HENRY MILNER RIDEOUT
with illustrations by HAROLD M. BRETT
To CHARLES TOWNSEND COPELAND, 15 Hollis Hall, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Mr. Peachey Carnehan, when he returned from Kafiristan, in bad shape but with a king's head in a bag, exclaimed to the man in the newspaper office, "And you've been sitting there ever since!" There is only a pig in the following poke; and yet in giving you the string to cut and the bag to open, I feel something of Peachey's wonder to think of you, across all this distance and change, as still sitting in your great chair by the green lamp, while past a dim background of books moves the procession of youth. Many of us, growing older in various places, remember well your friendship, and are glad that you are there, urging our successors to look backward into good books, and forward into life.
Yours ever truly, H. M. R. Sausalito, California.
I. A LADY AND A GRIFFIN II. THE PIED PIPER III. UNDER FIRE IV. THE SWORD-PEN V. IN TOWN VI. THE PAGODA VII. IPHIGENIA VIII. THE HOT NIGHT IX. PASSAGE AT ARMS X. THREE PORTALS XI. WHITE LOTUS XII. THE WAR BOARD XIII. THE SPARE MAN XIV. OFF DUTY XV. KAU FAI XVI. THE GUNWALE XVII. LAMP OF HEAVEN XVIII. SIEGE XIX. BROTHER MOLES XX. THE HAKKA BOAT XXI. THE DRAGON'S SHADOW
"Good-by! A pleasant voyage" ... Frontispiece
Rudolph was aware of crowded bodies, of yellow faces grinning
He let the inverted cup dangle from his hands
He went leaping from sight over the crest
A LADY AND A GRIFFIN
It was "about first-drink time," as the captain of the Tsuen-Chau, bound for Shanghai and Japan ports, observed to his friend Cesare Domenico, a good British subject born at Malta. They sat on the coolest corner in Port Said, their table commanding both the cross-way of Chareh Sultan el Osman, and the short, glaring vista of desert dust and starved young acacias which led to the black hulks of shipping in the Canal. From the Bar la Poste came orchestral strains—"Ai nostri monti"—performed by a piano indoors and two violins on the pavement. The sounds contended with a thin, scattered strumming of cafe mandolins, the tinkle of glasses, the steady click of dominoes and backgammon; then were drowned in the harsh chatter of Arab coolies who, all grimed as black as Nubians, and shouldering spear-headed shovels, tramped inland, their long tunics stiff with coal-dust, like a band of chain-mailed Crusaders lately caught in a hurricane of powdered charcoal. Athwart them, Parisian gowns floated past on stout Italian forms; hulking third-class Australians, in shirtsleeves, slouched along toward their mail-boat, hugging whiskey bottles, baskets of oranges, baskets of dates; British soldiers, khaki-clad for India, raced galloping donkeys through the crowded and dusty street. It was mail-day, and gayety flowed among the tables, under the thin acacias, on a high tide of Amer Picon.
Through the inky files of the coaling-coolies burst an alien and bewildered figure. He passed unnoticed, except by the filthy little Arab bootblacks who swarmed about him, trotting, capering, yelping cheerfully: "Mista Ferguson!—polish, finish!—can-can—see nice Frencha girl—Mista McKenzie, Scotcha fella from Dublin—smotta picture—polish, finish!"—undertoned by a squabbling chorus. But presently, studying his face, they cried in a loud voice, "Nix! Alles!" and left him, as one not desiring polish.
"German, that chap," drawled the captain of the Tsuen-Chau, lazily, noticing the uncertain military walk of the young man's clumsy legs, his uncouth clothes, his pale visage winged by blushing ears of coral pink.
"The Eitel's in, then," replied Cesare. And they let the young Teuton vanish in the vision of mixed lives.
Down the lane of music and chatter and drink he passed slowly, like a man just wakened,—assailed by Oriental noise and smells, jostled by the races of all latitudes and longitudes, surrounded and solitary, unheeded and self-conscious. With a villager's awkwardness among crowds, he made his way to a German shipping-office.
"Dispatches for Rudolph Hackh?" he inquired, twisting up his blond moustache, and trying to look insolent and peremptory, like an employer of men.
"There are none, sir," answered an amiable clerk, not at all impressed.
Abashed once more in the polyglot street, still daunted by his first plunge into the foreign and the strange, he retraced his path, threading shyly toward the Quai Francois Joseph. He slipped through the barrier gate, signaled clumsily to a boatman, crawled under the drunken little awning of the dinghy, and steered a landsman's course along the shining Canal toward the black wall of a German mail-boat. Cramping the Arab's oar along the iron side, he bumped the landing-stage. Safe on deck, he became in a moment stiff and haughty, greeting a fellow passenger here and there with a half-military salute. All afternoon he sat or walked alone, unapproachable, eyeing with a fierce and gloomy stare the squalid front of wooden houses on the African side, the gray desert glare of Asia, the pale blue ribbon of the great Canal stretching southward into the unknown.
He composed melancholy German verses in a note-book. He recalled famous exiles—Camoens, Napoleon, Byron—and essayed to copy something of all three in his attitude. He cherished the thought that he, clerk at twenty-one, was now agent at twenty-two, and traveling toward a house with servants, off there beyond the turn of the Canal, beyond the curve of the globe. But for all this, Rudolph Hackh felt young, homesick, timid of the future, and already oppressed with the distance, the age, the manifold, placid mystery of China.
Toward that mystery, meanwhile, the ship began to creep. Behind her, houses, multi-colored funnels, scrubby trees, slowly swung to blot out the glowing Mediterranean and the western hemisphere. Gray desert banks closed in upon her strictly, slid gently astern, drawing with them to the vanishing-point the bright lane of traversed water. She gained the Bitter Lakes; and the red conical buoys, like beads a-stringing, slipped on and added to the two converging dotted lines.
"Good-by to the West!" thought Rudolph. As he mourned sentimentally at this lengthening tally of their departure, and tried to quote appropriate farewells, he was deeply touched and pleased by the sadness of his emotions. "Now what does Byron say?"
The sombre glow of romantic sentiment faded, however, with the sunset. That evening, as the ship glided from ruby coal to ruby coal of the gares, following at a steady six knots the theatric glare of her search-light along arsenically green cardboard banks, Rudolph paced the deck in a mood much simpler and more honest. In vain he tried the half-baked philosophy of youth. It gave no comfort; and watching the clear desert stars of two mysterious continents, he fell prey to the unbounded and unintelligible complexity of man's world. His own career seemed no more dubious than trivial.
Succeeding days only strengthened this mood. The Red Sea passed in a dream of homesickness, intolerable heat, of a pale blue surface stretched before aching eyes, and paler strips of pink and gray coast, faint and distant. Like dreams, too, passed Aden and Colombo; and then, suddenly, he woke to the most acute interest.
He had ignored his mess-mates at their second-class table; but when the new passengers from Colombo came to dinner, he heard behind him the swish of stiff skirts, felt some one brush his shoulder, and saw, sliding into the next revolving chair, the vision of a lady in white.
"Mahlzeit" she murmured dutifully. But the voice was not German. Rudolph heard her subside with little flouncings, and felt his ears grow warm and red. Delighted, embarrassed, he at last took sufficient courage to steal side-glances.
The first showed her to be young, fair-haired, and smartly attired in the plainest and coolest of white; the second, not so young, but very charming, with a demure downcast look, and a deft control of her spoon that, to Rudolph's eyes, was splendidly fastidious; at the third, he was shocked to encounter the last flitting light of a counter-glance, from large, dark-blue eyes, not devoid of amusement.
"She laughs at me!" fumed the young man, inwardly. He was angry, conscious of those unlucky wing-and-wing ears, vexed at his own boldness. "I have been offensive. She laughs at me." He generalized from long inexperience of a subject to which he had given acutely interested thought: "They always do."
Anger did not prevent him, however, from noting that his neighbor traveled alone, that she must be an Englishwoman, and yet that she diffused, somehow, an aura of the Far East and of romance. He shot many a look toward her deck-chair that evening, and when she had gone below, strategically bought a cigar, sat down in the chair to light it, and by a carefully shielded match contrived to read the tag that fluttered on the arm: "B. Forrester, Hongkong."
Afterward he remembered that by early daylight he might have read it for nothing; and so, for economic penance, smoked to the bitter end, finding the cigar disagreeable but manly. At all events, homesickness had vanished in a curious impatience for the morrow. Miss Forrester: he would sit beside Miss Forrester at table. If only they both were traveling first-class!—then she might be a great lady. To be enamored of a countess, now—A cigar, after all, was the proper companion of bold thoughts.
At breakfast, recalling her amusement, he remained silent and wooden. At tiffin his heart leaped.
"You speak English, I'm sure, don't you?" Miss Forrester was saying, in a pleasant, rather drawling voice. Her eyes were quite serious now, and indeed friendly. Confusion seized him.
"I have less English to amuse myself with the ladies," he answered wildly. Next moment, however, he regained that painful mastery of the tongue which had won his promotion as agent, and stammered: "Pardon. I would mean, I speak so badly as not to entertain her."
"Indeed, you speak very nicely," she rejoined, with such a smile as no woman had ever troubled to bestow on him. "That will be so pleasant, for my German is shocking."
