have the animal in the caravansary at daybreak. It was his intention to start for Kialang in search of Eileen with the first tender glow of dawn.
After dining he waited in the compound for a glimpse of the mysterious Meng, or his ravishing bride, Naradia. Unsuccessful, he returned to his room. His Chinese valet was brewing jasmin-tea when Peter opened and shut the bedroom door. His pajamas were neatly laid out upon his couch, and the rugs were neatly furled back. He detected the acrid and pleasing odor of incense as he crossed the room.
The boy glanced up meekly from the charcoal brazier. "Wanchee tea now?"
"Yes." Peter slipped out of his tunic.
The boy dropped on his knees to unlace Peter's boots.
Peter lighted a cigarette, stretched himself out upon the rugs, and the boy brought him a steaming cup.
"Wake me—daylight—sure," cautioned Peter, lifting the cup.
"Tsao," murmured the boy.
When the boy was gone Peter removed the automatic from his raincoat pocket. The metal glittered pleasantly in the yellow light from the suspended lamp. The cup of tea had served to waken him. He released the cartridge clip from the automatic's handle and stared thoughtfully at the glowing lead balls.
He became conscious of a sound, alien and untimely. The door was rattling softly. He studied it with interest; the wooden handle was turning slowly, first to the right, then to the left.
The phenomenon puzzled him. His eyes were sparkling a little as he quietly restored the clip of cartridges.
Creeping to the hinged side of the door, he waited, breathing silently.
With a squeak the door swung in quickly. A lean, yellow hand, gripping a nickel-plated pistol, was thrust inside.
Peter shot three times directly through the wood panel.
The white pistol thudded to the planks, while the yellow hand seemed to be jerked backward by an electric force. Soft footsteps retreated. Peter jerked open the door and stepped out.
The corridor was empty. Some few feet toward the stairway an oiled wick, jutting from a tiny bronze cup which was bracketed to a scantling, burned and sputtered.
Under the door across the way a thin streak of yellow light indicated that the mysterious young Chinese and his bride had not yet retired.
As Peter was examining the floor for blood stains the door budged inward sufficiently to panel the terrified face of the Eurasian girl he had seen earlier in the evening. At sight of him she shut the door hastily.
Perplexed, he went to the stairway and peered into the stark blankness which swam up to the third step below him. He was at a loss to account for the air of serenity which still dwelt in the inn. Surely the three revolver shots had been overheard; yet the place was as silent as the grave, and quite as ominous. Where were the servants, the caravan boys, the muleteers, the traders and merchants? He dismissed as absurd the theory that the walls of his room were stout enough to muffle the short-barreled blasts.
An isolated sound, a swish of discreet garments, a prudent grating sound, as of a window lifted or a chair moved, then came to him, and unquestionably it came from his own room.
Peter left the staircase to its gloomy shadows.
The room was unoccupied. Basing his next action upon sound and tried experience, Peter put out the lamp and hazarded a glimpse out of the window.
A sharp, round moon was perched high in a star-studded heaven, fairly illuminating a muddy street and the low-thatched roofs of nearby dwellings. A horse whinnied and stamped in the enclosure, and from a distance rose the moody growl of the rapids.
Irritated and nervous, Peter felt for the couch and sank down in the blackness, with the revolver dangling idly across one knee.
At that instant he was thrilled to the roots of his hair by a scream, strangely muffled.
Peter indulged in a shiver as he stole to the door on tiptoe, opened it quietly, and looked out. There was terror in that scream; it was the outcry of a human in the clutch of real horror.
The door across the way was slightly ajar, letting out an orange effulgence which lighted the boards, the opposite wall, and the grimy ceiling. Indistinctly he discerned a motionless clump, and, catching the white flicker of steel he sprang across, wrapping his fingers about a struggling wrist.
Immediately the orange light was broadened, then darkened by a tall figure, but Peter's back was turned.
An eager sigh, as if heartfelt relief, was given out by the second shadow.
