Suddenly the smile departed, was displaced by the most murderous of grimaces. He was looking beyond Peter. His right hand flashed into his blue tunic. And before Peter could turn or dodge, he sprang past him, colliding with an object which grunted and instantly cried out in agony.
Peter turned in time to see a thin knife plunge into the throat of a swarthy Chinese, whose face was round as the Mongolian moon, and as yellow.
The Chinese wiped his knife coolly on the fallen man's black jacket. "Why, my good friend, should he attack you, unless——" He paused again, and searched Peter's face with those keen brown eyes, no longer sad.
"Unless what?" he asked, bluntly. "This man is from Len Yang."
He heard the girl utter a sharp gasp, and a queer light was dawning in the other's face.
"Unless you are"—he hesitated—"unless you are the one man in the world I wish you might be." He laughed. "Are you—Peter Moore, known in some parts of China as—Peter the Brazen?"
Peter nodded slowly.
With a delighted cry the young Oriental sprang to him and seized his hand. "Do you hear, Naradia?" he exclaimed. "This is Peter Moore!"
And Peter permitted his suspicions to drift, as he thought of the dead man on the floor, and of the reason why he died. He was compelled to admit that the stranger had saved his life.
"We must talk this over," the young Chinese was muttering. "Why, I could not have arranged it more suitably!" He seemed to collect himself then. "Before we talk, let us get rid of this man."
He picked up the dead coolie by the waist, lifted him easily to the window, and dropped him, as if he were a sack of rice, into the mud. He whistled twice. Immediately three shadows were given up by the caravansary. These gathered up the dead man and vanished.
"They will dispose of him," said the stranger, helping himself to a cigarette. He paused with the flaring match in his fingers and looked at Peter quizzically. "My name is Kahn Meng. And I am not from Shanghai."
Peter nodded agreeably, although the explanation explained nothing.
"I have returned to China to attack and capture the city of Len Yang. I came from there originally. Exactly five years ago I galloped over the great drawbridge to study the classics in Peking. Fortunately I met a man. He was an American missionary. He said to me: 'Kahn Meng, the classics are dead. Betake yourself to America, where you will find the fountain of modern knowledge.' Of course, the missionary was a Harvard man."
Peter frowned slightly.
"What you don't understand probably, Mr. Moore, is why I can leave Len Yang and return at will. I can't. I escaped from Len Yang at night. I am returning with a thousand men at my back. Those men have occupied this village. My conscience forbids my confessing to you how many of the spies of Len Yang have been fed to the hungry river since my arrival.
"You understand, the monster of Len Yang, as I affectionately call him, must not know of my return. Otherwise he would make me prisoner. This fat-faced one slipped through the guard lines. There may be others." He grunted. "They do not dare kill me. For I——" He threw up his handsome head proudly.
"For you——" encouraged Peter.
"Must hide my identity," finished Kahn Meng with a little laugh. "But Naradia—they object to her. They have attempted to kill her, so many times. Naradia, how many?"
"A score of times," she said darkly. "To-night they nearly succeeded. I am not wanted. I am a half-caste—a Chinese father, a poor French mother. They desired him to marry of the——"
"Hush!" cautioned her husband, for Naradia was almost hysterical and was willing to prattle on. Kahn Meng smiled tenderly. "Naradia," he continued, lowering his voice gently, "now that Peter Moore and I are at last together, will you excuse us? You must be exhausted, my dear—after this unpleasant affair. Will you retire? Remember, little Chaya, in another week this terror will be at an end. Mr. Moore and I will begin planning instantly."
Naradia laid her hands upon his and smiled sweetly. "Good-night!" she said, obediently. "Good-night,"—she lifted her brows archly—"Peter the Brazen! I do hope that you are not a dream!"
They watched the pink silk of her gown flit into the corridor, whereupon Kahn Meng took Peter's arm companionably and guided him to the window.
A keen, soft wind, tempered with the fragrance of ripening pepper trees, came in to them in delicate puffs. A mysterious light twinkled distantly upon the river. The moon was sinking into a void, and the night was becoming black.
Kahn Meng was extracting from his satin blouse a gold-and-black cigarette case. Peter accepted one of the white cylinders and struck a match. In the flare he found that Kahn Meng was studying him shrewdly, dispassionately.
"In the first place," began Kahn Meng, "let us settle the important matter of price. I will promise you whatever you desire. I want you." He spat into the darkness. "Why are you in Ching-Fu? I believed you to be in America, but I could not find you. What brings you here? Surely you were not planning to enter Len Yang again alone?"
Peter shook his head. "I came on another errand, which has nothing to do with Len Yang. But"—he threw away the half consumed cigarette—"you have made a mistake, Kahn Meng. The first matter to settle is the more important one of identity."
"Take me just as I am," pleaded Kahn Meng earnestly. "We have one desire, I know, in common—to clean up that horrible city! You have visited Len Yang. You know the wretched condition of the miners—slaves, poor devils. Perhaps you have seen them at nightfall coming from the shaft, dripping with the blood-red of the cinnabar, starving—blind!"
"I have seen all that," agreed Peter, grimly.
"Ah! But are you acquainted with that man's methods? Do you know that his corrupt influence has extended into every nation of Asia? His organization is more perfect than any eastern government. His system of espionage puts those of Japan and Germany to shame! You must know! You have encountered his underlings. Oh, I have heard of the Romola Borria affair. Your escape was masterly! I believe you astounded him."
Kahn Meng paused and puffed long at his cigarette.
"Think, Kahn Meng, what might be accomplished," said Peter fervently, "if the power he wields, that tremendous human machine—hundreds and thousands of men—were devoted to the proper ends! Think what could be done for China!"
Kahn Meng turned quickly. His eyes seemed to shine above the ruby glow of his cigarette.
"I wanted you to say that!" he exclaimed, enthusiastically. "The thing has been in my mind for years—ever since I was a child! We can do it! We can!"
"Yet one thousand men cannot enter Len Yang. It is a fortress."
"There is another way into Len Yang—by the mines. It cuts off three days of the journey. I remember it as a child. Tremendous black ravines lead to the entrance from the merchants' trail, and the opening is so small that you could pass it a thousand times without suspecting. Will you accompany us, Peter Moore—Naradia and I and our followers? We leave at dawn." He waited anxiously.