Dazed by the compliment, by her manner of taking for granted that future conversation which had seemed too good to come true, but above all by her arch, provoking smile, Rudolph sat with his head in a whirl, feeling that the wide eyes of all the second-cabiners were penetrating the tumultuous secret of his breast. Again his English deserted, and left him stammering. But Miss Forrester chatted steadily, appeared to understand murmurs which he himself found obscure, and so restored his confidence that before tiffin was over he talked no less gayly, his honest face alight and glowing. She taught him the names of the strange fruits before them; but though listening and questioning eagerly, he could not afterward have told loquat from pumelo, or custard-apple from papaya.
Nor could this young man, of methodical habits, ever have told how long their voyage lasted. It passed, unreal and timeless, in a glorious mist, a delighted fever: the background a blur of glossy white bulkheads and iron rails, awnings that fluttered in the warm, languorous winds, an infinite tropic ocean poignantly blue; the foreground, Miss Forrester. Her white figure, trim and dashing; her round blue eyes, filled with coy wonder, the arch innocence of a spoiled child; her pale, smooth cheeks, rather plump, but coming oddly and enticingly to a point at the mouth and tilted chin; her lips, somewhat too full, too red, but quick and whimsical: he saw these all, and these only, in a bright focus, listening meanwhile to a voice by turns languid and lively, with now and then a curious liquid softness, perhaps insincere, yet dangerously pleasant. Questioning, hinting, she played at motherly age and wisdom. As for him, he never before knew how well he could talk, or how engrossing his sober life, both in his native village on the Baltic and afterward in Bremen, could prove to either himself or a stranger.
Yet he was not such a fool, he reflected, as to tell everything. So far from trading confidences, she had told him only that she was bound straight on to Hongkong; that curiosity alone had led her to travel second-class, "for the delightful change, you know, from all such formality"; and that she was "really more French than English." Her reticence had the charm of an incognito; and taking this leaf from her book, he gave himself out as a large, vaguely important person journeying on a large, vague errand.
"But you are a griffin?" she had said, as they sat together at tea.
"Pardon?" he ventured, wary and alarmed, wondering whether he could claim this unknown term as in character with his part.
"I mean," Miss Forrester explained, smiling, "it is your first visit to the Far East?"
"Oh, yes," he replied eagerly, blushing. He would have given worlds to say, "No."
"Griffins are such nice little monsters," she purred. "I like them."
Sometimes at night, waked by the snores of a fat Prussian in the upper berth, he lay staring into the dark, while the ship throbbed in unison with his excited thoughts. He was amazed at his happy recklessness. He would never see her again; he was hurrying toward lonely and uncertain shores; yet this brief voyage outvalued the rest of his life.
In time, they had left Penang,—another unheeded background for her arch, innocent, appealing face,—and forged down the Strait of Malacca in a flood of nebulous moonlight. It was the last night out from Singapore. That veiled brightness, as they leaned on the rail, showed her brown hair fluttering dimly, her face pale, half real, half magical, her eyes dark and undefined pools of mystery. It was late; they had been silent for a long time; and Rudolph felt that something beyond the territory of words remained to be said, and that the one brilliant epoch of his life now drew madly to a close.
"What do you think of it all?" the woman asked suddenly, gravely, as though they had been isolated together in the deep spaces of the same thought.
"I do not yet—Of what?" rejoined Rudolph, at a loss.
"Of all this." She waved an eloquent little gesture toward the azure-lighted gulf.
"Oh," he said. "Of the world?"
"Yes," she answered slowly. "The world. Life." Her tone, subdued and musical, conveyed in the mere words their full enigma and full meaning. "All this that we see."
"Who can tell?" He took her seriously, and ransacked all his store of second-hand philosophy for a worthy answer,—a musty store, dead and pedantic, after the thrilling spirit of her words. "Why, I think—it is—is it not all now the sense-manifest substance of our duty? Pardon. I am obscure. 'Das versinnlichte Material unserer Pflicht' No?"
Her clear laughter startled him.
"Oh, how moral!" she cried. "What a highly moral little griffin!"
She laughed again (but this time it was like the splash of water in a deep well), and turned toward him that curiously tilted point of chin and mouth, her eyes shadowy and mocking. She looked young again,—the spirit of youth, of knowledge, of wonderful brightness and unbelief.
"Must we take it so very, very hard?" she coaxed. "Isn't it just a place to be happy in?"
As through a tumult he heard, and recognized the wisdom of the ages.
"Because," she added, "it lasts such a little while—"
On the rail their hands suddenly touched. He was aware of nothing but the nearness and pallor of her face, the darkness of her eyes shining up at him. All his life seemed to have rushed concentrating into that one instant of extreme trouble, happiness, trembling fascination.
Footsteps sounded on the deck behind them; an unwelcome voice called jocosely:—
"Good efening!" The ship's doctor advanced with a roguish, paternal air. "You see at the phosphor, not?"
Even as she whipped about toward the light, Rudolph had seen, with a touch of wonder, how her face changed from a bitter frown to the most friendly smile. The frown returned, became almost savage, when the fat physician continued:—
"To see the phosphor is too much moon, Mrs. Forrester?"
Had the steamer crashed upon a reef, he would hardly have noticed such a minor shipwreck. Mrs. Forrester? why, then—When the doctor, after ponderous pleasantries, had waddled away aft, Rudolph turned upon her a face of tragedy.
"Was that true?" he demanded grimly.
"Was what true?" she asked, with baby eyes of wonder, which no longer deceived, but angered.
"What the doctor said." Rudolph's voice trembled. "The tittle—the title he gave you."
"Why, of course," she laughed.
"And you did not tell me!" he began, with scorn.
"Don't be foolish," she cut in. From beneath her skirt the toe of a small white shoe tapped the deck angrily. Of a sudden she laughed, and raised a tantalizing face, merry, candid, and inscrutable. "Why, you never asked me, and—and of course I thought you were saying it all along. You have such a dear, funny way of pronouncing, you know."
He hesitated, almost believing; then, with a desperate gesture, wheeled and marched resolutely aft. That night it was no Prussian snores which kept him awake and wretched. "Everything is finished," he thought abysmally. He lay overthrown, aching, crushed, as though pinned under the fallen walls of his youth.
At breakfast-time, the ship lay still beside a quay where mad crowds of brown and yellow men, scarfed, swathed, and turbaned in riotous colors, worked quarreling with harsh cries, in unspeakable interweaving uproar. The air, hot and steamy, smelled of strange earth. As Rudolph followed a Malay porter toward the gang-plank, he was painfully aware that Mrs. Forrester had turned from the rail and stood waiting in his path.
"Without saying good-by?" she reproached him. The injured wonder in her eyes he thought a little overdone.
"Good-by." He could not halt, but, raising his cap stiffly, managed to add, "A pleasant voyage," and passed on, feeling as though she had murdered something.
He found himself jogging in a rickshaw, while equatorial rain beat like down-pouring bullets on the tarpaulin hood, and sluiced the Chinaman's oily yellow back. Over the heavy-muscled shoulders he caught glimpses of sullen green foliage, ponderous and drooping; of half-naked barbarians that squatted in the shallow caverns of shops; innumerable faces, black, yellow, white, and brown, whirling past, beneath other tarpaulin hoods, or at carriage windows, or shielded by enormous dripping wicker hats, or bared to the pelting rain. Curious odors greeted him, as of sour vegetables and of unknown rank substances burning. He stared like a visionary at the streaming multitude of alien shapes.
The coolie swerved, stopped, tilted his shafts to the ground. Rudolph entered a sombre, mouldy office, where the darkness rang with tiny silver bells. Pig-tailed men in skull-caps, their faces calm as polished ivory, were counting dollars endlessly over flying finger-tips. One of these men paused long enough to give him a sealed dispatch,—the message to which the ocean-bed, the Midgard ooze, had thrilled beneath his tardy keel.
"Zimmerman recalled," the interpretation ran; "take his station; proceed at once."
He knew the port only as forlorn and insignificant. It did not matter. One consolation remained: he would never see her again.
THE PIED PIPER
A gray smudge trailing northward showed where the Fa-Hien—Scottish Oriental, sixteen hundred tons—was disappearing from the pale expanse of ocean. The sampan drifted landward imperceptibly, seeming, with nut-brown sail unstirred, to remain where the impatient steamer had met it, dropped a solitary passenger overside, and cast him loose upon the breadth of the antipodes. Rare and far, the sails of junks patched the horizon with umber polygons. Rudolph, sitting among his boxes in the sampan, viewed by turns this desolate void astern and the more desolate sweep of coast ahead. His matting sail divided the shining bronze outpour of an invisible river, divided a low brown shore beyond, and above these, the strips of some higher desert country that shone like snowdrifts, or like sifted ashes from which the hills rose black and charred. Their savage, winter-blasted look, in the clear light of an almost vernal morning, made the land seem fabulous. Yet here in reality, thought Rudolph, as he floated toward that hoary kingdom,—here at last, facing a lonely sea, reared the lifeless, inhospitable shore, the sullen margin of China.
