[Transcriber's note: Characters with macrons have been indicated in this file by preceding them with an equals sign and surrounding them with square brackets, e.g. "ē".]
[Frontispiece: PETER, HASTILY INSTRUCTING THE GIRL TO HOLD TWO RICKSHAWS, LEAPED AT HIS PURSUER WITH DOUBLED FISTS]
PETER THE BRAZEN
A MYSTERY STORY OF MODERN CHINA
GEORGE F. WORTS
"A man whose heart is burning with passion follows the undulations of a thought." —Su-Tong-Po.
WITH A FRONTISPIECE BY GAYLE HOSKINS
PHILADELPHIA & LONDON
J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY THE FRANK A. MUNSEY COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1919, J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY
DR. AND MRS. W. B. A. MOORE
THE CITY OF STOLEN LIVES
THE BITTER FOUNTAIN
THE GREEN DEATH
PETER THE BRAZEN
THE CITY OF STOLEN LIVES
"How serene the joy, when things that are made for each other meet and are joined; but ah,— how rarely they meet and are joined, the things that are made for each other!" —SAO-NAN.
When Peter Moore entered the static-room, picked his way swiftly and unnoticingly across the littered floor, and jerked open the frosted glass door of the chief operator's office, the assembled operators followed him with glances of admiration and concern. No one ever entered the Chief's office in that fashion. One waited until called upon.
But Moore was privileged. Having "pounded brass" for five useful and adventurous years on the worst and best of the ships which minimize the length and breadth of the Pacific Ocean, he was favored; he had become a person of importance. He had performed magical feats with a wireless machine; he had had experiences.
His first assignment was a fishing schooner, a dirty, unseaworthy little tub, which ran as far north sometimes as the Aleutians; and he had immediately gained official recognition by sticking to his instruments for sixty-eight hours—recorded at fifteen-minute intervals in his log—when the whaler Goblin encountered a submerged pinnacle rock in the Island Passage and flashed the old C.Q.D. distress signal.
It was brought out in the investigation that the distance at which Peter Moore had picked up the signals of the sinking Goblin exceeded the normal working range of either apparatus. When pressed, the young man confessed the ownership of a pair of abnormally keen ears. Afterward, it was demonstrated for the benefit of doubters that Moore could "read" signals in the receivers when the ordinary operator could detect only a far away scratching sound.
Beginning his second year in the Marconi uniform, Peter Moore was recognized as material far too valuable to waste on the fishing boats; and he was stationed on the Sierra, which was then known in wireless circles as a supervising ship. Her powerful apparatus could project out a long electric arm over any part of the eastern Pacific, and the duty of her operator was to reprimand sluggards who neglected answering calls from ship or shore stations, and inexperienced men who violated the strict rules governing radio intercourse.
It was whispered that Peter Moore grew tired of the nagging to which his position on the supervisor ship gave him privilege, for he shortly made application for a berth in the China run. Now every operator on the Pacific cherishes the hope that his fidelity will some day be rewarded by a China run, and there are applications always on file for those romantic berths. The Chief granted Peter Moore his whim unhesitatingly; and Moore selected the Vandalia, perhaps the most desirable of the transpacific fleet, because she stayed away from San Francisco the longest.
That the supersensitiveness of his ears was not waning was soon proved by his receipt of a non-relayed message, afterward verified, from the shore station in Seattle, when the Vandalia lay at anchor in the harbor at Hong-Kong. That was a new record. Marconi himself is believed to have written the young magician a complimentary letter. But Peter Moore showed that letter to no one. That was his nature. He was something of a mystery even to the members of his own profession. Many of the younger operators knew him only as a symbol, a genius behind a key, or as a hand. Professionally speaking, it was his hand that made his personality unique and enviable. There was a queer vitality in the signals sent into the air from a wireless machine when his strong white fingers played upon the key; his touch was as familiar to them as the voice of a friend.
There was a general simmering down of coastwise gossip in the static-room when the frosted glass door of the Chief's office closed behind him. Voices trailed off into curious whisperings. Then—
"But great guns, man, I need you!" boomed the cranky voice of the Chief.
Followed then the low hum of Peter Moore as he explained himself.
"Makes no difference!" the Chief roared. "Can't get along without you. Short handed. Gotta stay!"
In irritation the Chief always abbreviated his remarks quite as if they were radiograms to be transmitted at dollar-a-word rates.
The truth then dawned and burst upon those ardent listeners in the static-room. Peter Moore was resigning! It was incredible.
A more daring head pressed its audacious ear against the snowy glass. This was a fat, excitable little man, long in the service, but destined forever, it seemed, to hammer brass in the Panama intermediate run. A skillful operator, but his arm broke, as wireless men say, whenever faced by emergency. He distinctly heard Peter Moore state in a voice of emotion: "Too much China. God, man, I'll be smuggling opium next!"
"Rubbish!" the Chief snorted.
The Panama Line man waved a pale hand behind him for absolute silence.
"Want a shore station for a while?"
"Intend to rest up and then look around," Moore answered.
"You'll be back. Mark my word. The sea and the wireless house is a winning combination. The old cities—new faces—freedom——"
"Pah! You've only begun. When does the Vandalia clear for China?"
"I'll hold your berth open till Thursday noon. Hoping you'd break in a new operator. Queer chap. Glass eye. 'Member—Thursday noon."
The frosted door went inward abruptly. The intense blue eyes in the pale face of the man who had resigned closed half way upon encountering the blushing eavesdropper. The Panama Line operator moved uncertainly toward a vacant chair. Unaware of the curious stares addressed at him Moore went to the outer door. A wave of exquisite nervousness rippled through the silence of the static-room as the door clicked.
When the rumor reached the Vandalia, lying in state at her pier, that Peter Moore had resigned, Captain Jones, after bluntly airing his disappointment, advanced the theory to his chief engineer that Sparks had "taken the East too much to heart. The fangs are in too deep."
"He will be on hand sailing time," added the chief engineer, who had been trying to retire from active duty in the China run for eleven years.
But Moore did not come back to the Vandalia for that reason at all.
Communication between certain individuals in China and their relatives and friends in Chinatown must, for political and other reasons, be conducted in a secret way. In Shanghai, Moore had made the acquaintance, under somewhat mysterious auspices, of Ching Gow Ong, an important figure in the silk traffic.
Moore, so it was said by those who were in a position to know, had once performed a favor for Ching Gow Ong, of which no one seemed to know the particulars. What was of equal importance, perhaps, was that Ching Gow Ong would have willingly given Moore any gift within his power had Moore been so inclined.
But it appears that Moore was not a seeker after wealth, thereby giving some real basis to the common belief that he possessed that rare thing—a virginal spirit of adventure. He cemented this queer friendship by conveying messages, indited in Chinese script, which he did not read, between Ching Gow Ong and his brother, Lo Ong, officially dead, who conducted a vile-smelling haunt in the bowels of Chinatown.
Peter Moore made his way through the narrowing alleys, proceeded through a maze of blank walls, down a damp stone stairway, and rapped upon a black iron door. It opened instantly, and a long clawlike hand reached forth, accepted the yellow envelope from the operator's hand, and slowly, silently withdrew, the door closing as quickly and as quietly as it had opened.
No words were spoken. His errand done, Peter Moore retraced his steps to the wider and brighter lanes which comprised the Chinatown known to tourists.