Peter shook his head regretfully. The song of adventure was musical to his ears, but he could not leave with Kahn Meng in the morning. There was Miss Lorimer—in Kialang.
"I cannot leave Ching-Fu until to-morrow night."
"That will be as well, perhaps," assented Kahn Meng after a moment's thought. "We will rest for the night in the Lenchuen Pass. It is to the right of the black road. My sentries will be watching for you."
Peter shot the bolt and listened to the sad grumble of the river as he endeavored to adjust this strange incident to the stranger events of the very full evening.
Not until the mysterious Kahn Meng had said his good-night did Peter realize how exhausted he was.
He looked at his watch, a thin gold affair, which had ticked faithfully during all of his adventures, and was exceedingly astonished that the night had already flown to the hour of four-thirty.
Dawn would come very soon, and with the first peep of the sun he was to start for Kialang and Eileen.
The lamp smoked sleepily overhead; far away the great river sang its bass song.
He must be up at dawn. What a question-mark was Kahn Meng! A Harvard graduate—and a native of the red city! And what an adorable creature was the girl Naradia! Her eyes were like jade, her lips like poppy petals....
A crash of sound, a blaze of golden light, aroused him. He sat up, dodging a sunbeam which had flicked his eyelids. Shrill voices came from a distance. The odor of manure exhaled by the caravan sheds floated into the room, and Peter jumped up front the couch with an angry grunt. His heart was heavy with the guilt of the man who has overslept.
The watch ticked, and the neat, black hands had covered an amazing amount of ground; it was nearly tiffin-time.
The shrill, distant voices continued. Curiously, Peter looked out.
It was a beautiful sunlit morning, as clear as spring water. Miles away the sun shone on the yellow haunches of the range, altering them to a range of heavy gold; and gleamed tenderly on the paddy fields, black and ripely green.
Peter lowered his eyes to the square formed by the intersection of a number of alleys some distance beyond the caravansary. A sizable mob was collected in this enclosure; he estimated that there were at least a thousand pagan-Chinese assembled, in ring formation—a giant ring, dozens deep, and centered upon a small focussing spot of white.
The spot of white occupied the precise center of the square, and Peter studied it for some moments out of idle curiosity. Crowning the white object was a smaller spot of chestnut-brown. He dashed out of his room and down the stairs without even pausing for his hat.
Peter gained the edge of the crowd, and he bored into it, scattering protesting old ladies and chattering old men as ruthlessly as if they had been unfruitful stalks of rice.
It was a desperate fight to the center of that mob, for others were as curious as Peter. Then, over the swaying shoulders he caught a second glimpse of the chestnut-brown. It was a woman's hair, and it was familiar in arrangement.
He broke into an arena not more than nine feet in diameter in which were three objects: a wooden cask, upturned, a leather hand-bag, and a small and exceedingly pretty young woman. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes were gray and sweet, and her mouth was like an opening rosebud.
"Eileen——" he cried.
"Why, Peter Moore!" she gasped.
He rushed to take her, but she held up her palms, retreating.
He laughed. "What under the seven suns are you doing in Ching-Fu—and Kialang—and China? What's the meaning?"
He observed that a snow-white apron extended from her dimpled chin to her small ankles.
"This is my office hour," she said severely.
"But what does this mean—this?" he exploded, gesturing wildly toward the circle of attentive onlookers.
"My clinic!" She smiled.
"You're not practising medicine out here—in this street!" he ejaculated.
"Indeed I am," she replied. "Some of these people have been waiting their turns since daylight. I returned from Kialang an hour ago. And I'll work until I collapse. I must. I wish I could multiply myself by a thousand. There's not another doctor within miles. You can watch, if you'd like," she added, then called shrilly.
An old woman appeared, and went scurrying, returning immediately with a clean, wooden bucket filled with hot water.
Eileen removed from the hand-bag what appeared to be a wallet. Stripping a rubber band from this she revealed a row of shining surgical knives. Then she produced from the black bag several bottles and a roll of absorbent cotton.
"Eyes," she told him as her hand was swallowed again by the black bag.
A child, a river boy, was pushed forward by a squinting mother. Quaking fearfully, he sat down on the cask at the girl's feet.
She turned to Peter. "This child has been without sight for a month. Without this operation he would remain blind forever. To-morrow he will see again."
"You're wonderful!" Peter exclaimed.
At the gentle touch the child's loud whining ceased. She lifted one of the swollen lids. The boy did not flinch.
"Filth caused this," she explained. "The Chinese are the dirtiest race on earth, anyway," she added, dipping a clump of cotton into an antiseptic wash and rinsing the patient's eyes. "Where there is too much dirt, there is blindness. One-fourth of the population in this section of China are blind. They go to 'fortune tellers,' and they remain blind. In nine cases out of ten the simplest of operations followed by care will cure this type of blindness."
"Good enough; but will they be careful afterward?" Peter was curious to know.
"Once their sight is given back to them, they follow directions to a T. I'm leaving behind me a trail of the cleanest Chinamen you ever laid eyes on!"
She became silent, and so did Peter, who watched, hardly daring to breathe, the swift, sure dartings of the tiny knife in her white fingers. It was done in a jiffy; and there seemed to be on pain.
"Shouldn't you have an operating-room?" inquired Peter, as she bound up the child's eyes in gauze.
She gave him a bright, professional smile. "Peter, I've learned to operate with a thousand hooting infidels crowding closer than this. In Nanking I was nearly mobbed."
Peter looked concerned. "Did they harm you?"
"Oh, no! They wanted their children, their wives, and their virtuous mothers to see the light of day again."
"Eileen, you're an angel!"
"Be careful, Peter, or I'll kiss you in front of all these people." She blushed and smiled. "I think I was very bold to come up here all alone. Don't you?"
Peter grumbled something which escaped her.
She sat down wearily on the cask and looked up at him forlornly. "I thought it would be a lark; but it isn't. It's the hardest kind of work. There seem to be so many blind people—and I get tired—furious!"
"Can't we break away from this mob and have a little chin-chin by ourselves?"
"You're not anxious, Peter?"
"This is not Shanghai," he rejoined sententiously. "Ching-Fu is not a healthy spot for me—or for you. I've been watched. Perhaps, this very minute——" He stopped and looked at the dour faces pressed about them.