The slow creaking of the spliced oar, swung in its lashing by a half-naked yellow man, his incomprehensible chatter with some fellow boatman hidden in the bows, were sounds lost in a drowsy silence, rhythms lost in a wide inertia. Time itself seemed stationary. Rudolph nodded, slept, and waking, found the afternoon sped, the hills gone, and his clumsy, time-worn craft stealing close under a muddy bank topped with brown weeds and grass. They had left behind the silted roadstead, and now, gliding on a gentle flood, entered the river-mouth. Here and there, against the saffron tide, or under banks quaggy as melting chocolate, stooped a naked fisherman, who—swarthy as his background but for a loin-band of yellow flesh—shone wet and glistening while he stirred a dip-net through the liquid mud. Faint in the distance harsh cries sounded now and then, and the soft popping of small-arms,—tiny revolts in the reign of a stillness aged and formidable. Crumbling walls and squat ruins, black and green-patched with mould—old towers of defense against pirates—guarded from either bank the turns of the river. In one reach, a "war-junk," her sails furled, lay at anchor, the red and white eyes staring fish-like from her black prow: a silly monster, the painted tompions of her wooden cannon aiming drunkenly askew, her crew's wash fluttering peacefully in a line of blue dungaree.
Beyond the next turn, a fowling-piece cracked sharply, close at hand; something splashed, and the ruffled body of a snipe bobbed in the bronze flood alongside.
"Hang it!" complained a voice, loudly. "The beggar was too—Hallo! Oh, I say, Gilly! Gilly, ahoy! Pick us up, there's a good chap! The bird first, will you, and then me."
A tall young man in brown holland and a battered terai stood above on the grassy brink.
"Oh, beg pardon," he continued. "Took you for old Gilly, you know." He snapped the empty shells from his gun, and blew into the breech, before adding, "Would you mind, then? That is, if you're bound up for Stink-Chau. It's a beastly long tramp, and I've been shooting all afternoon."
Followed by three coolies who popped out of the grass with game-bags, the young stranger descended, hopped nimbly from tussock to gunwale, and perched there to wash his boots in the river.
"Might have known you weren't old Gilly," he said over his shoulder. "Wutzler said the Fa-Hien lay off signaling for sampan before breakfast. Going to stay long?"
"I am agent," answered Rudolph, with a touch of pride, "for Fliegelman and Sons."
"Oh?" drawled the hunter, lazily. He swung his legs inboard, faced about, and studied Rudolph with embarrassing frankness. He was a long-limbed young Englishman, whose cynical gray eyes, and thin face tinged rather sallow and Oriental, bespoke a reckless good humor. "Life sentence, eh? Then your name's—what is it again?—Hackh, isn't it? Heywood's mine. So you take Zimmerman's place. He's off already, and good riddance. He was a bounder!—Charming spot you've come to! I daresay if your Fliegelmans opened a hong in hell, you might possibly get a worse station."
Without change of manner, he uttered a few gabbling, barbaric words. A coolie knelt, and with a rag began to clean the boots, which, from the expression of young Mr. Heywood's face, were more interesting than the arrival of a new manager from Germany.
"It will be dark before we're in," he said. "My place for the night, of course, and let your predecessor's leavings stand over till daylight. After dinner we'll go to the club. Dinner! Chicken and rice, chicken and rice! Better like it, though, for you'll eat nothing else, term of your life."
"You are very kind," began Rudolph; but this bewildering off-hand youngster cut him short, with a laugh:—
"No fear, you'll pay me! Your firm supplies unlimited liquor. Much good that ever did us, with old Zimmerman."
The sampan now slipped rapidly on the full flood, up a narrow channel that the setting of the sun had turned, as at a blow, from copper to indigo. The shores passed, more and more obscure against a fading light. A star or two already shone faint in the lower spaces. A second war-junk loomed above them, with a ruddy fire in the stern lighting a glimpse of squat forms and yellow goblin faces.
"It is very curious," said Rudolph, trying polite conversation, "how they paint so the eyes on their jonks."
"No eyes, no can see; no can see, no can walkee," chanted Heywood in careless formula. "I say," he complained suddenly, "you're not going to 'study the people,' and all that rot? We're already fed up with missionaries. Their cant, I mean; no allusion to cannibalism."
He lighted a cigarette. After the blinding flare of the match, night seemed to have fallen instantaneously. As their boat crept on to the slow creaking sweep, both maintained silence, Rudolph rebuked and lonely, Heywood supine beneath a comfortable winking spark.
"What I mean is," drawled the hunter, "we need all the good fellows we can get. Bring any new songs out? Oh, I forgot, you're a German, too.—A sweet little colony! Gilly's the only gentleman in the whole half-dozen of us, and Heaven knows he's not up to much.—Ah, we're in. On our right, fellow sufferers, we see the blooming Village of Stinks."
He had risen in the gloom. Beyond his shadow a few feeble lights burned low and scattered along the bank. Strange cries arose, the bumping of sampans, the mournful caterwauling of a stringed instrument.
"The native town's a bit above," he continued. "We herd together here on the edge. No concession, no bund, nothing."
Their sampan grounded softly in malodorous ooze. Each mounting the bare shoulders of a coolie, the two Europeans rode precariously to shore.
"My boys will fetch your boxes," called Heywood. "Come on."
The path, sometimes marshy, sometimes hard-packed clay or stone flags deeply littered, led them a winding course in the night. Now and then shapes met them and pattered past in single file, furtive and sinister. At last, where a wall loomed white, Heywood stopped, and, kicking at a wooden gate, gave a sing-song cry. With rattling weights, the door swung open, and closed behind them heavily. A kind of empty garden, a bare little inclosure, shone dimly in the light that streamed from a low, thick-set veranda at the farther end. Dogs flew at them, barking outrageously.
"Down, Chang! Down, Chutney!" cried their master. "Be quiet, Flounce, you fool!"
On the stone floor of the house, they leaped upon him, two red chows and a fox-terrier bitch, knocking each other over in their joy.
"Olo she-dog he catchee plenty lats," piped a little Chinaman, who shuffled out from a side-room where lamplight showed an office desk. "Too-day catchee. Plenty lats. No can."
"My compradore, Ah Pat," said Heywood to Rudolph. "Ah Pat, my friend he b'long number one Flickleman, boss man."
The withered little creature bobbed in his blue robe, grinning at the introduction.
"You welly high-tone man," he murmured amiably. "Catchee goo' plice."
"All the same, I don't half like it," was Heywood's comment later. He had led his guest upstairs into a bare white-washed room, furnished in wicker. Open windows admitted the damp sea breeze and a smell, like foul gun-barrels, from the river marshes. "Where should all the rats be coming from?" He frowned, meditating on what Rudolph thought a trifle. Above the sallow brown face, his chestnut hair shone oddly, close-cropped and vigorous. "Maskee, can't be helped.—O Boy, one sherry-bitters, one bamboo!"
"To our better acquaintance," said Rudolph, as they raised their glasses.
"What? Oh, yes, thanks," the other laughed. "Any one would know you for a griffin here, Mr. Hackh. You've not forgotten your manners yet."
When they had sat down to dinner in another white-washed room, and had undertaken the promised rice and chicken, he laughed again, somewhat bitterly.
"Better acquaintance—no fear! You'll be so well acquainted with us all that you'll wish you never clapped eyes on us." He drained his whiskey and soda, signaled for more, and added: "Were you ever cooped up, yachting, with a chap you detested? That's the feeling you come to have.—Here, stand by. You're drinking nothing."
Rudolph protested. Politeness had so far conquered habit, that he felt uncommonly flushed, genial, and giddy.
"That," urged Heywood, tapping the bottle, "that's our only amusement. You'll see. One good thing we can get is the liquor. 'Nisi damnose bibimus,'—forget how it runs: 'Drink hearty, or you'll die without getting your revenge,'"
"You are then a university's-man?" cried Rudolph, with enthusiasm.
The other nodded gloomily. On the instant his face had fallen as impassive as that of the Chinese boy who stood behind his chair, straight, rigid, like a waxen image of Gravity in a blue gown.—"Yes, of sorts. Young fool. Scrapes. Debt. Out to Orient. Same old story. More debt. Trust the firm to encourage that! Debt and debt and debt. Tied up safe. Transfer. Finish! Never go Home."—He rose with a laugh and an impatient gesture.—"Come on. Might as well take in the club as to sit here talking rot."
Outside the gate of the compound, coolies crouching round a lantern sprang upright and whipped a pair of sedan-chairs into position. Heywood, his feet elevated comfortably over the poles, swung in the lead; Rudolph followed, bobbing in the springy rhythm of the long bamboos. The lanterns danced before them down an open road, past a few blank walls and dark buildings, and soon halted before a whitened front, where light gleamed from the upper story.
"Mind the stairs," called Heywood. "Narrow and beastly dark."
As they stumbled up the steep flight, Rudolph heard the click of billiard balls. A pair of hanging lamps lighted the room into which he rose,—a low, gloomy loft, devoid of comfort. At the nearer table, a weazened little man bent eagerly over a pictorial paper; at the farther, chalking their cues, stood two players, one a sturdy Englishman with a gray moustache, the other a lithe, graceful person, whose blue coat, smart as an officer's, and swarthy but handsome face made him at a glance the most striking figure in the room. A little Chinese imp in white, who acted as marker, turned on the new-comers a face of preternatural cunning.
"Mr. Wutzler," said Heywood. The weazened reader rose in a nervous flutter, underwent his introduction to Rudolph with as much bashful agony as a school-girl, mumbled a few words in German, and instantly took refuge in his tattered Graphic. The players, however, advanced in a more friendly fashion. The Englishman, whose name Rudolph did not catch, shook his hand heartily.
"Mr. Hackh is a welcome addition." He spoke with deliberate courtesy. Something in his voice, the tired look in his frank blue eyes and serious face, at once engaged respect. "For our sakes," he continued, "we're glad to see you here. I am sure Doctor Chantel will agree with me."
"Ah, indeed," said the man in military blue, with a courtier's bow. Both air and accent were French. "Most welcome."