He walked slowly, with his head inclined a little to one side, which was a habit he had acquired from the eternal listening into the hard rubber receivers. He had proceeded in this fashion a number of steps up one of the narrow, sloping sidewalks when he felt, rather than perceived, a pair of eyes fastened upon him from a second-story window.
They were the eyes of a young Chinese woman, but he sensed immediately that she was not of the river type. Her fine black hair was arranged in a gorgeous coiffure. Gold ornaments drooped from her ears, and her complexion was liberally sanded with rice powder. Her painted lips wore an expression of malignity.
In the obliquity of the eyes lurked a solemn warning. Then he became aware that she seemed to be struggling, as if she were impeding the movements of some one behind her.
It is safe to say that in his tramps through the winding alleys of Canton, of Peking, of Shanghai, Peter Moore had encountered many Chinese women of her type. There was a sharp vividness to her features which meant the inbreeding of high caste. She was unusual—startling! She looked into the street furtively, held up a heavily jeweled hand—an imperial order for him to stop—and withdrew. He lounged into the doorway of an ivory shop and waited.
It was quiet in Chinatown, for the time was noon and the section was pursuing its midday habit of calm. The padding figures were becoming a trifle obscure, owing to a cold, pale fog that was drifting up from the bay. In a moment the woman reappeared, examined the street again with hostile eyes, held up a square of rice paper, and slowly folded it.
Peter Moore nodded slightly and smiled. It was a habit with him—that smile. The sensitiveness of his nervous system found a quick outlet, when he was nervous or excited, by a disingenuous smile. He proceeded to the shop directly underneath her window, observing it to be Ah Sih King's gold shop. The window was rich in glittering splendors from the Orient. He picked up from the sidewalk a crumpled ball of red paper and stowed it away in his coat pocket.
To an alert observer the indifference with which Moore turned and pretended to study the gold ornaments in Ah Sih King's window might have seemed a trifle too obvious, and the smile on his lips, one might go on to say, was uncalled for.
As he waited, a soft thud sounded at his feet, coincident with a flash of black and white across his shoulder. He covered the object with one foot, as the oily, leering face of Ah Sih King appeared in the doorway. The blanched face surmounted a costly mandarin robe, righteously worn, a gorgeous blue raiment with traceries of fine gold and exquisite gems. At this moment he seemed to exhale an air of faint suspicion.
"Gentleman!" accosted the thin, curled lips in a tone that was well-nigh personal.
"Buy nothing," Peter Moore said curtly.
"You see my—my see you," observed Ah Sih King, reverting, as he deemed fitting, to pidgin.
The wireless operator turned his back impolitely; Ah Sih King did likewise. When he turned again, sharply, the oily smile was gone, a look of concern having crept into his sly, old face, and the slightly bent shoulders of the much slier young man were several strides distant.
A faint hiss, as of warning, issued from the carmine lips of the Chinese woman. Then the window closed noiselessly, and Chinatown, having paid not the slightest heed to the incident, pattered about its multifarious businesses, none the wiser.
There was an indefinable something in this incident which caused creases to appear across Moore's brow. Why had two notes been thrown? The puzzle sifted down to this possibility: Some one behind the Chinese woman had thrown a ball of red paper, a note, into the street.
Then she had beckoned him to wait, had written a second note, perhaps to warn him away. He glanced furtively at the second note, saw that it was written in Chinese, and thereupon decided in return for many favors to call upon Lo Ong for a translation.
Chinatown now was slowly vanishing from view, swallowed by the gray blanket of fog which rolled in from the Pacific through the mouth of the harbor. Retracing his steps through the mist, Moore descended the narrow stone stairway and tapped on the oblong of iron with his heavy seal ring. A shutter clinked, uneasy eyes scrutinized him, and he heard the bolt slide back. He opened the door and entered, restoring the bolt to its place.
The room was low, deep and dark under the flickering light of a single dong, which hung from the ceiling at the end of a roped-up cluster of fine brass chains. The rich, stupefying odor of opium tainted the heavy air. The orange flame, motionless as if it were carved from solid metal, showed the room to be bare except for a few grass mats scattered about in the irregular round shadow under it.
To one of these mats Lo Ong, gaunt, curious, even hostile, retreated, squatting with his delicately thin hands folded over his abdomen. A look of recognition disturbed only for the instant the placidity of the ochre features.
"No come buy?" he intoned, as if Peter Moore had never passed under that piercing gaze before.
"My never come buy," said the wireless man curtly. "Wanchee you come help; savvy?"
"Mebbe can do," asserted Lo Ong, in the voice and manner of one incessantly pursued by favor-seekers. Lo Ong's draped arm, as if it were detached from his body and governed by some extraneous mechanism, indicated a mat. Moore slipped down in the familiar cross-legged attitude, lighted a cigarette and blew the smoke at the belly on the dong.
"You Wanchee cumshaw?" demanded the Chinese, uneasily.
Peter Moore disdained to reply, extracted the two lumps of paper, slid one under his knee and unfolded the other, while Lo Ong looked unfavorably beyond him at the door. Three rows of Chinese markings were scrawled down it. Lo Ong's body commenced to sway back and forth in impatient rhythm.
"Lo Ong," stated Moore, "my wanchee you keep mouth shut—allatime shut—you savvy?"
"Can do," murmured Lo Ong indifferently. He reached for the rice paper, lifting it tenderly in long, clawing fingers, and held it to the flame. He seemed not to believe what he read, for he twisted the paper over, looked at it upside down, then sat down again, his lean fingers convulsing.
"No can do," he muttered, replacing the paper on his visitor's knee. "Mino savvy."
The white forefinger of the wireless operator pointed unwaveringly at the flattened nose. "Read that," he ordered.
Lo Ong glanced the other way, as if the subject had ceased to interest him, and tapped the floor with his knuckles.
"Lo Ong," declared Moore, losing his patience, "you b'long dead. Now savvy?"
"Mebbe can do," said Lo Ong faintly.
Moore ran his fingers down the first row of fresh markings.
"O-o-ey," commented Lo Ong, shifting uneasily, "'My see you allatime, long ago on ship.' Savvy?"
"'You no see my. My see you allatime.'"
The long, sloping shoulders seemed to jerk. "Keep away. Savvy?"
"It says that?"
"Take look see," invited Lo Ong, poking his claw nervously down the column. "'Keep away. Keep away.' One—two times. Savvy?"
Peter Moore nodded thoughtfully.
The Chinese, officially dead, replaced the sheet gingerly on his knees, as if it were an instrument of wickedness. His bony fingers twitched a moment.
"High lady," he added nervously; "velly high lady. You stay away. Huh?"
"Wait a minute." Peter extracted the other paper ball, unfolding it near the orange flame. The inner surface was red, the earthly red of porphyry, and cracked and scarred by the crumpling. Nearly obliterated by the lacework of wrinkles and scratches was a scrawl, evidently scarred into the glazed surface by a knife-point. The upper part was unintelligible. On the lower surface he made out with difficulty the single word, Vandalia. He carried it to the door, slid back the shutter and let the dim, gray light filter upon it. The other words were too mutilated to be read.
He returned to Lo Ong's jacketed side. The bony finger was circling excitedly about a smear of black in the lower corner of the rice paper.
"Len Yang. Len Yang! Savvy?"
"O-ho! And who is Len Yang?"