She shrugged. "Are you going on to Len Yang this time, Peter?"
He nodded slightly. "Perhaps."
"Without you," he stated firmly, dimly conscious of a stir on the fringe of their audience.
"It isn't fair," she murmured; "I've come all this way——" She touched her lips with the tip of a pink tongue. What she might have added was forestalled by rising confusion on the edge of the crowd. There were harsh voices, shrill voices; then these sounds were dwarfed by the thunder of furious hoofs.
White with the dust of the lower trail a troop of Mongolian horsemen, riding high in their jeweled saddles, swept into the square, shouting. Lashing their horses, they drove into the gathering with the fury of Cossacks.
Peter was thrown to one side by a tall man whom he had taken for a peasant. He tugged at his pocket, but the coolie was fighting his way toward the horsemen.
Indifferent to her struggles and screams, this giant carried Eileen in naked, brawny arms.
Peter leaped after, shouting and cursing at those who stood in his way. Some one tripped him. He regained his footing, shot his fist into the jaw of an argumentative youth, and struggled on.
The onlookers were scattering with loud and frightened squeals, running into one another, gathering in bewildered groups, darting for doorways, like sheep attacked by a wolf pack.
Then a black horse swept so close to Peter that the stirrup stripped the buttons from his tunic. A heavy whip stung him across the shoulders.
When he recovered from this blow the struggling girl was yards away, still struggling, but no longer screaming. She had been transferred to the arms of a giant Mongol, who evidently was the leader of this pack.
Peter whipped out the automatic and let go a burst at the horseman who now blocked his way; and the Mongolian, in the act of lifting a knife from its holster-scabbard, dipped across the animal's flank, with his eyes rolling toward heaven, his foot caught in one stirrup.
The horse, frightened, leaped up and spun about, twisting the fallen rider about his heels. And Peter had clear way for another few feet.
Another horseman swept down upon him. Peter brought the gun up and brought it down with fury. Twice he shot, and then this interference was removed.
The troops were gathering into crude formation, evidently for another charge. Eileen had disappeared.
Peter, knowing that she was somewhere in that quadrangle of rearing horses, struck forward, stumbling over fallen bodies, slipping in mud. His lungs burned, and he choked in a consuming rage. And suddenly he heard her scream his name.
The leader of the desert pack held her across his saddle, with his mighty arms pinioning her. He saw Peter, shouted, jabbed down with his spurs, and his mount fairly leaped. The others wheeled gracefully, and they vanished in thunder toward the plain.
Peter discovered the horse of one of the fallen warriors and leaped to capture him.
And in the next moment he was groping in blindness.
Lingering in his vision was a leering face.
Mud had been thrown into his eyes, and the filth was plastered from eyebrows to nose. In a flash he recognized the face. Months ago he had thrown that Chinese from the deck of a steamer into the shark-infested waters of Tandjong Priok, the harbor of Batavia, Java.
Such amusing spectacles as the struggling unbeliever with rich mud plastered in his eyes have a tendency to evoke keen appreciation from the yellow races, who are supposed to be devoid of a sense of humor.
Shrill and explosive laughter was arising on all sides of him.
Light came slowly to his tortured eyes through a thick, yellow film. All of his muscles were tensed; any instant he expected to experience the long anticipated thrill of cold steel between ribs—or at his throat.
Some kindly Samaritan had taken him by the hand. Mucous breath assailed him. He distinctly heard a thud, a grunt, a screamed order.
No words were spoken, yet the mysterious hand tugged urgently at his wrist. Peter knelt down and raised handfuls of water to his eyes from a tub. He looked about for his benefactor and met only the leering countenance of a highly amused group of urchins, men and women, diverted as they had probably never been diverted before.
And in the meanwhile he realized with a torn heart that the thundering hoofs were receding farther with each flitting instant.
Peter knocked down one man as he struck out through the amused circle. The square was now all but deserted. Two bodies lay in the mud, unattended. Examination proved these to be the earthly remains of the two Mongolian horsemen—the two he had shot down. The two horses were unattended. Peter mounted the nearest.
The air was growing cold. A keen, ice-edged wind was moving northward from the range, and the sky was graying with storm clouds.
His horse was moving like the wind, perspiring not at all, a thoroughbred, a mount for a prince! At his present rate he should catch up with the Mongolian rear by nightfall; otherwise the pursuit was certainly lost. And then Peter fell to wondering what tactics he would pursue when he reached the band. How could he, alone, armed only with an automatic revolver, hope to overpower professional riflemen who numbered at the least forty? It was a nice problem; yet he could reason out no simpler solution. He was bent on a task that might have won applause from a Don Quixote.
The sun was settling upon the golden roof of the range, sending out monstrous blue shadows across the valley.
Mountain darkness soon enveloped the world. A dazzling star appeared with the brilliant suddenness of a coast-light. The wind was winy with the flavor of high snows.
And suddenly the horse stumbled. Peter jerked on the reins. The horse whinnied, dancing awkwardly on three legs.
Peter dismounted. A foreleg was crippled. He groaned. Fate, long his ally, was laughing at him. The chase was ended.
Suddenly hoofs thudded on the firm dirt; a shadow darted by, nearly colliding with him. There was a trampling. A lantern frame clicked, and a lance of yellow light rippled upon his face, broadened.
He glared into the anxious brown eyes of Kahn Meng.
"You are in time!" He gripped Peter by the shoulder.
"Have you stopped them?" gasped Peter.
Kahn Meng indulged in a bitter laugh. "Only the wind could overtake them." He shrugged. "They came—they broke through our lines—and again they broke through! If they had stopped for battle," he added grimly, "there would have been a different tale to tell."
"And they have taken her to Len Yang?" Peter suddenly recalled that Kahn Meng probably knew nothing of Eileen.
"The doctor? Yes," assented Kahn Meng sadly. "One of my men was in Ching-Fu when the troop drove through. He was looking out for you. He arrived only a few moments ago. By Buddha, how you have traveled!"
"I intend to go on."
Kahn Meng sighed. "It means only death."
"I am willing."
"But you cannot catch them with any horse. You would be killed. We can arrive in Len Yang sooner," Kahn Meng pleaded. "Everything is ready."