"Let's all have a drink," cried Heywood. Despite his many glasses at dinner, he spoke with the alacrity of a new idea. "O Boy, whiskey Ho-lan suey, fai di!"
Away bounded the boy marker like a tennis-ball.
"Hello, Wutzler's off already!"—The little old reader had quietly disappeared, leaving them a vacant table.—"Isn't he weird?" laughed Heywood, as they sat down. "Comes and goes like a ghost."
"It is his Chinese wife," declared Chantel, preening his moustache. "He is always ashame to meet the new persons."
"Poor old chap," said Heywood. "I know—feels himself an outcast and all that. Humph! With us! Quite unnecessary."—The Chinese page, quick, solemn, and noiseless, glided round the table with his tray.—"Ah, you young devil! You're another weird one, you atom. See those bead eyes watching us, eh? A Gilpin Homer, you are, and some fine day we'll see you go off in a flash of fire. If you don't poison us all first.—Well, here's fortune!"
"Your health, Mr. Hackh," amended the other Englishman.
As they set down their glasses, a strange cry sounded from below,—a stifled call, inarticulate, but in such a key of distress that all four faced about, and listened intently.
"Kom down," called a hesitating voice, "kom down and look-see."
They sprang to the stairs, and clattered downward. Dim radiance flooded the landing, from the street door. Outside, a smoky lantern on the ground revealed the lower levels.
In the wide sector of light stood Wutzler, shrinking and apologetic, like a man caught in a fault, his wrinkled face eloquent of fear, his gesture eloquent of excuse. Round him, as round a conjurer, scores of little shadowy things moved in a huddling dance, fitfully hopping like sparrows over spilt grain. Where the light fell brightest these became plainer, their eyes shone in jeweled points of color.
"By Jove, Gilly, they are rats!" said Heywood, in a voice curiously forced and matter-of-fact. "Flounce killed several this afternoon, so my—"
No one heeded him; all stared. The rats, like beings of incantation, stole about with an absence of fear, a disregard of man's presence, that was odious and alarming.
"Earthquake?" The elder Englishman spoke as though afraid of disturbing some one.
The French doctor shook his head.
"No," he answered in the same tone. "Look."
The rats, in all their weaving confusion, displayed one common impulse. They sprang upward continually, with short, agonized leaps, like drowning creatures struggling to keep afloat above some invisible flood. The action, repeated multitudinously into the obscure background, exaggerated in the foreground by magnified shadows tossing and falling on the white walls, suggested the influence of some evil stratum, some vapor subtle and diabolic, crawling poisonously along the ground.
Heywood stamped angrily, without effect. Wutzler stood abject, a magician impotent against his swarm of familiars. Gradually the rats, silent and leaping, passed away into the darkness, as though they heard the summons of a Pied Piper.
"It doesn't attack Europeans." Heywood still used that curious inflection.
"Then my brother Julien is still alive," retorted Doctor Chantel, bitterly.
"What do you think, Gilly?" persisted Heywood.
His compatriot nodded in a meaningless way.
"The doctor's right, of course," he answered. "I wish my wife weren't coming back."
"Dey are a remember," ventured Wutzler, timidly. "A warnung."
The others, as though it had been a point of custom, ignored him. All stared down, musing, at the vacant stones.
"Then the concert's off to-morrow night," mocked Heywood, with an unpleasant laugh.
"On the contrary." Gilly caught him up, prompt and decided. "We shall need all possible amusements; also to meet and plan our campaign. Meantime,—what do you say, Doctor?—chloride of lime in pots?"
"That, evidently," smiled the handsome man. "Yes, and charcoal burnt in braziers, perhaps, as Pere Fenouil advises. Fumigate."—Satirical and debonair, he shrugged his shoulders.—"What use, among these thousands of yellow pigs?"
"I wish she weren't coming," repeated Gilly.
Rudolph, left outside this conference, could bear the uncertainty no longer.
"I am a new arrival," he confided to his young host. "I do not understand. What is it?"
"The plague, old chap," replied Heywood, curtly. "These playful little animals get first notice. You're not the only arrival to-night."
The desert was sometimes Gobi, sometimes Sahara, but always an infinite stretch of sand that floated up and up in a stifling layer, like the tide. Rudolph, desperately choked, continued leaping upward against an insufferable power of gravity, or straining to run against the force of paralysis. The desert rang with phantom voices,—Chinese voices that mocked him, chanting of pestilence, intoning abhorrently in French.
He woke to find a knot of bed-clothes smothering him. To his first unspeakable relief succeeded the astonishment of hearing the voices continue in shrill chorus, the tones Chinese, the words, in louder fragments, unmistakably French. They sounded close at hand, discordant matins sung by a mob of angry children. Once or twice a weary, fretful voice scolded feebly: "Un-peu-de-s'lence! Un-peu-de-s'lence!" Rudolph rose to peep through the heavy jalousies, but saw nothing more than sullen daylight, a flood of vertical rain, and thin rivulets coursing down a tiled roof below. The morning was dismally cold.
"Jolivet's kids wake you?" Heywood, in a blue kimono, nodded from the doorway. "Public nuisance, that school. Quite needless, too. Some bally French theory, you know, sphere of influence, and that rot. Game played out up here, long ago, but they keep hanging on.—Bath's ready, when you like." He broke out laughing. "Did you climb into the water-jar, yesterday, before dinner? Boy reports it upset. You'll find the dipper more handy.—How did you ever manage? One leg at a time?"
Echoes of glee followed his disappearance. Rudolph, blushing, prepared to descend into the gloomy vault of ablution. Charcoal fumes, however, and the glow of a brazier on the dark floor below, not only revived all his old terror, but at the stair-head halted him with a new.
"Is the water safe?" he called.
Heywood answered impatiently from his bedroom.
"Nothing safe in this world, Mr. Hackh. User's risk." An inaudible mutter ended with, "Keep clean, anyway."
At breakfast, though the acrid smoke was an enveloping reminder, he made the only reference to their situation.
"Rain at last: too late, though, to flush out the gutters. We needed it a month ago.—I say, Hackh, if you don't mind, you might as well cheer up. From now on, it's pure heads and tails. We're all under fire together." Glancing out of window at the murky sky, he added thoughtfully, "One excellent side to living without hope, maskee fashion: one isn't specially afraid. I'll take you to your office, and you can make a start. Nothing else to do, is there?"
Dripping bearers and shrouded chairs received them on the lower floor, carried them out into a chill rain that drummed overhead and splashed along the compound path in silver points. The sunken flags in the road formed a narrow aqueduct that wavered down a lane of mire. A few grotesque wretches, thatched about with bamboo matting, like bottles, or like rosebushes in winter, trotted past shouldering twin baskets. The smell of joss-sticks, fish, and sour betel, the subtle sweetness of opium, grew constantly stronger, blended with exhalations of ancient refuse, and (as the chairs jogged past the club, past filthy groups huddling about the well in a marketplace, and onward into the black yawn of the city gate) assailed the throat like a bad and lasting taste. Now, in the dusky street, pent narrowly by wet stone walls, night seemed to fall, while fresh waves of pungent odor overwhelmed and steeped the senses. Rudolph's chair jostled through hundreds and hundreds of Chinese, all alike in the darkness, who shuffled along before with switching queues, or flattened against the wall to stare, almost nose to nose, at the passing foreigner. With chairpoles backing into one shop or running ahead into another, with raucous cries from the coolies, he swung round countless corners, bewildered in a dark, leprous, nightmare bazaar. Overhead, a slit of cloudy sky showed rarely; for the most part, he swayed along indoors, beneath a dingy lattice roof. All points of the compass vanished; all streets remained alike,—the same endless vista of mystic characters, red, black, and gold, on narrow suspended tablets, under which flowed the same current of pig-tailed men in blue and dirty white. From every shop, the same yellow faces stared at him, the same elfin children caught his eye for a half-second to grin or grimace, the same shaven foreheads bent over microscopical tasks in the dark. At first, Rudolph thought the city loud and brawling; but resolving this impression to the hideous shouts of his coolies parting the crowd, he detected, below or through their noise, from all the long cross-corridors a wide and appalling silence. Gradually, too, small sounds relieved this: the hammering of brass-work, the steady rattle of a loom, or the sing-song call and mellow bell of some burdened hawker, bumping past, his swinging baskets filled with a pennyworth of trifles. But still the silence daunted Rudolph in this astounding vision, this masque of unreal life, of lost daylight, of annihilated direction, of placid turmoil and multifarious identity, made credible only by the permanence of nauseous smells.
Somewhere in the dark maze, the chairs halted, under a portal black and heavy as a Gate of Dreams. And as by the anachronism of dreams there hung, among its tortuous symbols, the small, familiar placard—"Fliegelman and Sons, Office." Heywood led the way, past two ducking Chinese clerks, into a sombre room, stone-floored, furnished stiffly with a row of carved chairs against the wall, lighted coldly by roof-windows of placuna, and a lamp smoking before some commercial god in his ebony and tinsel shrine.