Lo Ong shook his head in agitation. "Len Yang—city. Savvy? Shanghai—Len Yang—fort' day."
"Fourteen days from Shanghai to Len Yang?"
"No. No! No! Fort'."
"O-o-ey." The flattened nose bobbed up and down. "Keep away—ai?"
"Maskee," Peter replied, meaning, broadly speaking, none of your business.
Lo Ong unbolted the door, to hint that the interview was concluded. "You keep away—ai?" he repeated anxiously. Moore grinned in his peculiarly disingenuous way, swung open the black door, and a long, gray arm of the fog groped its way past Lo Ong's countenance.
The junior operator toyed with the heavy transmitting key while Peter Moore, who knew the behavior of his apparatus as he would know the caprices of an old friend, adjusted helix-plugs, started the motor-generator, and satisfied the steel-eyed radio inspector that his wave decrement was exactly what it ought to be.
Then the inspector grunted suspiciously and wanted to know if the auxiliary batteries were properly charged. With a faint smile, Moore hooked up the auxiliary apparatus, tapped the key, and a crinkly blue spark snapped between the brass points above the fat rubber coil.
"I reckon she'll do," observed the inspector. "Aerial don't leak, does it?"
"No," said Peter.
The government man took a final look at the glittering instruments, and departed. Wherewith the junior operator swung half around in the swivel-chair and exposed to Peter an expression of mild imploration. Two gray lids over cavernous sockets lifted and lowered upon shining black eyes, one of which seemed to lack focus. Peter recalled then that the Chief had said something about a second operator having only one human eye, the other being glass.
"This is your first trip?"
The sallow face was inclined, and the pallid lips moved dryly.
"I just came from the school. I'm pretty green. You see——"
"I see. We'd better let me take the first trick. I'll sit in till midnight. After that there's very little doing. You may have to relay a position report or so. Be sure and don't work on navy time. The Chief will watch you closely for long-distance. The farther you work, the better he'll like it. How's the air? Have you listened in?"
"Do you mean—static? I heard a little. Seemed pretty far away, though."
Peter adjusted the nickeled straps about his head and pressed the rubber disks tight to his ears. He tilted his head slightly. A distant but harsh rasping, as of countless needle-points grating on glass, occurred in the head phones. This was caused by charges of electricity in the air, known to wireless men as "static." Percolating through the scratching was a clear, bell-like note. The San Pedro station was having something to say to a destroyer off the coast.
With delicate fingers Peter raised the tuning-knob a few points. Dale, the junior operator, hands clutched behind him, stared with the fearful adoration of an apprentice. He seemed to be making a mental notation of every move that Peter made, for future reference.
"Ah—do you mind if I ask a few questions? You see, I'm kind of green."
"Go ahead!" Peter said cordially.
"Where do I eat? With the crew? I hear that lots of these ships make you eat with the crew."
"No. In the main dining-saloon. Mr. Blanchard, the purser, will take care of you. See him at six thirty."
A deep monstrous shudder, arising to a clamor, half roar, half shriek, issued from the boilers of the Vandalia.
"It's rather interesting to watch us pull out," said Peter when the noise had ceased. "But be careful. There's no rail around this deck."
He was on his hands and knees at the motor-generator with a pad of sandpaper between his fingers when the tremulous voice of the junior operator sounded in the doorway. "Mr. Moore, there's some excitement on the dock."
Peter followed the narrow shoulders to the starboard side and looked down. The Vandalia was warping out from the pierhead with a sobbing tug at her stern. He noted that the head-lines were still fast. A straggling line of passengers' friends, wives, husbands, and sweethearts was moving slowly toward the end of the pier, for a final parting wave.
Something seemed to be wrong at the shore end of the gangplank, for, despite the fact that the ship was swinging out, the plank was still up. In the midst of an excited crowd a taxicab purred and smoked. There was a general parting in the crowd as the door was flung open. Two figures emerged, were lost from sight, and reappeared at the foot of the plank. An incoherent something was roared from the bridge.
One of the figures appeared to be struggling, clutching at the rail. For an instant she seemed to glance in Peter's direction. But her face could hardly be seen, for it was shrouded by a heavy gray veil. A gray hood covered her hair, and a long cloak reached to her shoe-tops.
Patiently urging her was a Chinese woman in silk jacket, trousers, and jeweled slippers. A customs officer tried to break through the mob, but somehow was held back. The gray-hooded figure suddenly seemed to become limp, and the Chinese woman half lifted, half pushed her the remaining distance to the promenade deck.
Peter was then conscious of a staring, lifeless eye fixed upon his.
"What do you make of it, Mr. Moore?" the junior operator wanted to know.
"Of that?" said Peter. "Nothing—nothing at all. By the way, I forgot to tell you that the captain has issued strict orders forbidding subofficers to use the starboard decks. Always, when you're going forward, or aft, walk on the port side."
Peter turned over the log-book and the wireless-house to Dale, a few minutes before midnight.
"Everything's cleared up. The static is worse, and KPH may want you to relay a message or two to Honolulu. If you have trouble, let me know."
"Yes, yes," replied Dale, looking over his shoulder nervously. "I will. Thanks."
Peter left him to the mercies of the static. As he descended the iron ladder to the promenade-deck, he imagined he saw some one moving underneath him. The figure, whoever or whatever it was, slid around the white wall and vanished as his foot felt the deck. He hastened to follow.
As he stepped into the light a low, sibilant whisper reached him. At the cross-corridor doorway he was in time to see the flicker of a vanishing gray garment and a sandaled foot on a naked ankle flash over the vestibule wave-check. He shook open the door and followed.
A vertical stripe of yellow light cleaved the dark of the corridor as a door was quietly shut. He heard the faint, distant click of a door-latch. Counting the entrances to that one, and sure that he had made no mistake, he rapped. The near-by clank of the engine-room well was the reply. He tried the handle. It was immovable. He struck a match. It was stateroom forty-four.
Peter went to the purser's office. Light rippled through the wrinkled green, round window, as he had hoped. He tapped lightly, and a voice bade him to enter.
Blanchard, the purser, dwarfed, perpetually stoop-shouldered, looked up from a clump of cargo reports and blinked through convex, thick, steel spectacles at his interrupter. His eyes were red and dim with a gray-blue, uncertain definition which always reminded Peter of oysters. Blanchard had been purser of the Vandalia for thirteen years, and Peter knew that the man possessed the garrulous habits of the oyster as well.
"Well, well!" observed Blanchard in the crisp, brittle accents of senility; "so you're back again, eh? Well, well, well." There was no emphasis laid on the words. They were all struck from the same piece of ancient metal.
"Here I am!" agreed Peter with mild enthusiasm. "The bad penny!"
"Ha, ha! The bad penny returns!" The exclamation died in a futile cough. "What are you prowlin' around ship this time o' night for, eh? After three bells, Sparks. Time for respectable people to be fast asleep. Or, are you leavin' the radio unwatched?"
"I'm looking for information." Peter drew himself by stiffened arms upon the purser's single bunk.
"Lookin' for information?" The thin voice suffered the quavery attrition of surprise. "Funny place to be lookin' for that commodity. What's on your mind? Eh?"
Blanchard tilted the rusted spectacles to his forehead, and the motionless gray orbs seemed to glint with a half-dead light. "Chinamen? What Chinamen?" The spectacles slid back into place.