"I'll follow," Peter stated grimly, "on the condition that you answer two questions. What is your relation to the man at Len Yang——"
"On my word of honor," Kahn Meng interrupted him with emotion, "I am a friend. Won't that suffice until the morning? If I were an enemy, if I were on his side——"
"I realize that," Peter stopped him. "Very well. I'll wait. My other question is this: Why does that beast search the world for beautiful women—and consign them to the mines?"
Kahn Meng was silent. Reluctantly Peter was allowing himself to be led through the darkness over broken ground. A pale dot of light emerged from the night.
"I do not know," said Kahn Meng finally. "It is hideous. I have seen them. That will be stopped!" he added tensely.
Under the lantern they paused, and Peter found his strange companion to be examining his features intently.
"I can add nothing to what has been said," Kahn Meng went on. "I have much to attend to now. We are starting immediately. At present will you trust me as I trust you?" He extended his right hand, and Peter clasped it silently.
The ripe old moon of Tibet was creeping from its bed, tipping the pointed tents with a soft glow.
On such another night as this Peter had first dared to enter the City of Stolen Lives, and the faint, mysterious sounds of a caravan at rest stirred up old memories.
The probable treatment of Eileen at the hands of Len Yang's king was too terrible for him to contemplate. And he was as helpless at this instant as though he were on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
A hot flood of anger welled up in his breast. His palms began to sweat. Each minute was drawing her closer to the moldy walls.
He could picture her struggling in the arms of the giant Mongolian. He could see the great drawbridge swinging down to the white road in the moonlight or the blistering heat of noonday. And on the hill, like a greedy, white vulture, he could see that solemn palace with minarets stretching like claws to the sky, crouching upon the red slime vomited forth by the mines.
A cool voice startled him. Kahn Meng came out of the darkness.
"Two hundred men will accompany us. The others will remain here in case an attack is made on our rear. There may be trouble. Of course, I could go, unharmed, into Len Yang by the mountain road; but as soon as I entered I would be helpless—a prisoner forever. He knows I am returning. He is expecting me. But he does not know that half his garrison are loyal to me. The yellow-whiskered one will not be glad to see me," he added with a malicious grin.
The night seemed to be filled with silent, wakeful coolies, armed with rifles. The grim and watchful silence of the procession, the black mystery of the night with the sinking, cold moon aloft, and the uncertainty of the whole affair, set Peter's nerves to tingling; and his heart was beginning to react to the high excitement of it.
He was elated, yet anxious. To-night's business was no quest of the golden fleece. The size of his undertaking, now that he stood, with only a few miles between, at the threshold of achievement, was overwhelming. He had pledged himself.
How he would proceed if the present venture succeeded was another matter. Fate or opportunity would have to shape his next steps. Perhaps in Kahn Meng, the mysterious, might rest the solution. Peter was an adventurer by choice, and an engineer by profession. Under given conditions he knew what to expect of men and machines. Before he had taken to the seas as a wireless operator he had had some experience as a railroad builder. He had laid rails in California, and Mexico. A successful career in that profession had been foregone when the warm hand of Romance laid hold of him.
He wondered how he could adjust himself to the routine of his old profession again, if that was the opportunity awaiting him in Len Yang. Governmental problems, he knew, would have to be given to more specialized men, such perhaps as Kahn Meng.
He looked behind him, at the long line of men stretched down the narrow ravine like the tail of a colossal serpent. Occasionally a stone, dislodged, clattered down into the crevices. Above them the rock stretched and lost itself in the cold purple of the night. The moon carved out vast shadows, black and threatening.
They emerged at length into a broader valley, jagged with spires flashing with gleams of the moon on frequent mirror-like surfaces. Ten thousand men could have been concealed in this desolate cavern. Yet it rang with emptiness as, far arear, a steel prod struck powdery fire from the flinty path.
Hours seemed to pass as they advanced, descending constantly. At times the granite walls nearly met above them, and then a shaft of moonlight would cast freakish shapes across their vision.
Once they paused for rest near a torrential stream. Some lingered to drink. The blackness in the sky was yielding itself to the spectral glow of the new day when Kahn Meng gave the order to halt.
He took Peter aside and explained his procedure. His plan was to send fifty men through the tunnel to the main shaft to subdue the guards; the remainder of the armed coolies, numbering about one hundred and fifty, would follow, forming a protective chain to the black door, an underground entrance.
"There should be no trouble, no confusion—a bloodless revolution," he added with a nervous, elated laugh. "I will occupy the place—you will follow. Wait ten minutes."
"A tunnel, fairly straight, leads from here directly to the black door. Have your revolver in readiness. My men may not make a clean job. The mine guards carry clubs. Each of my coolies has a rifle." Kahn Meng's eyes in the light of a torch were glittering excitedly. He grasped Peter's nearest hand in his enthusiasm.
"We are so near! Only a step!" He laughed wildly, lifted his voice ecstatically to a sing-song and chanted from Ouan-Oui: "Then——
"'Let us rejoice together. and fill our porcelain goblets with cool wine!'"
Now Peter was an emotional young man. And wrathful notions were kindled in him before he encountered the only guard Kahn Meng's men had overlooked—may the bones of that one rest gently!
He saw little children clawing in red muck; he saw young girls with sunken breasts, their former beauty a wretched caricature, carrying dying babes upon their backs. He saw tired old men, and women, crippled, blind, with red fingers and wrists, as if they had been dipped in blood. He saw plenty to enrage him.
Kahn Meng's guards bowed gravely as he passed them at tunnel passages. He had walked perhaps three-quarters of an hour generally in a single direction, bearing a torch, when he collided with a smooth, flat obstruction.
Somewhere in the earth distantly behind him occurred a metallic rumble, followed by a gust of soft wind, fragrant with the outdoors.
He was staring at blackness, the varnished blackness of a great wooden door. He was at the threshold! somewhere on the other side of that enormous wooden barrier was the man of Len Yang! Chalked boldly upon the surface was the legend:
P. M.—straight on—K. M.
Pulling with his fingers and bracing his feet in the rough floor, the mass moved monumentally toward him. It swung wide, on great, concealed hinges.
Peter's adventurous heart was beating an excited battle call. His burning eyes strained beyond the ruddy luminance of the torch, and examined—white marble! He was at his journey's end—somewhere in the palace of the Gray Dragon!