"There," he said, bringing Rudolph to an inner chamber, or dark little pent-house, where another draughty lamp flickered on a European desk. "Here's your cell. I'm off—call for you later. Good luck!"—Wheeling in the doorway, he tossed a book, negligently.—"Caught! You may as well start in, eh?—'Cantonese Made Worse,'"
To his departing steps Rudolph listened as a prisoner, condemned, might listen to the last of all earthly visitors. Peering through a kind of butler's window, he saw beyond the shrine his two pallid subordinates, like mystic automatons, nodding and smoking by the doorway. Beyond them, across a darker square like a cavern-mouth, flitted the living phantoms of the street. It seemed a fit setting for his fears. "I am lost," he thought; lost among goblins, marooned in the age of barbarism, shut in a labyrinth with a Black Death at once actual and mediaeval: he dared not think of Home, but flung his arms on the littered desk, and buried his face.
On the tin pent-roof, the rain trampled inexorably.
At last, mustering a shaky resolution, he set to work ransacking the tumbled papers. Happily, Zimmerman had left all in confusion. The very hopelessness of his accounts proved a relief. Working at high tension, Rudolph wrestled through disorder, mistakes, falsification; and little by little, as the sorted piles grew and his pen traveled faster, the old absorbing love of method and dispatch—the stay, the cordial flagon of troubled man—gave him strength to forget.
At times, felt shoes scuffed the stone floor without, and high, scolding voices rose, exchanging unfathomable courtesy with his clerks. One after another, strange figures, plump and portly in their colored robes, crossed his threshold, nodding their buttoned caps, clasping their hands hidden in voluminous sleeves.
"My 'long speakee my goo' flien'," chanted each of these apparitions; and each, after a long, slow discourse that ended more darkly than it began, retired with fatuous nods and smirks of satisfaction, leaving Rudolph dismayed by a sense of cryptic negotiation in which he had been found wanting.
Noon brought the only other interval, when two solemn "boys" stole in with curry and beer. Eat he could not in this lazaret, but sipped a little of the dark Kirin brew, and plunged again into his researches. Alone with his lamp and rustling papers, he fought through perplexities, now whispering, now silent, like a student rapt in some midnight fervor.
"What ho! Mustn't work this fashion!" Heywood's voice woke him, sudden as a gust of sharp air. "Makee finish!"
The summons was both welcome and unwelcome; for as their chairs jostled homeward through the reeking twilight, Rudolph felt the glow of work fade like the mockery of wine. The strange seizure returned,—exile, danger, incomprehensibility, settled down upon him, cold and steady as the rain. Tea, at Heywood's house, was followed by tobacco, tobacco by sherry, and this by a dinner from yesterday's game-bag. The two men said little, sitting dejected, as if by agreement. But when Heywood rose, he changed into gayety as a man slips on a jacket.
"Now, then, for the masked ball! I mean, we can't carry these long faces to the club, can we? Ladies' Night—what larks!" He caught up his cap, with a grimace. "The Lord loveth a cheerful liar. Come ahead!"
On the way, he craned from his chair to shout, in the darkness:—
"I say! If you can do a turn of any sort, let the women have it. All the fun they get. Be an ass, like the rest of us. Maskee how silly! Mind you, it's all hands, these concerts!"
No music, but the click of ivory and murmur of voices came down the stairway of the club. At first glance, as Rudolph rose above the floor, the gloomy white loft seemed vacant as ever; at second glance, embarrassingly full of Europeans. Four strangers grounded their cues long enough to shake his hand. "Mr. Nesbit,—Sturgeon—Herr Kempner—Herr Teppich,"—he bowed stiffly to each, ran the battery of their inspection, and found himself saluting three other persons at the end of the room, under a rosy, moon-bellied lantern. A gray matron, stout, and too tightly dressed for comfort, received him uneasily, a dark-eyed girl befriended him with a look and a quiet word, while a tall man, nodding a vigorous mop of silver hair, crushed his hand in a great bony fist.
"Mrs. Earle," Heywood was saying, "Miss Drake, and—how are you, padre?—Dr. Earle."
"Good-evening," boomed the giant, in a deep and musical bass. "We are very glad, very glad." His voice vibrated through the room, without effort. It struck one with singular force, like the shrewd, kind brightness of his eyes, light blue, and oddly benevolent, under brows hard as granite. "Sit down, Mr. Hackh," he ordered genially, "and give us news of the other world! I mean," he laughed, "west of Suez. Smoking's allowed—here, try that!"
He commanded them, as it were, to take their ease,—the women among cushions on a rattan couch, the men stretched in long chairs. He put questions, indolent, friendly questions, opening vistas of reply and recollection; so that Rudolph, answering, felt the first return of homely comfort. A feeble return, however, and brief: in the pauses of talk, misgiving swarmed in his mind, like the leaping vermin of last night. The world into which he had been thrown still appeared disorderly, incomprehensible, and dangerous. The plague—it still recurred in his thoughts like a sombre motive; these friendly people were still strangers; and for a moment now and then their talk, their smiles, the click of billiards, the cool, commonplace behavior, seemed a foolhardy unconcern, as of men smoking in a powder magazine.
"Clearing a bit, outside," called Nesbit. A little, wiry fellow, with cheerful Cockney speech, he stood chalking his cue at a window. "I say, what's the matter one piecee picnic this week? Pink Pagoda, eh? Mrs. Gilly's back, you know."
"No, is she?" wheezed the fat Sturgeon, with something like enthusiasm. "Now we'll brighten up! By Jove, that's good news. That's worth hearing. Eh, Heywood?"
"Rather!" drawled Rudolph's friend, with an alacrity that seemed half cynical, half enigmatic.
A quick tread mounted the stairs, and into the room rose Dr. Chantel. He bowed gracefully to the padre's group, but halted beside the players. Whatever he said, they forgot their game, and circled the table to listen. He spoke earnestly, his hands fluttering in nervous gestures.
"Something's up," grumbled Heywood, "when the doctor forgets to pose."
Behind Chantel, as he wheeled, heaved the gray bullet-head and sturdy shoulders of Gilly.
"Alone?" called the padre. "Why, where's the Mem?"
He came up with evident weariness, but replied cheerfully:—
"She's very sorry, and sent chin-chins all round. But to-night—Her journey, you know. She's resting.—I hope we've not delayed the concert?"
"Last man starts it!" Heywood sprang up, flung open a battered piano, and dragged Chantel to the stool. "Come, Gilly, your forfeit!"
The elder man blushed, and coughed.
"Why, really," he stammered. "Really, if you wish me to!"
Heywood slid back into his chair, grinning.
"Proud as an old peacock," he whispered to Rudolph. "Peacock's voice, too."
Dr. Chantel struck a few jangling chords, and skipping adroitly over sick notes, ran a flourish. The billiard-players joined the circle, with absent, serious faces. The singer cleared his throat, took on a preternatural solemnity, and began. In a dismal, gruff voice, he proclaimed himself a miner, deep, deep down:—
"And few, I trow, of my being know, And few that an atom care!"
His hearers applauded this gloomy sentiment, till his cheeks flushed again with honest satisfaction. But in the full sweep of a brilliant interlude, Chantel suddenly broke down.
"I cannot," he declared sharply. As he turned on the squealing stool, they saw his face white and strangely wrought. "I had meant," he said, with painful precision, "to say nothing to-night, and act as—I cannot. Judge you, what I feel."
He got uncertainly to his feet, hesitating.
"Ladies, you will not be alarmed." The four players caught his eye, and nodded. "It is well that you know. There is no danger here, more than—I am since disinfected. Monsieur Jolivet, my compatriot—You see, you understand. Yes, the plague."
For a space, the distant hum of the streets invaded the room. Then Heywood's book of music slapped the floor like a pistol-shot.
"You left him!" He bounced from his chair, raging. "You—Peng! Where's my cap?"
Quick as he was, the dark-eyed girl stood blocking his way.
"Not you, Mr. Heywood," she said quietly. "I must go stay with him."
They confronted each other, man and woman, as if for a combat of will. The outbreak of voices was cut short; the whole company stood, like Homeric armies, watching two champions. Chantel, however, broke the silence.
"Nobody must go." He eyed them all, gravely. "I left him, yes. He does not need any one. Personne. Very sudden. He went to the school sick this morning. Swollen axillae—the poor fool, not to know!—et puis—enfin—He is dead."
Heywood pitched his cap on the green field of the billiard-cloth.
"The poor pedagogue!" he said bitterly. "He was going Home."
Sudden, hot and cold, like the thrust of a knife, it struck Rudolph that he had heard the voice of this first victim,—the peevish voice which cried so weakly for a little silence, at early daylight, that very morning. A little silence: and he had received the great.
A gecko fell from the ceiling, with a tiny thump that made all start. He had struck the piano, and the strings answered with a faint, aeolian confusion. Then, as they regarded one another silently, a rustle, a flurry, sounded on the stairs. A woman stumbled into the loft, sobbing, crying something inarticulate, as she ran blindly toward them, with white face and wild eyes. She halted abruptly, swayed as though to fall, and turned, rather by instinct than by vision, to the other women.
"Bertha!" protested Gilly, with a helpless stare. "My dear!"
"I couldn't stay!" she cried. "The amah told me. Why did you ever let me come back? Oh, do something—help me!"
The face and the voice came to Rudolph like another trouble across a dream. He knew them, with a pang. This trembling, miserable heap, flung into the arms of the dark-eyed girl, was Mrs. Forrester.
"Go on," said the girl, calmly. She had drawn the woman down beside her on the rattan couch, and clasping her like a child, nodded toward the piano. "Go on, as if the doctor hadn't—hadn't stopped."
Heywood was first to obey.
"Come, Chantel, chantez! Here's your song." He took the stool in leap-frog fashion, and struck a droll simultaneous discord. "Come on.— Well, then, catch me on the chorus!"