"One, a woman, came aboard as we were pulling out this afternoon. Who is she? Where is she? Where's she from? Where's she going? Who's with her? That's what I want to clear up."
"Is that all?" squeaked Blanchard. His wrinkled, dried lips were struggling as if with indecision. A veiled, a thinly veiled conflict of emotions apparently was taking place behind that ancient gray mask. "What—what for?" was the final outcome in a hesitant half-whisper.
"My private information," smiled Peter. "Just curious, that's all. Didn't mean to pry open any dark secrets." He made as if to go.
"Sparks! Don't be in a hurry. I'm not so busy."
"What's botherin' you? Maybe I could straighten you out."
"Who are the occupants of stateroom forty-four?" Peter replied.
Again the expression shifted like water smitten by an evil wind.
"Forty-four!" The words were mild explosions.
A long cardboard sheet with blue and red lines was produced from a noiselessly opened drawer.
"The passenger list. We shall see." Blanchard's red, shiny forefinger clawed down the column of names, halting at the numeral forty-four. The space was blank. "You see?"
"Empty." A restrained note of triumph was unquestionably evident in the purser's cracked voice.
"I'll bother you with just one more question. What is Len Yang?"
A look of doubt, of incredulity bordering upon feeble indignation, settled upon the serrated countenance. But Blanchard only shook his head as if he did not comprehend.
Peter slipped down from the bunk. "Guess I'll take a turn on deck, if the fog's lifted, and roll in. G'night, purser."
Blanchard started to say something, evidently thought better of it, and retrieved his pen. As he dipped the fine point into the red ink by mistake he flung another frown over his shoulder. The wireless man lingered on the threshold, swinging the door tentatively.
The Vandalia was wallowing majestically through long, dead black swells. Peter poked his way up forward to the solitary lookout in the peak and glanced overside. Broad, phosphorescent swords broke smoothly with a rending, rushing gurgle over the steep cut-water. His eyes darted here and there over the void as his mind struggled to straighten out this latest kink.
What facts of significance he might have discovered from Blanchard were overshadowed by the purser's suspicious attitude. Blanchard knew, and Blanchard, for some reason, did not choose to divulge. This made matters more interesting, if slightly more complicated.
He was now reasonably sure of several things, without really having definite grounds for being sure. The malignant-eyed Chinese woman and whoever she had successfully concealed behind her in the loft above Ah Sih King's were now aboard the Vandalia. He was quite positive that he had recognized her in the woman who had come aboard in company with the gray-cloaked figure at the last minute before sailing-time.
He recalled the scene on the pierhead, and it occurred to him that the eyes behind the gray veil, before their owner was whisked up to the deck and from his sight, had fastened upon him for a long breath.
"Four bells, all well!" bawled the lookout as four clanging strokes rang out from abaft the wheel-house.
And Blanchard had proved that stateroom forty-four was unoccupied. Peter decided to borrow a master key in the morning, from the chief engineer, perhaps, and investigate stateroom forty-four. And with the feeling that he was on the verge of discovering something which did not exist, he prepared to turn in.
He was not undressed when the lock grated, the door lurched open, and the pale visage of Dale teetered at his shoulder. An attempt at grinning ended in a hissing sob of in-taken breath. The limp frame flung itself in the bunk beside Peter, and Dale's white, perspiring face was buried in palsied hands.
"Feel the motion?" Peter pulled down one of the hands, gently uncovering the expressionless eye.
"I wish I was dead!"
"Want me to finish your trick?"
Dale's face disappeared in the pillow. A moment he was stark. His head partly revolved, profiling a yellow, pointed nose against the white of the linen.
"Static's much worse, Mr. Moore. Frisco's sent me the same message three times now. It's for Honolulu. He says he won't repeat it again." The pale lips trembled in misery. "And there seems to be a funny sort of static in the receivers. The dynamos in the engine-room may cause it."
"That's strange," Peter reflected as he slipped on his blue coat. "There's never been any induction on board as far back as I can remember. Does it hum—or what?"
"No, it grates, like static. Sounds like static, and yet it doesn't. Kind of a hoarse rumble, like a broken-down spark-coil."
Two even rows of white teeth drew in the trembling lip and clung to it. "That awful staticky sound—— And the Rover's been calling us." He groaned miserably. "I couldn't answer either of them. I was lying on the carpet!"
"Get some sleep," advised Peter. "When you feel better come up and relieve me. If I were you I wouldn't smoke cigarettes when you think it's rough."
"I won't smoke another cigarette as long as I live!"
Peter slipped into his uniform, draped an oil-skin coat about his slender shoulders, and made his way up to the wireless house. The receivers were lying on the floor.
The Vandalia was entering a zone of pale, thin mist, which created circular, misty auras about the deck-lights. The tarpaulined donkey-engine beneath the after-cargo booms rattled as the Vandalia's stern sank into a hollow, and the beat of the engines was muffled and deeper. A speck of white froth glinted on the black surface and vanished astern.
The wireless-house seemed warm and cozy in the glare of its green and white lights. An odor of cheap cigarette-smoke puffed out as he opened the door.
Peter slipped the hard-rubber disks over his ears and tapped the slider of the tuner. Static was bad to-night, trickling, exploding and hissing in the receivers.
The electric lights became dim under the strain of the heavy motor, as he slid up the starting handle. The white-hot spark exploded in a train of brisk dots and dashes. He snapped up the aerial switch and listened.
KPH—the San Francisco station—rang clear and loud through the spatter of the electric storm. Peter flashed back his O.K., tuned for the Kahuka Head station at Honolulu, and retransmitted the message.
Sensitizing the detector, he slid up the tuning handle for high waves. Static, far removed, trickled in. Then a faint, musical wailing like a violin's E-string pierced this. The violin was the government station at Arlington, Virginia, transmitting a storm warning to ships in the South Atlantic. For five minutes the wailing persisted. Sliding the tuning handle downward, Peter listened for commercial wave-lengths.
A harsh grinding, unmusical as emery upon hollow bronze, rasped stutteringly in the head phones. Laboriously, falteringly, the grating was cleaved into clumsy dots and dashes of the Continental Code, under the quaking fingers of some obviously frightened and inexperienced operator. Were these the sounds which had unnerved Dale? For a time the raspings spelled nothing intelligible. The unknown sender evidently was repeating the same word again and again. It held four letters. Once they formed, H-I-J-X. Another time, S-E-L-J. And another, L-P-H-E.
The painstaking intent, as the operator's acute ears recognized, was identical in each instance. Frequently the word was incoherent altogether, the signals meaning nothing.
Suddenly Peter jerked up his head. Out of the jumble stood the word, as an unseen ship will often stand out nakedly in a fog rift. Over and over, badly spaced, the infernal rasp was spelling, H-E-L-P.
He waited for the signature of this frantic operator. But none occurred. Following a final letter "p" the signals ceased.
For a minute or two, while Peter nervously pondered, the air was silent. Then another station called him. A loud droning purr filled the receivers. Peter gave the "k" signal. The brisk voice of the transport Rover droned:
"I can't raise KPH. Will you handle an M-S-G for me?"
"Sure!" roared the Vandalia's spark. "But wait a minute. Have you heard a broken down auxiliary asking for help? He's been jamming me for fifteen minutes. Seems to be very close, K."
"Nix," replied the Rover breezily. "Can't be at all close or I would hear him, too. I can see your lights from my window. You're off our port quarter. Here's the M-S-G."