Peter dragged the great door softly shut behind him, and found himself in a chamber of vast proportions, built of what had at one time been purest white marble, discolored entirely now by the red taint of the bloody ore. The floor was perspiring redly.
Going on tiptoe to the center of the space, he searched the blank walls, listening breathlessly.
He heard nothing but the faint patter of the dripping slime, and he went swiftly to the end of the musty antechamber and discovered at the distant end the fourth wall, hitherto unseen. Reaching from the left corner of the scarlet tomb was a narrow staircase built also of marble.
Dropping his hand nervously into his right-hand tunic pocket, he went up and pushed open another door. He found himself now in a snow-white corridor, faintly lighted by grilles overhead. The hall reached gloomily into gray distance, and it was quite vacant. An unseen fountain was playing near by. At his left was another door, closed.
The closed door attracted him. Certainly there was no other course now than a detailed exploration.
Bracing himself for a surprise in this palace of hideous surprises, he flung open the door, and entered black darkness.
Carelessly he closed the door behind him, listening and sniffing. At first he heard nothing, but he smelled altar-incense faintly.
A deep-voiced gong suddenly reverberated while Peter tensed himself. The sonorous melody lifted and crashed, subsiding into countless unmusical overtones. Lighter metal rang upon wood.
Then lights—electric lights—by the dozens, hundreds—thousands—blazed with a violent suddenness, a suddenness that Peter could compare only with that of a tropical sun leaping out of the ocean; and Peter blinked upon green. It was a hideous green, a green of diabolical intensity. He shivered. It seemed to creep, to writhe, this green.
At first he could not absorb this insane color idea; and he stood there, with his heart sinking.
He discovered that he was occupying an oblong green rug of satin. He was dazzled by the green glare of a cluster of quartz lights in front of him, and he stared, first at a monstrous green Buddha, squatting on a thighless rump between flashing green pillars, and finally at the most hideous individual he had ever gazed upon, a human, who occupied a throne carved solidly from green jade.
The glimpse was like stepping from a dark dream into the center of an aquamarine nightmare. And in the instant following his partial digestion of the viridescent scheme he was possessed with the notion that the occupant of such a chamber of horror must certainly be insane.
That was the first idea to possess Peter. He was not surprised to find that he was unafraid. Anticipation is much more fearful than realization. He had experienced many panicky moments in looking forward to this meeting; and yet in the presence of him he was cool.
The Gray Dragon of Len Yang?
From the tail of his eye he detected a man with folded arms backed against the door. At either side of the green throne stood Mongolian guards, armed with rifles. They struck the only dissonant note of the picture, for they were garbed in desert brown.
Evidently all ways of escape were closed. For two years he had contrived to elude the tracers, the killers, sent out by this creature, and now he had deliberately walked upon his swords. Death? Where was Kahn Meng?
Possessed with a feeling akin to cat-like curiosity, Peter walked slowly to the beryl throne steps, where he paused, with his fists gripped tightly in his pockets, his chin up, and his shoulders back.
Close scrutiny did not soften the bestial cruelty of the face of Len Yang's ruler. It was a startling face, as gray as fresh clay, sharply wrinkled. The nose was exceedingly long and sharp, with a crooked joint. Dirty-yellow mandarin mustaches drooped like wet sea-weed from the sides of a curling, sneering mouth.
And it was dominated by a pair of very small, very bright green eyes, set deep and exceedingly close together.
But the tenor of the face was gray, the gray of living death, and from this emblem, Peter suddenly decided, the man had been given his descriptive name.
Long, gray talons reached out from the folds of a mandarin jacket and toyed nervously with a strand of gray hair which jutted from the pigtail winding over the slanting shoulder.
The green eyes blinked as they completed the survey of Peter Moore. The curling lips were moving.
"Peter Moore!" he rasped. "The most daring foreigner who has yet visited my city! Peter the Brazen, with a reputation of breaking the hearts of beautiful women! You are late. I have been waiting upon this visit for two years!"
He leaned forward, and Peter retreated a step.
"What have you done with her?" Peter snapped.
The Gray Dragon sank back with a sigh. "Ah! Would you like to gaze upon that which can never be yours?"
"May I see her—once—before I die?"
"That is a wise statement. You are altogether wise—astonishingly so! Wisdom is a rare gem in one so young." He chuckled in an irritating treble. "Look about you again, youth. This is known as the room of the green death. Few men leave the room of the green death alive. My hounds bay when they enter.
"The young woman is here—safe. If you will answer my questions, I may permit you to gaze upon her just once before you die! Perhaps I may be so lenient as to allow you to die together. Does not that appeal to you?" he demanded, as if anxious. "You—who are so thirsty for the gold of romance?"
Peter glared at him silently, and his fingers were twitching.
His host tapped the resonant gong. Some one stepped behind Peter, for he distinctly heard the seep of silken garments.
The man on the green throne muttered, adding to Peter: "I am granting your wish. You may gaze upon her before you die. I, too, will gaze, for I prize her highly, as you know."
He sank back meditatively, and in that moment the gray face became oddly sane.
"Peter Moore, seldom do I permit men who have troubled me so sorely to escape alive. Perhaps, in face of what has happened, you are foolishly taking unto yourself credit. And still, for a reason unknown to me, I hesitate.
"Listen to me closely, youth! For these two years I have watched you with my thousands of hired eyes—you cannot realize how closely! Because I was deeply interested. You are a riddle to me. You have the emotions of a woman, and the cunning of a hu-li.
"Times without count word has gone forth from this green room that your death must take place. Childish curiosity to stare just once upon the foolish adventurer has caused that word to be revoked! Do not assume credit for bravery that was not yours, Peter Moore! You are not heroic; you have been a plaything. The gods are through with you.
"Harken to me, Peter the foolish. Within these green walls daily are inscribed the names of men and women who must die. Your name has been spoken, yet never once has it been written. When it is written——" He paused with a portentous hush.
"To-day, when I realized you were at last coming to me, when spy after spy ran to my feet to say that at last—at last—Peter Moore, the unconquerable, was coming to pay his long-overdue call—I hastened with that daily quota of names of those who are doomed, so that I could attend you with undivided attention.
"Can it interest you? Nine men are doomed. Within two weeks from this hour a mandarin will die by the knife, an ambassador at the court of Peking will expire by poison, an indiscreet Javanese merchant——" He waved his skinny arms impatiently.