The knife, under Peter's pressure, dropped to his feet, and, quite sure that the time was now past to ask polite questions, Peter brought down the butt of the revolver with a smart slap where the long black pigtail joined a fat little head. With a throaty gurgle his victim joined the shadows of the floor.
A soft, white hand was laid upon Peter's right arm, and he found himself glaring into the blanched face of the girl Naradia. Her small fingers hardened upon the flesh of his hand, and he was aware that she was staring imploringly across his shoulder.
Peter spun about and for the first time was aware of the presence of the indolent figure in the doorway. The glow of a cigarette was at the man's lips, but the darkness prevented scrutiny.
The rapid procession of mysterious events had unnerved Peter. The silent and indolent presence of the stranger in the doorway put the spark to his long-withheld indignation. He lifted the revolver's nose menacingly.
The cigarette glowed a bright red, as if in amazement.
"You," he snapped, "whoever you are—pick this man up. Carry him into my room. And you," he added sharply to the girl, "follow him!"
The cigarette fell to the planks, and the tall man put his heel upon it. The careless movement gave Peter his first glimpse of the man's profile. The man smiled faintly. He took the unconscious assailant of Naradia by the heels and dragged him into Peter's room.
A match hissed; the flame of the lamp rose up slowly.
With a flutter of skirts the girl followed, her head inclined, as though she was humiliated or greatly embarrassed. She went to the couch and faced him, while an attempt at calmness and a determined fear struggled to control her expression. Her attire was negligee, of pink Japanese silk, open at the throat, and revealing a neck and shoulders as white and smooth as bleached ivory.
Peter closed the door and shot the bolt.
The man who smiled so confidently had rolled the knife carrier with his face to the wall. Then he crossed to the couch and took a stand beside the girl, seemingly at ease under Peter's sharp and thorough inspection.
As Peter examined the slender, colorless face he imagined for an instant that the man, also, was Eurasian. But that impression he quickly realized was incorrect. The man simply was of a high order of Chinese intelligence, with smooth, dusky skin, thin, stubborn lips, a straight forehead, and eyes which were dark, watchful and sad.
Yet these eyes seemed to twinkle now, shifting without a trace of fear from the unwavering gun-barrel in Peter's hand to the unwavering glint in Peter's blue eyes.
And there was something undeniably imperial in the young Oriental's bearing. Perhaps this was caused by his attitude, or the Oriental richness of his garb. He might have been an Asiatic prince, or a sheik fresh from the desert, or a maharaja, from a jungle throne. A glittering cluster of gems—diamonds and rubies—hung from a fine gold chain which encircled his bronzed neck. His tunic was of satin, the color of the tropical sea; his breeches were spotlessly white, and his slippers were Arabian, with up-curled toes.
"Well?" asked the young Asiatic, when Peter's gaze finally descended to the scarlet slippers.
"I am waiting," said Peter, impatiently.
Black eyebrows went up inquiringly. "I am a merchant—from Shanghai."
"What you are or who you are is of no importance," returned Peter in a voice of cordial doubt. "Perhaps you've aroused my idle curiosity; at all events, I want you to tell me why you were late in coming to your wife's assistance."
"His life is more precious," she interceded, hastily.
The Oriental waved his hand, as if the answer were absurd. "You anticipated me by three seconds," he replied. "I was drowsing. I thought I had dreamed the scream. May I say—I am very grateful?"
Peter's expression was dubious, but he nodded at length as though partly satisfied. "Perhaps you can tell me what became of the man who opened my door?"
The man's face was frankly bewildered. "I am at a loss to account for any man entering your room—unless by mistake," he said with genuine concern. "I think you are crediting me with an interest in an affair that I know nothing of. Unless—unless——" He hesitated and paused, searching Peter's eyes with a glance suddenly startled. "Can it be possible——?" he muttered. "I judge by your accent that you are an American. I have spent the past four years myself in America—at Harvard. Somehow——" He paused again, and smiled faintly.