Peter accepted the message, retransmitting it to the KPH operator, then called the wheelhouse on the telephone. Quine, first officer, answered sleepily.
"Has the lookout reported any ship in the past hour excepting the Rover?"
"Is that the Rover on our port quarter?" Quine's voice was gruffly amazed. Like most mariners of the old school, he considered the wireless machine a nuisance. Yet its intelligence occasionally caught him off guard.
"Only thing in sight, Sparks."
Peter made an entry in the log-book, folded his hands and shut his eyes. The Leyden jars rattled in their mahogany sockets as the Vandalia climbed a wave, faltered, and sped into the hollow. Far removed from her pivot of gravity, the wireless house behaved after the manner of an express elevator. But the wireless house chair was bolted to the floor.
Wrinkles of perplexity creased his forehead. Had this stuttering static anything in kind with those other formless events? If not, what terrified creature was invoking his aid in this blundering fashion?
A simple test would prove if the signals were of local origin—from a miniature apparatus aboard the ship. He hoped anxiously for the opportunity. And in less than a half hour the opportunity was given him.
A tarred line scraped the white belly of the life-boat which swelled up from the deck outside the door, giving forth a dull, crunching sound with each convulsion of the engines. The square area above it danced with reeling stars, moiled by a purple-black heaven.
Peter, who had been studying the tarred rope, swung about in the chair and dropped an agitated finger to the silvered wire which rested against the glittering detector crystal. A tiny, blue-red flame snapped from his finger to the crystal chip! The frantic operator was aboard the Vandalia!
The broken stridulations took on the coherence of intelligible dots and dashes. The former blundering was absent, as if the tremulous hand of the sender was steadied by the grip of a dominant necessity; the signals clarified by the pressure of terror.
"Do not try to find me," it stammered and halted.
Some maddened pulse seemed to leap to life in Peter's throat. His fingers, working at the base of the tiny instrument, were cold and damp.
"You must wait," rasped the unknown sender, faltering. "You must help me! You are watched."
For a breath there was no sound in the receivers other than the beating of his heart.
Click! Snap! Sputter! Then: "Wait for the lights of China!"
The receivers rattled to the red blotter, and Peter rushed out on deck. Slamming the door, he stared at the spurting streams of white in the racing water. Indescribably feminine was the fumbling touch of that unknown sender!
A grating—hollow, metallic—occurred in the lee of the wireless cabin. A footfall sounded, coincident with the heavy collision into his side of an unwieldy figure whose hands, greasy and hot, groped over his. Both grunted.
"'Sthat you, Sparks?" They were the German gutturals of Luffberg, one of the oilers on the twelve-to-six watch. "Been fixin' the ventilator. Chief wondered if you were up. Wants to know why you ain't been down to say hello."
Peter decided to lay a portion of his difficulties before Minion.
The first operator had developed for himself at an early stage of his occupancy of the Vandalia's wireless house the warm friendship of the chief engineer. A wireless man is far more dependent for his peace of mind upon the engine-room crew than upon the forward crew. The latter has only one interest in him: that he stick to his instruments; while the engine-room crew strictly is the source from which his blessings flow, his blessings taking the invisible, vital form of electric current.
Wireless machines are gourmands of electricity. They are wastrels. Not one-tenth of the energy sucked from the ship's power wires finds its way through the maze of coils and jars to the antennae between the mastheads.
The Vandalia's engine-room equipment was installed long before wireless telegraphy was a maritime need and a government requirement. Hence, her dynamos protested vigorously against the strain imposed upon them by the radio machine. Any electric engine is unlike any steam engine. Steam engines will do so much work—no more. Dynamos or motors will do so much work—and then more. They can be overloaded, unsparingly. But the strain tells. Stout, dependable parts become hot, wear away, crumble, snap.
In the typical case of the Vandalia, the question of whether or not the wireless men should be provided with all of the current they required, was narrowed down to individuals.
If Minion had disliked Peter Moore he could have slowed down the dynamos at the critical times when the operator needed the high voltage; but Peter had had encounters with chief engineers before. He had at first courted Minion's good graces with fair cigars, radio gossip and unflagging courtesy. And on discovering that the chief was a sentimentalist at heart and a poet by nature, he had presented him with an inexpensively bound volume of his favorite author. Daring, but a master-stroke! He had not since wanted for voltage, and plenty of it.
He pondered the advisability of taking Minion entirely into his confidence as he followed the sweated, undershirted shoulders to the engine-room galley, and thence across the oily grill of shining steel bars which comprised one of the numerous and hazardous superfloors which surrounded the cylinders.
Minion was nursing a stubbornly warm bearing in the port shaft alley.
The fat cylinder revolved with a pleasant ringing noise, the blurring knuckles of the frequent joints vanishing down the yellow, vaulted alley to a point of perspective, where the shaft projected through the hull. The floundering of the great propellers seemed alternately to compress and expand the damp atmosphere.
The sad, white face of Minion arose from the dripping flanks of the journal as he caught sight of Peter in the arched entrance. A pale smile flickered at his lips.
The chief did not in any wise reflect his monstrously heaving, oil-dripping surroundings. He was a small, deliberate man, with oceans of repressed energies. His skin had the waxy whiteness of a pond lily. An exquisitely trimmed black moustache adorned his mouth. The deep brown eyes of a visionary rested beneath the gentle, scythe-like curves of thin and pointed eyebrows.
"You look worried," vouchsafed Minion as their hands met. His quiet voice had a clarity which projected it nicely through the bedlam of engine-room noises. "Why you up so early—or so late? Anything wrong?"
Peter took out a cigarette and nervously lighted it at the sputtering flame Minion held for him. "Mr. Minion, something's in the wind," he complained, and hesitated. He was at the verge of telling what he had seen on the promenade deck, of the confusion on the pierhead, of the unaccountable behavior of the woman in the window above Ah Sih King's, of the suspicious attitude of Blanchard, of the recent plea for help. Again something checked him.
"Mr. Minion, what is Len Yang? And where is it?"
The scythe-like brows contracted. Minion's lucid, brown eyes rested on his lips, seeming to await an elaboration of the query. His features suddenly had stiffened. His whole attitude appeared on the moment to have undergone a change, from one of friendly interest to a keen defensiveness.
"Len Yang is a city in China. Why?"
The operator suspected that Minion was sparring for time.
"Where is Len Yang?"
"Do you mean, how does one reach Len Yang?"
"Mr. Moore"—the suspicion fell from the chief's expression, leaving it calm and grave—"you are not an amateur. You have discretion. The man who controls Len Yang is the Vandalia's owner."
"Why, I understood the Pacific and Western Atlantic Transport Line owned her!"
"This man—he is a Chinese. Oh, I've never seen him, Mr. Moore. One of the richest of China's unknown aristocrats, the central power of the cinnabar ring. You have never gone up the river with us to load at Soo-chow?"
Peter shook his head. "Cinnabar from his mine is brought down the Yangtze on junks and transferred at Soo-chow?"
Minion seemed not to be listening. His eyes were stagnant with an appalling retrospect. "A terrible place—horrible! Five years ago I visited Len Yang. Hideous people with staring eyes, dripping the blood-red slime of the mines! And girls! Young girls! Beautiful—for a while." He sighed. "They work in that vicious hole!"
"Young girls?" Peter exclaimed.