"Those whose names are written must inevitably die. If the name of Peter Moore had but once appeared on the green silk—I could have forgotten you—and rested. But I was restrained by a most curious impulse." He looked at Peter eagerly.
"You have perplexed, almost fascinated me. Tell me first, what was your power over Romola Borria?"
Peter only grunted, angrily astonished.
"Wait!" cautioned the curling lips. "I am not ridiculing you. I am keenly desirous of knowing." He frowned, pondering. "I will tell you about that woman. Romola Borria was sent to me, and I employed her. For certain difficult tasks she was all that I desired—more beautiful than sunset on the Tibetan snow—a glorious woman, yet as cold, as unfriendly as that same snow. Her spirit was one of ice, yet fire.
"And her heart was stone—or snow also. I sent her directly to communicate a certain thing to you—to kill you in the event that you declined. Shall I tell you how many men she has put out of the way at my bidding before and after she met you? No matter.
"Romola Borria was proof against love. No man was created for her to love. Yet that snowy heart melted, that precious coldness vanished, when she met—Peter Moore!"
The Gray Dragon paused, and the cessation of his metallic voice, the quick relinquishing of the evil glint in his small, green eyes, left Peter with a deeper feeling of revulsion than previously. It had been his imaginative belief that the Gray Dragon was utterly without human traits; yet he possessed that lowest of them all, a bestial curiosity.
"I can all but read your thoughts," he went on, lidding his green eyes a number of times. "You are saying what my victims invariably say when I grant them these rare audiences before they die. Over and over you are repeating—'Beast! Beast! Beast!' Is that not true?"
"That is absolutely true!"
Malice seemed to hover about the glittering green eyes, and was gone at once. "Peter Moore, to gaze at you is like gazing into a crystal. In you I witness that supreme quality which was denied me in my youth. I can have anything in the world but that supreme, that sublime quality. I can buy anything in the world but that." The voice stopped.
Peter shifted his glance momentarily to the armed attendants who guarded this evil life. An inner whisper counseled him: "Not yet! Not yet! There is time!"
"Yet there is a chance that I may reconsider; that I may permit you to continue to live—perhaps in the mines. But certainly, Peter the foolish, you must not yield to that present impulse. Of course, you are armed. But do not move! Two feet behind you stands an excellent shot with a pistol aimed at your backbone. Men with cracked spines do not live long!" He chuckled.
"What was I about to say? Ah, yes! If I could purchase from you that quality—if I could, I say, anything in my kingdom would be yours—everything! It is the one thing I have been denied. Holy wheel! It is strange, this way I am talking! I have rarely had such an interested audience. Most of my captives at this stage are cringing, are kissing my feet."
The snarling grin left his lips again, and his mood became strangely soft, like dead flesh, so Peter thought, as he waited—with that pistol at his backbone!
"I intend telling you an amazing story, which you may or may not credit. I am telling it—this confession—partly because I dislike the look in your blue eyes. Like everyone else, you loathe me. But I will erase that look. I intend to show you I am even more human than you!
"By Buddha, I will tell that story to you—you, Peter Moore, the most fortunate man in all China this hour. Think, before I begin, of that mandarin, that bungling Javanese merchant, who, also, are about to die. Then forget all else—and listen.
"This took place many years ago, when I was a young man, like yourself. I, too, loved a woman. Can you understand me? I, too, once loved a woman, a maiden of the Punjab. I can conceive her in the veil of my memory still. Eyes like dusty stars, skin the color of the Tibetan dawn, the dawn that you may never again look upon.
"Her heart was gold, so I thought. Yet it was dross. On a night in springtime, in the bazaar at Mangalore, we two first met. I have not forgotten. That night I fell in love with the white orchid from the Punjab. She was more beautiful to me than life or death, a feast of beauty.
"Len Yang was mine then, and I was a rich prince, but not so rich as now. Drunkenly I was casting my gold about the bazaar when we met. She saw me—and she smiled! It was the first time any woman had smiled upon me, and I was alarmed and troubled. I was no more handsome than now. I was the man that no one loved. Chuh-seng—the beast—was my name even then, among those who tolerated my friendship because of my fluent gold.
"And when the Punjab maiden smiled upon me, I thought to myself: 'Chuh-seng, love has come at last to sweeten your bitter heart.' What should a young lover have done? I—I bought the bazaar and presented it to her—on bended knees!
"She confessed that she could love me, despite my ugliness, this white orchid of the plains. Peter Moore, do not look at me. You can believe—if you do not look. She kissed me—on my lips! Again she said she loved me. Had I been a thousand times uglier, she would have loved me a thousand times more passionately! Heaven had joined us. And I forgave my enemies, renewed my vows at the wheel, and blessed every virgin star!
"Love had come to me at last! Me—the most hideous in all of Asia. And I believed her. What would you have done, Peter Moore—you who know so well the heart of woman? Never mind. I believed everything.
"We lingered in Mangalore. But I did not know then of the Singhalese merchant—the trader who owned three miserable camels. He possessed not handsomeness, but the romantic glamour which you possess, Peter the Brazen! Reveling in my love, I was as blind as these imbeciles in my mines. Our child was born.
"She could have taken more, had she not been so lovestruck. She could have had my all—my gems, my pearls, and rubies, and diamonds, more colossal than the treasure of any raja—my mines which dripped with the precious mercury!
"Yet she stole only my gold which was convenient, and went out into the starlit night with the Singhalese trader, to share the romance of the blinding desert—the Singhalese trader, a man of no caste at all! Love? That was my love!"
The hideous, gray face retreated behind talons as though to blot out the thought of that ancient betrayal. When the talons again dropped down, the dead softness of the face was replaced by the former sneer.
This change was quite shocking.
The beast was laughing harshly. "If I could not have love, I could at least have hate! I have hated more passionately than any man has ever loved!"
Peter said nothing to this, although the gray lips closed and the green eyes looked at him expectantly, almost demanding comment. Surely this creature was insane, with his room of the green death, his wild tales of love of a Punjab maiden, of wholesale hate.
The Gray Dragon seemed irritated. "What have you to say now?"
"I was only wondering," said Peter, as if suddenly tired, "when that pistol is to explode at my back."