"Pour qu' j' finisse Mon service Au Tonkin je suis parti!"
To a discreet set of verses, he rattled a bravado accompaniment. Presently Chantel moved to his side, and, with the same spirit, swung into the chorus. The tumbled white figure on the couch clung to her refuge, her bright hair shining below the girl's quiet, thoughtful face. She was shaken with convulsive regularity.
In his riot of emotions, Rudolph found an over-mastering shame. A picture returned,—the Strait of Malacca, this woman in the blue moonlight, a Mistress of Life, rejoicing, alluring,—who was now the single coward in the room. But was she? The question was quick and revolting. As quickly, a choice of sides was forced on him. He understood these people, recalled Heywood's saying, and with that, some story of a regiment which lay waiting in the open, and sang while the bullets picked and chose. All together: as now these half-dozen men were roaring cheerfully:—
"Ma Tonkiki, ma Tonkiki, ma Tonkinoise, Yen a d'autr's qui m' font les doux yeux, Mais c'est ell' que j'aim' le mieux!"
The new recruit joined them, awkwardly.
"Wutzler was missing last night," said Heywood, lazily. He had finished breakfast, and lighted a short, fat, glossy pipe. "Just occurred to me. We must have a look in on him. Poor old Wutz, he's getting worse and worse. Chantel's right, I fancy: it's the native wife." He rose, with a short laugh. "Queer. The rest never feel so,—Nesbit, and Sturgeon, and that lot. But then, they don't fall so low as to marry theirs."
"By the way," he sneered, on the landing, "until this scare blows over, you'd better postpone any such establishment, if you intend—"
"I do not," stammered Rudolph.
To his amazement, the other clapped him on the shoulder.
"I say!" The sallow face and cynical gray eyes lighted, for the first time, with something like enthusiasm. Next moment they had darkened again, but not before he had said gruffly, "You're not a bad little chap."
Morosely, as if ashamed of this outburst, he led the way through the bare, sunny compound, and when the gate had closed rattling behind them, stated their plans concisely and sourly. "No work to-day, not a stroke! We'll just make it a holiday, catchee good time.—What? No. Rot! I won't work, and you can't. That's all there is about that. Don't be an ass! Come along. We'll go out first and see Captain Kneebone." And when Rudolph, faithful to certain tradesmen snoring in Bremen, would have protested mildly, he let fly a stinging retort, and did not regain his temper until they had passed the outskirts of the village. Yet even the quarrel seemed part of some better understanding, some new, subtle bond between two lonely men.
Before them opened a broad field dotted with curious white disks, like bone buttons thrown on a green carpet. Near at hand, coolies trotted and stooped, laying out more of these circular baskets, filled with tiny dough-balls. Makers of rice-wine, said Heywood; as he strode along explaining, he threw off his surly fit. The brilliant sunlight, the breeze stirring toward them from a background of drooping bamboos, the gabble of coolies, the faint aroma of the fermenting no-me cakes, began, after all, to give a truant sense of holiday.
Almost gayly, the companions threaded a marshy path to the river, and bargained with a shrewd, plump woman who squatted in the bow of a sampan. She chaffered angrily, then laughed at some unknown saying of Heywood's, and let them come aboard. Summoned by voluble scolding, her husband appeared, and placidly labored at the creaking sweep. They slipped down a river of bronze, between the oozy banks; and the war-junks, the naked fisherman, the green-coated ruins of forts, drifted past like things in reverie, while the men lay smoking, basking in bright weather. They looked up into serene spaces, and forgot the umbra of pestilence.
Heywood, now lazy, now animated, exchanged barbaric words with the boat-woman. As their tones rose and fell, she laughed. Long afterward, Rudolph was to remember her, a wholesome, capable figure in faded blue, darting keen glances from her beady eyes, flashing her white teeth in a smile, or laughing till the green pendants of false jade trembled in her ears.
"Her name is Mrs. Wu," said Heywood, between smoke-rings, "and she is a lady of humor. We are discussing the latest lawsuit, which she describes as suing a flea and winning the bite. Her maiden name was the Pretty Lily. She is captain of this sampan, and fears that her husband does not rate A. B."
Where the river disembogued, the Pretty Lily, cursing and shrilling, pattering barefoot about her craft, set a matting sail and caught the breeze. Over the copper surface of the roadstead, the sampan drew out handily. Ahead, a black, disreputable little steamer lay anchored, her name—two enormous hieroglyphics painted amidships—staring a bilious yellow in the morning sun. Under these, at last, the sampan came bumping, unperceived or neglected.
Overhead, a pair of white shoes protruded from the rail in a blue film of smoke. They twitched, as a dry cackle of laughter broke out.
"Kut Sing, ahoy!" shouted Heywood. "On deck! Kneebone!"
The shoes whipped inboard. Outboard popped a ruddy little face, set in the green circle of a topi, and contorted with laughter.
"Listen to this, will ye!" cried the apparition, as though illustrating a point. Leaning his white sleeves on the rail, cigar in one fist, Tauchnitz volume in the other, he roared down over the side a passage of prose, from which his visitors caught only the words "Ginger Dick" and "Peter Russet," before mirth strangled him.
"God bless a man," he cried, choking, "that can make a lonesome old beggar laugh, out here! Eh, what? How he ever thinks up—But he's took to writing plays, they tell me. Plays!" He scowled ferociously. "Fat lot o' good they are, for skippers, and planters, and gory exiles! Eh, what? Be-george, I'll write him a chit! I'll tell him! Plays be damned; we want more stories!"
Red and savage, he hurled the book fluttering into the sea, then swore in consternation.
"Oh, I say!" he wailed. "Fish her out! I've not finished her. My intention was, ye know, to fling the bloomin' cigar!"
Heywood, laughing, rescued the volume on a long bamboo.
"Just came out on the look-see, captain," he called up. "Can't board you. Plague ashore."
"Plague be 'anged!" scoffed the little captain. "That hole's no worse with plague than't is without. Got two cases on board, myself—coolies. Stowed 'em topside, under the boats.—Come up here, ye castaway! Come up, ye goatskin Robinson Crusoe, and get a white man's chow!"
He received them on deck,—a red, peppery little officer, whose shaven cheeks and close gray hair gave him the look of a parson gone wrong, a hedge-priest run away to sea. Two tall Chinese boys scurried about with wicker chairs, with trays of bottles, ice, and cheroots, while he barked his orders, like a fox-terrier commanding a pair of solemn dock-rats. The white men soon lounged beside the wheel-house.
"So you brought Mrs. Forrester," drawled Heywood.
Rudolph, wondering if they saw him wince, listened with painful eagerness. But the captain disposed of that subject very simply.
"She's no good." He stared up at the grimy awning. "What I'm thinking is, will that there Dacca babu at Koprah slip me through his blessed quarantine for twenty-five dollars. What?"
Their talk drifted far away from Rudolph, far from China itself, to touch a hundred ports and islands, Cebu and Sourabaya, Tavoy and Selangor. They talked of men and women, a death at Zamboanga, a birth at Chittagong, of obscure heroism or suicide, and fortunes made or lost; while the two boys, gentle, melancholy, gliding silent in bright blue robes, spread a white tablecloth, clamped it with shining brass, and laid the tiffin. Then the talk flowed on, the feast made a tiny clatter of jollity in the slumbering noon, in the silence of an ocean and a continent. And when at last the visitors clambered down the iron side, they went victorious with Spanish wine.
"Mind ye," shouted Captain Kneebone, from the rail, "that don't half exhaust the subjeck o' lott'ries! Why, luck"—He shook both fists aloft, triumphantly, as if they had been full of money. "Just ye wait. I've a tip from Calcutta that—Never mind. Bar sells, when that fortch'n comes, my boy, the half's yours! Home we go, remember that!"
The sampan drew away. Sweeping his arm violently, to threaten the coast of China and the whole range of his vision,—
"You're the one man," he roared, "that makes all this mess—worth a cowrie!"
Heywood laughed, waved his helmet, and when at last he turned, sat looking downward with a queer smile.
"Illusions!" he chuckled. "What would a chap ever do without 'em? Old Kneebone there: his was always that—a fortune in a lottery, and then Home! Illusions! And he's no fool, either. Good navigator. Decent old beggar." He waved his helmet again, before stretching out to sleep. "Do you know, I believe—he would take me."
The clinkered hills, quivering in the west, sank gradually into the heated blur above the plains. As gradually, the two men sank into dreams.
Furious, metallic cries from the Pretty Lily woke them, in the blue twilight. She had moored her sampan alongside a flight of stone steps, up which, vigorously, with a bamboo, she now prodded her husband. He contended, snarling, but mounted; and when Heywood's silver fell jingling into her palm, lighted his lantern and scuffed along, a churlish guide. At the head of the slimy stairs, Heywood rattled a ponderous gate in a wall, and shouted. Some one came running, shot bolts, and swung the door inward. The lantern showed the tawny, grinning face of a servant, as they passed into a small garden, of dwarf orange trees pent in by a lofty, whitewashed wall.
"These grounds are yours, Hackh," said Heywood. "Your predecessor's boy; and there"—pointing to a lonely barrack that loomed white over the stunted grove—"there's your house. You draw the largest in the station. A Portuguese nunnery, it was, built years ago. My boys are helping set it to rights; but if you don't mind, I'd like you to stay on at my beastly hut until this—this business takes a turn. Plenty of time." He nodded at the fat little orange trees. "We may live to take our chow under those yet, of an evening. Also a drink. Eh?"