"Imported. From everywhere. I tried to find why. There is no explanation. They come—they work—they become hideous—they die! It is his habit. No one understands. Poor things!"
Peter was staring at him narrowly. "Quite sure he imports them to work in the mines?"
Minion nodded vehemently. "I made sure of that. I went up the river as his guest. Trouble with the seepage pumps. Hundreds of them drowned like rats. Len Yang is near the trade route into India. Leprosy—filth—vermin! God! You should have seen the rats! Monsters! They eat them. Poor devils! And live in holes carved out of the ruby mud."
He tore the clump of waste from his left hand and ground it under his heel.
"And in the center of this frightfulness—his palace! Snow-white marble, whiter than the Taj by moonlight. But its base is stained red, a creeping blood-red from the cinnabar. Damn him!"
"No escape?" Peter muttered.
"Escape!" Minion shouted. "Dang hsin! They call him the Gray Dragon. He reaches over every part of Asia. That is no exaggeration. Take my advice, Mr. Moore, if you have stumbled upon one of his schemes—ni chue ba—don't meddle!"
The white face writhed, and for a new reason Peter smothered the impulse to tell the agitated Minion what he had seen. Their conversation drifted to general shipboard matters. When he left he borrowed the chief engineer's master key on the excuse that he had locked himself out of the wireless cabin.
Besides a stiffening head wind the ship was now laboring into piling head seas. Far beyond the refulgence of the scattered lights stars shone palely. Flecks of streaming white were making their appearance at the toppling wave crests.
A hail of stinging spray, flung inboard by a long gust, struck Peter's face sharply as he struggled forward, rattling like small shot against the vizor of his cap and smarting his eyes. The needle-like drops were icy cold. The elastic fabric of the Vandalia shivered, her broad nose sinking into a succession of black mountains. Peak gutters roared as the cascading water was sucked back to the untiring surface.
Gaining the cross entrance, he braced his strength against the forces of wind which imprisoned the door, and crept down the passage.
His heart pounded as his groping fingers outlined the cold iron numerals on the panel. Nervously, he inserted the master key into the door lock, and paused to listen.
Rhythmic snoring moaned from an opened transom near by. What other night sounds might have been abroad were engulfed by the imminent throbbing in the engine-room well.
Stateroom forty-four's transom was closed. The lock yielded. The door yawned soundlessly. A round, portentous eye glimmered on the opposite wall. An odor of recently wet paint and of new bed linen met him. The excited pulsing of his heart outsounded the engines.
He shut the door cautiously, not to awake the occupants of the berths, and fancied he could again hear the warning sibilance of the whisper, but in sleep, perhaps drawn through unconscious lips.
Eagerly, his hand slipped over the enameled wall and found the electric switch. Turning, to cover all corners of the stateroom he snapped on the light.
Stateroom forty-four, through whose doorway he could have sworn to have seen a sandaled foot vanish less than three hours previous, was empty!
The blue-flowered side curtains of the white enameled bunks were draped back in ornamental stiffness. Below the pillows the upper sheets were neatly furled like incoming billows on a coral beach. He threw open the closet door. Bare! Not one sign of occupancy could he find, and he looked everywhere.
As he made to leave the room a small oblong of white paper was thrust under the door. He hesitated in surprise, stooped to seize it and flung open the door. A gust of night, wind—the slamming of a door—and the messenger was gone.
Tremblingly, he unfolded the paper. His eyes dilated. Hastily scrawled in the lower right-hand corner of the otherwise blank leaf was a replica of the blurred sign that had caused such consternation on the part of Lo Ong.
The ideograph had twice been brought to his attention. It was apparently a solemn warning. Should he heed it? He felt that he was watched. But the porthole glowed emptily.
Lighting a cigarette, he dropped down to the bunk, cupped his chin in his palms, and frowned at the green carpet.
He was being frustrated, by persons of adroit cunning. It was maddening. This had ceased to be an adventurous lark. It was to become a fight against weapons whose sole object seemed to be to guard the retreat of some evil spirit.
It occurred to him suddenly that he should be grateful upon one score at least: He had not lost the trail, for the symbols were unchanged.
But from that point the trail vanished—vanished as abruptly as if its design had been wiped off the earth! Sharp eyed and eared, alertness night after night availed him nothing. And not until the twinkling lights of Nagasaki were put astern, when the Vandalia turned her nose into the swollen bed of the Yellow Sea, did the traces again show faintly.
That a recrudescence of those involved in the murky affair might be imminent was the thought induced in Peter's mind as the green coast of Japan heaved over the horizon. With each thrust of the Vandalia's screws the cipher was nearing its solution. Each cylinder throb narrowed the distance to the shore lights of China—the lights of Tsung-min Island. And then—what?
In a corner of the smoking-room he puffed at his cigarette and watched the poker players as he drummed absently upon the square of green cork inlaid in the corner table. The vermilion glow of the skylight dimmed and died. Lights came on. A clanging cymbal in the energetic hands of a deck steward boomed at the doorway, withdrew and gave up its life in a far away, tinny clatter.
The petulant voice of a hardware salesman, who was secretly known to represent American moneyed interests in Mongolia, drifted through the haze of tobacco smoke at the poker table.
"——that's what I'd like to know. Damn nonsense—saving steam, probably—off Wu-Sung before midnight—if—wanted to throw in a little coal—means I miss the river boat to-morrow—not another—Saturday. Dammit!"
Peter drew long at the cigarette and glanced thoughtfully at the oak-paneled ceiling. Chips clicked. The petulant voice continued:
"——rottenest luck ever had." Evidently he was referring to his losses. "Rotten line—rottener service—miss my man—Mukden——" The voice ceased as its owner half turned his head, magnetized by the intentness of the operator's gaze. Peter glanced away. The salesman devoted himself to the dealer.
The Vandalia was bearing into a thin mist. The night was cool, quiet. Had he been on deck Peter would have seen the last lights of Osezaki engulfed as if at the dropping of a curtain.
During the voyage he had haunted the smoking-room, hoping that by dint of patient listening he might catch an informative word dropped carelessly by one of the players. No such luck. The players were out-of-season tourists, bound for South China or India, or salesmen, patiently immersed in the long and strenuous task of killing time.
"——thirty—thirty-five—forty—forty-five——" The fat man was counting his losings.
Faint, padded footsteps passed the port doorway. Peter became aware of an elusive perfume—scented rice powder——
A pale, malignant face was framed momentarily in one of the starboard windows.
Peter blinked, then bounded after. The salesman impeded his progress and grudgingly gave way.
The deck was empty, slippery with the wet of the mist. He was suddenly aware that one of the ports, in the neighborhood of the stateroom he had entered, was ajar. Nervously he halted, gasping as a long, trembling hand, at the extremity of a spectral wrist, plucked at his sleeve. Blanched as an arm of the adolescent moon, it fumbled weakly at his clutching fingers—and was swiftly withdrawn!
The staring eyes of a white, gibbous face sank back from the hole. Below the nose the face seemed not to exist.
Its horror wrapped an icy cord about his heart. He plunged his arm to the shoulder through the round opening, struck a yielding, warm body; descending claws steeled about his wrist and deliberately forced him back.
The brass-bound glass squeezed on his fingers. He wrenched them free, crushed, throbbing, and warmly wet. The anguish seemed to extend to his elbow. Then, suddenly, the gruff, seasoned voice of Captain Jones descended from space behind him. "Sparks, come to my cabin."