"There is yet time," muttered his host. "No man has yet left this room in contempt of me! Can you believe I have lied?" he snarled. "Why, you fool!" he croaked. "I will teach you! What do you suppose has become of that other one whom you met at the weng into the hills? Do you imagine my men were not in his camp? Every inch of the way you two were watched.
"And what has become of your prudence? You who defied me, who escaped me—undone by a woman! She is why you are here. Because you are such a fool you shall die. I might have relented. I thought you were proof against love. Is any one? Is any one proof against it but me? Ah——"
He looked eagerly beyond Peter, and Peter heard a frightened sob, then a little cry, as the door closed heavily.
She flew across the room to him, and pressed her hands to his cheeks. Her eyes were sparkling with tears, and her face was very pale. Only her lips, which were everlastingly bright, gave color to that distressed young face.
"Peter!" she moaned. "Oh, I was so afraid!" She lowered her voice. "What is to become of us?"
He looked down at her and forced a smile to his lips.
"We who are about to die——" he began grimly.
She gave him a twisted smile as his arms tightened about her. He loved her for that courage.
With his arm at her waist he turned. He had observed that the Gray Dragon had spoken truly as regarded the armed coolie at his back.
Their captor bent forward and fixed upon them the most curious of glances. His merciless, green eyes ran from Eileen's tumbled chestnut hair to her small, tan boots—then he regarded Peter with the same intensity, and thereupon he seemed to be weighing the doomed lovers as a unit, or as an idea.
A devilish smile cracked his lips.
"So this is love?" he cackled. "This is the young woman to whom you have thrown your life away—after most splendid resistance—you, Peter the Brazen! Do you still love her?" He pointed a crooked forefinger at Eileen. "Tell me, would you desert him, in this first flush of your maiden love, for a handsomer man—and steal his gold, after he laid the earth at your feet? Would you do that?"
Methodically the talons stroked the sea-weed mustache.
"You are too anxious for death. You are romantic. Youth does have such ideas. Even I, Chuh-seng, have such notions. Death? Why does your little mind single out such simple punishment—you—lovers? Romantically you long for death, because in the next world you would come together again—in the lover's eternity of heaven.
"But I have a far more imaginative scheme. Separation! How does that appeal to you?" He leaned forward and watched them. "I have an excellent plan. One of you shall work until the end of his life in this mine, as beautiful captives in the past quarter century have slaved and died; the other shall labor until the end of life in my quarries, not more than one hundred miles from Len Yang.
"Then you will not speak of death. You will struggle and you will grow old long before your time, as the others have done, hoping that vain hope of again meeting. And I shall grant your wish! Years from now, when youth and the divine passion of youth have flown—when only the bitter dregs of that rapturous love remain—then you shall be reunited." He cackled humorously in his treble.
"O Buddha! How long have I waited for such an opportunity? How long? How long? Is it twenty years—or forty—or a thousand—since that night in the bazaar at Mangalore?" His green eyes rolled to the green ceiling. And his mood underwent another vast change, this creature of monster moods.
"Are you grateful to me, you two? You should be! It was I who brought you together—I, the cruelest man in all Asia! It must have been a divine night, that night on the great river, Peter Moore, when she came into your arms. Love blazed in your hearts that night; and this gray-eyed witch said, with downcast eyes: 'I like you, Peter Moore!' What difference what she said? Any words would have dripped as much with love!"
He sprang to his feet, groaning, his evil countenance undergoing convulsions, as of terrific inner spasms.
"You shall not have that!" he shouted. "You shall not have love! What I have done, I shall undo! You shall live apart. Love has been refused me; love is refused all who come within my reach! That is my decision. Nor shall you have death. One of you to the quarry—the other to the mines. I shall be generous. You may make your choice. And that is my decision!"
The lovers stared at him. The vicious plan had gripped Peter's imagination. Gone was all thought of the pistol, which lay even now in the palm of his hand. One shot would have silenced the beast forever; but he had forgotten such things as bullets and pistols.
He could realize only that, even before their first kiss had been exchanged, they would be torn apart.
The color had receded from Peter's skin and eyes; he looked very much nearer forty than thirty. And Eileen was reflecting that despairing attitude. She could think only of him toiling wretchedly in the mines or quarries, striving against a fate as unfriendly, as unyielding, as a wall of cold granite.
The Gray Dragon sank back, with his chest heaving. His features were working. The spasm had exhausted him; and the green brilliance gave his gray skin a ghastly pallor. He lifted a small silver hammer and brought it down upon the belly of a large bronze gong.
There was a stir behind them.
With the same cold hate in his expression as he addressed himself again to the lovers, who clung together like small children, pitiful objects indeed in this hall of pitiless green.
"The others are coming; their fate will be yours—you lovers!"
He turned to address words in dialect to the Mongolian on his right, and in the space Eileen's breath came warmly upon Peter's ear.
"Are you armed?" she whispered.
His nod was hardly perceptible. He dropped his hand into his pocket, and at that instant his arms were pinioned. The revolver was snatched from his fingers.
The malicious green eyes were staring beyond them.
Peter heard a low sob, instantly stifled. Naradia, with bloodshot eyes, was searching his face in distress. Her black hair had been arranged in a heavy braid, which ran down her back in a glistening rope.
Kahn Meng's sad eyes lingered on Peter's for a moment, sparkling with guilt, and his face was crestfallen. Plainer than any words could have said, his expression cried out: "I have failed! I am sorry."
Then he advanced to the throne, taking his stand at the Gray Dragon's side, a maneuver which was thoroughly mystifying to Peter.
The Gray Dragon seemed to ignore his presence. To Peter he said: "You recognize your companion of last night? The man with a legion of a thousand loyal men at his back?"
Peter nodded, muttering.
The Gray Dragon waved Kahn Meng to one side. "He is my son. He is my son by my faithful wife! Do you understand that, Peter Moore?"
"Your son? And he will carry on your work?"
"Precisely that! You have expressed it neatly, Peter Moore. The Gray Dragon will carry on the work of the Gray Dragon!"
The mystery of Kahn Meng was cleared aside. Fury directed at his treachery swelled in Peter's breast and burst. It was as though a torch had been applied. The flame of an ancient ancestral fire, when men fought for their lives and their loves with clubs, and nails, and teeth, burst into his brain and into his breast. The muscles under his tunic-sleeve, which clung to his arm from the moisture of perspiration, rippled and flexed and hardened.