The lantern skipped before them across the garden, through a penitential courtyard, and under a vaulted way to the main door and the road. With Rudolph, the obscure garden and echoing house left a sense of magical ownership, sudden and fleeting, like riches in the Arabian Nights. The road, leaving on the right a low hill, or convex field, that heaved against the lower stars, now led the wanderers down a lane of hovels, among dim squares of smoky lamplight.
Wu, their lantern-bearer, had turned back, and they had begun to pass a few quiet, expectant shops, when a screaming voice, ahead, outraged the evening stillness.
At the first words, Heywood doubled his pace.
"Come along. Here's a lark—or a tragedy."
Jostling through a malodorous crowd that blockaded the quarrel, they gained the threshold of a lighted shop. Against a rank of orderly shelves, a fat merchant stood at bay, silent, quick-eyed, apprehensive. Before him, like an actor in a mad scene, a sobbing ruffian, naked to the waist, convulsed with passion, brandished wild fists and ranted with incredible sounds. When breath failed, he staggered, gasping, and swept his audience with the glazed, unmeaning stare of drink or lunacy. The merchant spoke up, timid and deprecating. As though the words were vitriol, the other started, whirled face to face, and was seized with a new raving.
Something protruded at his waistband, like a rudimentary, Darwinian stump. To this, all at once, his hand flung back. With a wrench and a glitter, he flourished a blade above his head. Heywood sprang to intervene, in the same instant that the disturber of trade swept his arm down in frenzy. Against his own body, hilt and fist thumped home, with the sound as of a football lightly punted. He turned, with a freezing look of surprise, plucked at the haft, made one step calmly and tentatively toward the door, stumbled, and lay retching and coughing.
The fat shop-keeper wailed like a man beside himself. He gabbled, imploring Heywood. The young man nodded. "Yes, yes," he repeated irritably, staring down at the body, but listening to the stream of words.
Murmurs had risen, among the goblin faces blinking in the doorway. Behind them, a sudden voice called out two words which were caught up and echoed harshly in the street. Heywood whipped about.
"Never called me that before," he said quickly. "Come outside."
He flung back a hurried sentence to the merchant, caught Rudolph's arm, and plunged into the crowd. The yellow men gave passage mechanically, but with lowering faces. Once free in the muddy path, he halted quickly, and looked about.
"Might have known," he grumbled. "Never called me 'Foreign Dog' before, or 'Jesus man,' He set 'em on."
Rudolph followed his look. In the dim light, at the outskirts of the rabble, a man was turning away, with an air of contempt or unconcern. The long, pale, oval face, the hard eyes gleaming with thought, had vanished at a glance. A tall, slight figure, stooping in his long robe, he glided into the darkness. For all his haste, the gait was not the gait of a coolie.
"That," said Heywood, turning into their former path, "that was Fang, the Sword-Pen, so-called. Very clever chap. Of the two most dangerous men in the district, he's one." They had swung along briskly for several minutes, before he added: "The other most dangerous man—you've met him already. If I'm not mistaken, he's no less a person than the Reverend James Earle."
"What!" exclaimed Rudolph, in dull bewilderment.
"Yes," grunted his friend. "The padre. We must find him to-night, and report."
He strode forward, with no more comment. At his side, Rudolph moved as a soldier, carried onward by pressure and automatic rhythm, moves in the apathy of a forced march. The day had been so real, so wholesome, full of careless talk and of sunlight. And now this senseless picture blotted all else, and remained,—each outline sharper in memory, the smoky lamp brighter, the blow of the hilt louder, the smell of peanut oil more pungent. The episode, to him, was a disconnected, unnecessary fragment, one bloody strand in the whole terrifying snarl. But his companion stalked on in silence, like a man who saw a pattern in the web of things, and was not pleased.
Night, in that maze of alleys, was but a more sinister day. The same slant-eyed men, in broken files, went scuffing over filthy stone, like wanderers lost in a tunnel. The same inexplicable noises endured, the same smells. Under lamps, the shaven foreheads still bent toward microscopic labor. The curtained window of a fantan shop still glowed in orange translucency, and from behind it came the murmur and the endless chinking of cash, where Fortune, a bedraggled, trade-fallen goddess, split hairs with coolies for poverty or zero. Nothing was altered in these teeming galleries, except that turbid daylight had imperceptibly given place to this other dimness, in which lanterns swung like tethered fire-balloons. Life went on, mysteriously, without change or sleep.
While the two white men shouldered their way along, a strange chorus broke out, as though from among the crowded carcasses in a butcher's stall. Shrill voices rose in unearthly discord, but the rhythm was not of Asia.
"There goes the hymn!" scoffed Heywood. He halted where, between the butcher's and a book-shop, the song poured loud through an open doorway. Nodding at a placard, he added: "Here we are: 'Jesus Religion Chapel.' Hear 'em yanging! 'There is a gate that stands ajar.' That being the case, in you go!"
Entering a long, narrow room, lighted from sconces at either side, they sat down together, like schoolmates, on a low form near the door. From a dais across at the further end, the vigorous white head of Dr. Earle dominated the company,—a strange company, of lounging Chinamen who sucked at enormous bamboo pipes, or squinted aimlessly at the vertical inscriptions on the walls, or wriggling about, stared at the late-comers, nudged their neighbors, and pointed, with guttural exclamations. The song had ended, and the padre was lifting up his giant's voice. To Rudolph, the words had been mere sound and fury, but for a compelling honesty that needed no translation. This man was not preaching to heathen, but talking to men. His eyes had the look of one who speaks earnestly of matters close at hand, direct, and simple. Along the forms, another and another man forgot to plait his queue, or squirm, or suck laboriously at his pipe. They listened, stupid or intent. When some waif from the outer labyrinth scuffed in, affable, impudent, hailing his friends across the room, he made but a ripple of unrest, and sank gaping among the others like a fish in a pool.
Even Heywood sat listening—with more attention than respect, for once he muttered, "Rot!" Toward the close, however, he leaned across and whispered, "The old boy reels it off rather well to-night. Different to what one imagined."
Rudolph, for his part, sat watching and listening, surprised by a new and curious thought.
A band of huddled converts sang once more, in squealing discords, with an air of sad, compulsory, and diabolic sarcasm. A few "inquirers" slouched forward, and surrounding the tall preacher, questioned him concerning the new faith. The last, a broad, misshapen fellow with hanging jowls, was answered sharply. He stood arguing, received another snub, and went out bawling and threatening, with the contorted face and clumsy flourishes of some fabulous hero on a screen.
The missionary approached smiling, but like a man who has finished the day's work.
"That fellow—Good-evening: and welcome to our Street Chapel, Mr. Hackh—That fellow," he glanced after the retreating figure, "he's a lesson in perseverance, gentlemen. A merchant, well-to-do: he has a lawsuit coming on—notorious—and tries to join us for protection. Cheaper to buy a little belief, you know, than to pay Yamen fines. Every night he turns up, grinning and bland. I tell him it won't do, and out he goes, snorting like a dragon."
Rudolph's impulse came to a head.
"Dr. Earle," he stammered, "I owe you a gratitude. You spoke to these people so—as—I do not know. But I listened, I felt—Before always are they devils, images! And after I hear you, they are as men."
The other shook his great head like a silver mane, and laughed.
"My dear young man," he replied, "they're remarkably like you and me."
After a pause, he added soberly:—
"Images? Yes, you're right, sir. So was Adam. The same clay, the same image." His deep voice altered, his eyes lighted shrewdly, as he turned to Heywood. "This is an unexpected pleasure."
"Quite," said the young man, readily. "If you don't mind, padre, you made Number One talk. Fast bowling, and no wides. But we really came for something else." In a few brief sentences, he pictured the death in the shop.—So, like winking! The beggar gave himself the iron, fell down, and made finish. Now what I pieced out, from his own bukhing, and the merchant's, was this:—
"The dead man was one Au-yoeng, a cormorant-fisher. Some of his best birds died, he had a long run of bad luck, and came near starving. So he contrived, rather cleverly, to steal about a hundred catties of Fuh-kien hemp. The owner, this merchant, went to the elders of Au-yoeng's neighborhood, who found and restored the hemp, nearly all. Merchant lets the matter drop. But the neighbors kept after this cormorant fellow, worked one beastly squeeze or another, ingenious baiting, devilish—Rot! you know their neighborhoods better than I! Well, they pushed him down-hill—poor devil, showing that's always possible, no bottom! He brooded, and all that, till he thought the merchant and the Jesus religion were the cause of all. So bang he goes down the pole,—gloriously drunk,—marches into his enemy's shop, and uses that knife. The joke is now on the merchant, eh?"
"Just a moment," begged the padre. "One thread I don't follow—the religion. Who was Christian? The merchant?"
"Well, rather! Thought I told you," said Heywood. "One of yours—big, mild chap—Chok Chung."
The elder man sat musing.
"Yes," the deep bass rumbled in the empty chapel, "he's one of us. Extremely honest. I'm—I'm very sorry. There may be trouble."
"Must be, sir," prompted the younger. "The mob, meanwhile, just stood there, dumb,—mutes and audience, you know. All at once, the hindmost began squalling 'Foreign Dog,' 'Goat Man.' We stepped outside, and there, passing, if you like, was that gentle bookworm, Mr. Fang."
"Fang?" echoed the padre, as in doubt. "I've heard the name."