Peter followed the brutish shoulders to the forward companionway, endeavoring to clarify his thoughts. Mild confusion prevailed when Captain Jones closed and locked the door of his spacious stateroom behind them and dropped heavily into one of the cumbersome teak chairs.
He was a hardened, brawny chunk of a man, choleric in aspect and temperament, brutal in method, bluntly decisive in opinion. Iron was his metal. "Starboard Jones" was one of the few living men who had successfully run the Jap blockade into Vladivostok during that bloody tiff between the black bear and the island panther.
Reddened sockets displayed keen, blue eyes in a background of perpetual fire. His large, swollen nose had a vinous tint, acquiring purplishness in cold weather. Tiny red veins, as numerous as the cracks in Satsuma-ware, spread across both cheeks in a carmine filigree.
His cabin was ornamented chiefly by hand-tinted photographs from the yoshiwaras of Nagasaki, of simpering, coy geishas. Souvenirs of their trade, glittering fans, nicked teacups, flimsy sandals, adorned the available shelf room. Cigars as brawny and black as if their maker had striven to emulate the captain's own bulk were scattered among papers on his narrow desk.
He reached clumsily for one of these brown cylinders now, neglecting to remove his glance of gloating austerity from the operator's tense face.
"Haven't seen much of you lately, Sparks," he observed, applying a steady match flame to the oval butt. He spoke in his usual tones, with a gruffness that balanced on a razor edge between rough jocularity and official harshness. "What's new? Have one of my ropes?"
Peter studied the glowing end narrowly. "Had a little trouble first night out. No, thanks. Not smoking to-night." His bruised finger-tips were curved up tenderly in his coat pocket.
"What's 'at?" The steel eyes were motionless beneath half-lowered lids.
"Some one used an electric machine. Jammed my signals."
The choleric face dipped knowingly. What Captain Jones did not comprehend he invariably pretended to comprehend. "Noticed anything else?" His ruddy face was now weighty with significance.
Peter sat up abruptly. "What!"
A thick, red forefinger threatened, "Lis'n to me, Sparks, you're a overgrown, blundering bull in a china-shop. You're——"
"Well?" There was a trace of anger in Peter's suave inquiry. His face became stony white. A spot of color appeared at either cheek.
"I mean: Keep your damn nose out of what don't concern you. Savvy?" The heated words spilled thickly from the captain's red lips. "I mean: Butt out of what concerns Chinese women and—and—other words, mind your own particular damn business! Duty on this ship's to mind the radio. What goes on outside your shanty's none of your damn concern!" Captain Jones' mouth remained open, and the butt of the black cigar slid into it.
Peter raised a restraining hand. His lips trembled. His eyes seemed to snap in a rapid fire between the eyes and mouth of the big man slouched down in the chair in front of him. "Wait a minute," he spat out. "Since you do know that somebody is being kidnapped on this ship——"
"What in hell do you mean?"
"Exactly what I say. A Chinese woman, no matter who she is—is hiding some one, a woman, somewhere on this ship. That woman—that woman who's being held—grabbed my hand not five minutes ago. It's your duty——"
"Keep your hands where they belong. You're talking like a fool. Kidnapped? You're crazy. My duty? You're a fool! You're talking baby talk." Captain Jones sprang from his chair. "You're on this ship to tend the wireless," he bawled. "You're under oath to keep your mouth shut. Any one back there?"
"Don't you know it breaks a government rule when that room's empty—at sea?"
The mist-laden wind shrilled through the screen door abruptly thrust back. Captain Jones slammed the stout inner door. Peter turned up his coat collar, bound a clean handkerchief about his aching fingers, climbed agilely over the life-rafts, passed the roaring, black funnels, and entered the wireless house.
The low, intermingling whine of Jap stations was broken by an insistent P. and O. liner, yapping for attention. Shanghai stiffly droned a reply, advising the P. and O. man to sweeten his spark.
Peter tapped his detector and grunted. Shanghai was loud—close! The Vandalia must be nearing the delta.
"——Nanking Road. Stop. Forty casks of soey——" yelped the P. and O.
Nearing the great river! Out of the mist a faint blur would come—the first lights of China!
"——Thirteen cases of tin——" The P. and O.'s spark remained unsweetened.
Would the lights be Hi-Tai-Sha—Tsung-min?—port or starboard?
Far below decks a bell jangled faintly. The throbbing of the engines was suddenly hushed. The bell sounded distantly, through a portentous silence. Peter glanced at the clock. Half-past twelve.
The silence was shattered by a turbulent, stern lifting rumble as the screws reversed. The Vandalia wallowed heavily, and lay with the yellow tide.
Extinguishing the lights, Peter slipped out on deck, leaned over the edge, and peered into the murk. His heart pumped nervously.
At first all was blank. Then a misty, gray-white glow seemed to swim far to port. Murkily, it took form, vanished, reappeared and—was swallowed up again.
But these were not the lights of Tsung-min. The ship was in the river. He knew those lights well. Even now the Vandalia, was slipping down with the current abreast of Woo-Sung! The first lights of China! But what was happening? He dashed to the starboard side.
Out of the mist there arose a tall, gaunt specter. A junk. Perhaps a collision was decreed by the evil spirit of the Whang-poo. But the usual shriekings of doomed river men were absent. The gray bulk floated idly with the steamer. The silence of death permeated both craft.
At a loss to account for this queer coincidence, this mute communion, Peter elbowed over the edge, dangerously high above the water, and slid down a stanchion to the promenade deck.
Simultaneously every light on that side of the ship was extinguished. As his feet struck the metal gutter, several unseen bodies rushed past him, aft.
He was grabbed from behind and hurled to the deck. Springing up, he heard the thick breathing of his unknown assailant. He lunged for the sound, met flying fists, smashed his man against the rail. The blow knocked the wind from his antagonist, or broke his back.
Peter did not pause to make inquiries. As the limp body thudded to the wood, the operator sprinted after the vanished figures.
A lone light on the after spur illumined a dim confusion in the cargo well. The stern of the junk was backed against the rail. Oars flashed faintly as the crew of the junk strove to keep her fast against the steamer's side. But where was the crew of the Vandalia? Had Captain Jones consented to and perhaps aided in this mid-river tryst?
Another source of illumination sprang into being. A dong was burning yellowly on the junk's poop deck, casting a plenitude of light upon the scene.
As Peter dropped down the precipitous ladder into the well, he made out two figures struggling against the rail. From the junk, imploringly, a giant Chinese with pigtail flapping held out his long arms. Silent, his face was writhing with the supplication to hurry.
Peter drove in between the two figures, one of which suddenly collapsed and lay inert. The other sprang at his neck, sinking long claws into his throat. Slit eyes glinted close. Before his wind was shut off he caught the oppressive fragrance of a heavy perfume. A woman!
He struck the clawing hands loose, and she stemmed a scream between convulsing lips. The woman above Ah Sih King's!
He hurled her back, and she staggered against the iron flank of the well. A chatter of Chinese broke from her lips. Shaking, she extracted an envelope from her satin blouse and pressed it into his hands. Thoughtlessly he stuffed the envelope into his pocket, not reckoning what it might contain.
The junk swung out, closed in with a smart smack, and the giant on her deck crouched to spring. He squealed, a high-pitched ululation of anger. Another sound was abroad, the jangling of the engine-room bell.