His face—the clean, handsome face of well-lived youth—was quite dreadful to look upon—flushed to a fiery red and distorted. His lips were skinned back over his white teeth.
The thunder of his roar fairly shook the green quartz pillars, between which the smug, green Buddha smiled complacently, impervious to the rages of foolish mankind.
Peter sprang upon the heels of that roar like a mass of wonderfully controlled steel at the crouching figure, a figure whose countenance was suddenly wet and white.
He tore the carbine from the fingers of the nearest guard before that one could collect his wits.
The Mongolian sprawled over backward, and in the second instant the heavy butt of the carbine came down with a shuddering crash upon the skull-cap of the man who would no longer rule Len Yang!
With such tremendous vigor was that blow delivered that the walnut stock, as tough as iron, shivered into splinters, which swam in the bursting brains of the victim.
Screaming, Peter swung the stock again, and again, as if he would beat his wretched victim to a pulp. Nothing but the barrel and breech mechanism remained.
His murderous intention seemed to be to remove, to obliterate for all time, the hideous face, to wipe out by means of his brute strength the gray countenance.
Suddenly he sprang away from him with the elastic stride of a panther. Kahn Meng, the traitor, was next.
And as he leaped Kahn Meng slipped from his own pocket a revolver and dodged Peter's blow.
Peter staggered backward, reaching the center of the room, dragging the bloody and bent carbine barrel in a red trail. There he stopped, swaying, toppling.
Darkness was assailing him. He was sinking into a pit. And the heart was fluttering, laboring treacherously under the poison created in his blood by fury.
The green lights spun.
He threw the carbine barrel at the complacent Buddha, where it clanked to the marble flags. And he withered like the lotus, sprawling upon his back with his eyes tightly shut, the color fast disappearing from his complexion.
And his head was reclining upon the small, tan boots of Eileen.
Somewhere in the distance a sweet-voiced temple bell resounded dreamily. Vague odors of sandalwood and wistaria swam in the soft, cool air. A ray of warm sunlight fell upon Peter's inert hand, and he opened his eyes.
Memory came slowly back to him. He remembered that he had killed. The last thing he distinctly recalled from that moment of ungovernable fury which had taken hold of him was that Kahn Meng, the traitor, had drawn a pistol. As a natural consequence he should be dead. Perhaps he was.
Slowly his brain became clear, although queer vapors arose in it.
Soft footsteps crossed the stone flagging with a clicking of dainty heels. Small fingers, exquisite to the touch, brushed the tousled hair from his forehead. These were cool and pleasant.
"Old Sweetheart!" said a happy voice.
The cool fingers crept underneath his chin and lingered there. Others crept under his neck. A warm, satiny cheek floated down to rest upon his forehead.
Dozens of questions swarmed out of the wreckage of his waking consciousness.
"You are safe? Where are we? What happened to that scoundrel, Kahn Meng? Why did they bring you here? Did they harm you? Who hit——"
A silvery laugh interrupted him. "Yes, yes—yes!" said the voice that was sweeter to him than all of the music in Christendom with heathendom thrown in for good measure.
"I am safe. I was kidnapped and treated with all respect due a famous doctor—because a dead monster was suffering from neuritis. We are alone, in a tiny glass house on the roof of the ivory palace, and dawn has this very moment come. Such a glorious dawn, Peter!
"Are you rested? I never saw any one so completely burned out. Such fury! Gracious, what a man! But why, Peter, did you attack poor Kahn Meng? He's the best friend you have in the world!"
"The Gray Dragon!" muttered Peter, clenching his fists.
"Peter, Kahn Meng would lay down his life for you. Of course, he is the Gray Dragon; but that is only a name now. He is the Gray Dragon, and he has you, and you only, to thank for it.
"The title is hereditary, and he is the last of his line. He knew what that monstrous father of his was doing, and he has been helpless—until you freed him. And the dreadful secret, Peter, is that that beast was not Kahn Meng's father. A Singhalese trader, murdered years ago, was his father, and his mother, a beautiful woman of the Punjab, was for a time the wife of the beast!
"The entire organization has now come under Kahn Meng's control. He is the Gray Dragon of Len Yang, and it is a title that from now on will be a power for good, for construction!
"You can't imagine what wonderful plans he has. He's a genius—that young man is, Peter! And you—you—are to be his chief executive, the viceroy of Len Yang! The chief of mines, of transportation, of labor! He told me that millions of dollars of capital are at your disposal.
"Last night we planned a great railroad line, running from the mines to Chosen and Peking and Tientsin! Think of it, Peter! What opportunity!
"While I," Eileen went on blithely, "am to start a hospital. No more blindness, no more sickness, in Len Yang. And shorter working hours. And an age limit. And schools. And good food, and lots of it!
"From now on our work is to assume a world-wide importance. Word came over the wireless late last night that Germany has finally started the long-expected European war. Kahn Meng believes every nation will be drawn into it. So there is another menace for you to help stamp out—the Dragon of Europe. Kahn Meng says these mines, and the copper and iron mines, nearer the coast, can help—wonderfully!"
Peter felt vastly happy, too enthralled to believe that the state could endure. He stood up from the cot and looked down into the bright face of the one woman in the world. It was radiant, very pink, now, and her round eyes were tender and meek. Perhaps she was a little frightened by the fierceness which had developed in his expression.
She opened her arms with a little laugh. He crushed her close. Their lips met and clung.
He pushed her away, and his blue eyes were impassioned.
Eileen smiled. "Look!"
The white snow on the high peaks across the valley glowed with the heavy gold of sunrise. Far below them, midway to the green wall, he saw a great mass of people. There were hundreds packed about the mouth of the shaft. He wondered why they were waiting; then the shrill voice of a crier penetrated the cool morning air. The thousands waited in silence.
Peter wondered at their dumbness in the face of the news that the man who had ridden them into blindness, into starvation and death, was no longer to tyrannize over them.
The crier continued to shout his singsong.
How would the spirit of that mob react to the announcement?
The singsong halted, and for a breathless moment the miners, too, were silent.
Then a great volume of sound disturbed the morning hush. It swelled in volume, rose in key—a great thunder, the thunder of laughing voices, the hysterical joy of a people made free! It filled the valley and overflowed into the hills, a prolonged wave of happy tumult.