"Heard? Why, doctor," cried Heywood, "that long, pale chap,—lives over toward the Dragon Spring. Confucian, very strict; keen reader; might be a mandarin, but prefers the country gentleman sort; bally mischief-maker, he's done more people in the eye than all the Yamen hacks and all their false witnesses together! Hence his nickname—the Sword-Pen."
Dr. Earle sharpened his heavy brows, and studied the floor.
"Fang, the Sword-Pen," he growled; "yes, there will be trouble. He hates us. Given this chance—Humph! Saul of Tarsus.—We're not the Roman Church," he added, with his first trace of irritation. "Always occurring, this thing."
Once more he meditated; then heaved his big shoulders to let slip the whole burden.
"One day at a time," he laughed. "Thank you for telling us.—You see, Mr. Hackh, they're not devils. The only fault is, they're just human beings. You don't speak the language? I'll send you my old teacher."
They talked of things indifferent; and when the young men were stumbling along the streets, he called after them a resounding "Good-night! Thanks!"—and stood a resolute, gigantic silhouette, filling, as a right Doone filled their doorframe, the entrance to his deserted chapel.
At his gate, felt Rudolph, they had unloaded some weight of responsibility. He had not only accepted it, but lightened them further, girt them, by a word and a look. Somehow, for the first time since landing, Rudolph perceived that through this difficult, troubled, ignorant present, a man might burrow toward a future gleam. The feeling was but momentary. As for Heywood, he still marched on grimly, threading the stuffed corridors like a man with a purpose.
"No dinner!" he snapped. "Catchee bymby, though. We must see Wutzler first. To lose sight of any man for twenty-four hours, nowadays,—Well, it's not hardly fair. Is it?"
They turned down a black lane, carpeted with dry rubbish. At long intervals, a lantern guttering above a door showed them a hand's-breadth of the dirty path, a litter of broken withes and basket-weavers' refuse, between the mouldy wall of the town and a row of huts, no less black and silent. In this greasy rift the air lay thick, as though smeared into a groove.
Suddenly, among the hovels, they groped along a checkered surface of brick-work. The flare of Heywood's match revealed a heavy wooden door, which he hammered with his fist. After a time, a disgruntled voice within snarled something in the vernacular. Heywood laughed.
"Ai-yah! Who's afraid? Wutzler, you old pirate, open up!"
A bar clattered down, the door swung back, and there, raising a glow-worm lantern of oiled paper, stood such a timorous little figure as might have ventured out from a masquerade of gnomes. The wrinkled face was Wutzler's, but his weazened body was lost in the glossy black folds of a native jacket, and below the patched trousers, his bare ankles and coolie-sandals of straw moved uneasily, as though trying to hide behind each other.
"Kom in," said this hybrid, with a nervous cackle. "I thought you are thiefs. Kom in."
Following through a toy courtyard, among shadow hints of pigmy shrubs and rockery, they found themselves cramped in a bare, clean cell, lighted by a European lamp, but smelling of soy and Asiatics. Stiff black-wood chairs lined the walls. A distorted landscape on rice-paper, narrow scarlet panels inscribed with black cursive characters, pith flowers from Amoy, made blots of brightness.
"It iss not moch, gentlemen," sighed Wutzler, cringing. "But I am ver' glad."
Heywood flung himself into a chair.
"Not dead yet, you rascal?" he cried. "And we came all the way to see you. No chow, either."
"Oh, allow me," mumbled their host, in a flutter. "My—she—I will speak, I go bring you." He shuffled away, into some further chamber.
Heywood leaned forward quickly.
"Eat it," he whispered, "whether you can or not! Pleases the old one, no bounds. We're his only visitors—"
"Here iss not moch whiskey." Wutzler came shambling in, held a bottle against the light, and squinted ruefully at the yellow dregs. "I will gif you a kong full, but I haf not."
He dodged out again. They heard his angry whispers, and a small commotion of the household,—brazen dishes clinking, squeals, titters, and tiny bare feet skipping about,—all the flurry of a rabbit-hutch in Wonderland. Once, near the threshold, a chubby face, very pale, with round eyes of shining jet, peered cautious as a mouse, and popped out of sight with a squeak. Wutzler, red with excitement, came and went like an anxious waiter, bringing in the feast.
"Here iss not moch," he repeated sadly. But there were bits of pig-skin stewed in oil; bean-cakes; steaming buns of wheat-flour, stuffed with dice of fat pork and lumps of sugar; three-cornered rice puddings, no-me boiled in plantain-leaf wrappers; with the last of the whiskey, in green cups. While the two men ate, the shriveled outcast beamed timidly, hovering about them, fidgeting.
"Herr Hackh," he suddenly exclaimed, in a queer, strained voice, "you do not know how dis yong man iss goot! No! He hass to me—immer—" He choked, turned away, and began fussing with the pith flowers; but not before Rudolph had seen a line glistening down the sun-dried cheeks.
"Stuff! Cadging for chow, does one acquire merit?" retorted Heywood, over his shoulder. "You talk like a bonze, Wutz." He winked. "I'd rather hear the sing-song box."
"Ach so, I forget!" Still whimpering, Wutzler dragged something from a corner, squatted, and jerked at a crank, with a noise of ratchets. "She blay not so moch now," he snuffled. "Captain Kneepone he has gifen her, when she iss all op inside for him. I haf rebaired, but she blay only one song yet. A man does not know, Herr Hackh, what he may be. Once I haf piano, and viola my own, yes, and now haf I diss small, laffing, sick teufel!" He rose, and faced Heywood with a trembling, passionate gesture. "But diss yong man, he stand by der oldt fellow!" The streaming eyes blinked absurdly.
Behind him, with a whirring sound, a metallic voice assailed them in a gabble of words, at first husky and broken, then clear, nasal, a voice from neither Europe nor Asia, but America:—
"Then did I laff? Ooh, aha-ha ha ha, Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! I could not help but laffing, Ooh, aha-ha ..."
From a throat of tin, it mocked them insanely with squealing, black-hearted guffaws. Heywood sat smoking, with the countenance of a stoic; but when the laughter in the box was silent, he started abruptly.
"We're off, old chap," he announced. "Bedtime. Just came to see you were all up-standing. Tough as ever? Good! Don't let—er—anything carry you off."
At the gate, Wutzler held aloft his glow-worm lantern.
"Dose fellows catch me?" he mumbled, "Der plagues—dey will forget me. All zo many shoots, kugel, der bullet,—'gilt's mir, oder gilt es dir?' Men are dead in der Silk-Weafer Street. Dey haf hong up nets, and dorns, to keep out der plague's-goblins off deir house. Listen, now, dey beat gongs!—But we are white men. You—you tell me zo, to-night!" He blubbered something incoherent, but as the gate slammed they heard the name of God, in a broken benediction.
They had groped out of the cleft, and into a main corridor, before Heywood paused.
"That devil in the box!" He shook himself like a spaniel. "Queer it should get into me so. But I hate being laughed at by—anybody."
A confused thunder of gongs, the clash of cymbals smothered in the distance, maintained a throbbing uproar, pierced now and then by savage yells, prolonged and melancholy. As the two wanderers listened,—
"Where's the comfort," said Heywood, gloomily, "of knowing somebody's worse off?—No, I wasn't thinking of Wutzler, then. Talk of germs! why, over there, it's goblins they're scaring away. Think, behind their nets and thorns, what wretches—women, too, and kids—may be crouched down, quaking, sick with terror. Humph!—I don't mind saying"—for a moment his hand lay on Rudolph's shoulder—"that I loathe giving this muck-hole the satisfaction—I'd hate to go Out here, that's all."
He was spared that inconvenience. The untimely rain and cold, some persons said, the few days of untimely heat following, had drowned or dried, frozen or burnt out, the seeds of peril. But accounts varied, reasons were plentiful. Soldiers had come down from the chow city, two-score li inland, and charging through the streets, hacking and slashing the infested air, had driven the goblins over the walls, with a great shout of victory. A priest had freighted a kite with all the evil, then cut it adrift in the sky. A mob had dethroned the God of Sickness, and banished his effigy in a paper junk, launched on the river at night, in flame. A geomancer proclaimed that a bamboo grove behind the town formed an angle most correct, germane, and pleasant to the Azure Dragon and the White Tiger, whose occult currents, male and female, run throughout Nature. For any or all of these reasons, the town was delivered. The pestilence vanished, as though it had come but to grant Monsieur Jolivet his silence, and to add a few score uncounted living wretches to the dark, mighty, imponderable host of ancestors.
The relief, after dragging days of uncertainty, came to Rudolph like a sea-breeze to a stoker. To escape and survive,—the bare experience seemed to him at first an act of merit, the deed of a veteran. The interim had been packed with incongruity. There had been a dinner with Kempner, solemn, full of patriotism and philosophy; a drunken dinner at Teppich's; another, and a worse, at Nesbit's; and the banquet of a native merchant, which began at four o'clock on melon-seeds, tea, black yearling eggs, and a hot towel, and ended at three in the morning on rice-brandy and betel served by unreal women with chalked faces and vermilion-spotted lips, simpering and melancholy. By day, there was work, or now and then a lesson with Dr. Earle's teacher, a little aged Chinaman of intricate, refined, and plaintive courtesy. Under his guidance Rudolph learned rapidly, taking to study as a prodigal might take to drink. And with increasing knowledge came increasing tranquillity; as when he found that the hideous cry, startling him at every dawn, was the signal not for massacre, but buffalo-milk.