Peter struck down the groping hands of the woman and sprang to the rail, bracing his feet on the smooth iron deck-plate as the Chinese leaped. A knife glinted. Peter seized a horny wrist with both hands, bent, and wrenched it. The knife struck the water with a sibilant splash. The fokie lost his balance. His legs became entangled.
He gibbered with horror as he slipped—slipped——
The Chinese woman sprang at Peter with the frenzy of a pantheress.
A weltering splash—Peter dimly saw the bobbing head before it was driven below the surface as the junk, yawing in, crowded the swimmer down.
A life? Nothing to the turgid river, draining all effluvia from the yellow heart of this festering land.
With a hissing sob, the woman drove Peter backward, raining blow after blow on his chest. The engines pounded briskly. A boom rattled. Despairingly, Peter's antagonist shifted her tactics, surprised him by flinging herself to the rail.
The junk was veering away as the Vandalia's blades took hold.
She poised on the top rail, drew herself together, and leaped!
The junk slid into the mist.
Peter was conscious of a hot stickiness at his throat where the claws had taken hold. Then he concerned himself with the gray shape that lay quite still on the iron deck at his feet. New enemies from other quarters, he realized, might strike at any instant.
Gathering up the limp form, he climbed the ladder to the darkened promenade deck and up another flight through the tarpaulin cover to the boat-deck. Opening the wireless-house door, he deposited his burden gently upon the carpet, and switched on the light. Then he turned the key in the lock, and examined his find. A long, gray bag of some heavy material swathed the small figure from head to foot. There was no sign of life.
Yelping arose from the river. It was still dark. The sampan coolies were out early. Peter listened, becoming thoughtful as a solution seemed to present itself to his problem.
He went out on deck and beckoned to one of them to stand by.
A swaying coolie in the stern of the nearest craft caught sight of him.
"Hie! Hie!" The wagging paddle became mad. The sampan slipped under the towering shadow and brought up with a smack against the moving black hull.
Peter pried up the tarpaulin life-boat cover, dragged out a coil of dirty rope, made one end fast at the foot of the davit, and tossed the other end overside. The coolie caught it and clung.
Re-entering the wireless cabin, Peter opened his pocket-knife and slit the cord at the head.
A mass of curly, brown hair flowed out upon the carpet. There was a silken lisp of underskirts. A faint sigh.
Peter suddenly turned his head. Black, glassy eyes were riveted upon his from the after window. They vanished.
He jumped up, bolted to the deck, and stood still, listening.
The scuffle of a foot sounded on the port side. Some one was running forward. He plunged after. The footsteps stopped sharply coincident with a dull smash, a frantic grunt. The pursued reeled to the deck, groaning.
Peter pounced upon him, grabbed his collar, and dragged him across the deck into the wireless house.
"Mr. Moore, the captain told me——" whimpered Dale.
Peter knocked him into the chair, opened the toolbox, and extracted a length of phosphor-bronze aerial wire. Binding the wiggling arms to the chair, he made the ends fast behind.
Snapping out the lights, he gathered the gray bag into his arms and deposited it on the deck in the narrow space between the life-boat and the edge. He looked down. The coolie was staring up, clinging to the rope, waiting.
The bag slipped down half-way. A warm moist hand clutched at his wrist. A faint moan issued from the unseen lips. He jerked again. The bag came away free, and he tossed it overboard. The yellow current snatched it instantly from sight.
The hand clung desperately at his wrist. "Don't let them——" began a sweet voice in his ear.
He wrapped his legs around the rope and worked his way over the edge. "Arms around my neck!" he commanded hoarsely. "Hold tight!"
Soft arms enfolded him. They dangled at the edge.
The coarse rope slipped swiftly through his fingers, scorching the palms, seeming to rake at the bones in his hand.
A wild shout came from the wireless house. An echo, forward, answered.
They slipped, twisting, scraping, down the rough strand. His hands seemed hot enough to burst. Maddened blood throbbed at his eyes, his ears, and dried his throat. Dimmed lights of the promenade deck soared upward. A glimmering port-hole followed.
For an eternity they dangled, then shot downward.
Something popped in Peter's ears. His feet struck a yielding deck. He staggered backward, sprawled. The rope was whipped from his hand. The warm arms still clung about his neck.
As the world wheeled, a drunken universe, a sullen voice yelped at his ear. The arms loosened.
The Vandalia twinkled closely and was swept into the mist, a blur, a phantom. His hands blazed with infernal fire.
He sat up and looked behind him. The river was murderously dark. Water gurgled under the flimsy bow. The dull tread of feet and a watery flailing behind him advised Peter that the coolie was struggling against the rushing current.
Slowly he became conscious of a weight upon his breast, a low sobbing. A delicate, feminine odor brought him to earth, unraveled his tangled wits.
He was sitting upon the wet floor of the sampan's low cabin. His captive had crept close to him for protection. Protection! He snorted, wondering if the coolie was licensed.
"Hai! Hai! Woo-Sung way." The voice was villainously stubborn.
"Shanghai-way. Kuai cho—hurry!" roared Peter. A sigh escaped from the girl. She snuggled closer. "Woo-Sung. Pu-shih! Savvy?"
"Hai! Mebbe can do." The sampan reared, braving the direct onslaught of the Whang-poo's swift tide.
A myriad of questions in his brain strove for utterance. But the girl spoke first.
"Who are you?" she whispered. "I am Eileen Lorimer."
"I am—I was the wireless operator of the Vandalia."
The coolie paused a moment for breath, then the mad plunging of the paddle sounded again.
"The wireless operator? You heard my call?"
"Been waiting for China's lights—ever since. But how—what?" he demanded.
She was silent a moment. "I know the code. My brother owned a private station. We lived in Pasadena—ages ago. It does seem ages." She stirred feebly. "You don't mind?"
"No, no," he protested.
"I am afraid—such a long time. Weeks? Years?" She shuddered. "I do not know. Oh—I want to go home!"
The coolie broke into a working sing-song as he struggled. The tide should shift before long.
"Were you in the loft above Ah Sih King's?"
"Roped! I broke loose."
"The red note?"
"I scribbled with a nail, and threw it before she knocked me down. That woman was a demon!"
A pale, yellow glow seemed to body forth from the enshrouding mist. Dawn was breaking. Soon the great river would be alight.
"School-teacher," the girl was murmuring. "A wedding present for her—in Ah Sih King's." A small hand fumbled for his, and found it. "In the back room they began gibbering at me. And this demon came. Meaningless words—Ah Sih King leered. Called me the luckiest woman in China."
"But how did you know?"
An empty freighter with propellers flailing half out of water pounded through the yellow mist close to them.
"Hie! Hie!" shrilled the coolie's warning.
Light seeped through the doorway. The outlines of a dark skirt were silhouetted against the scrubbed white floor.
"He said when I saw the lights of China I would go aboard a beautiful ship. She was watching you. Three times our stateroom was changed. Always at night."
"You used a coil?" Peter was professionally interested on this point.
The girl murmured affirmatively. "She had some affliction. A San Francisco doctor said the electric machine would cure it. And I pretended to use it, too. But it broke down that night."
The yellow light grew stronger. Equipment of the cabin emerged: a crock of rice and fish, a corked jug, a bundle of crude chop-sticks bound with frayed twine, a dark mess of boiled sea-weed on a greasy slab.
He looked down. The girl moved her head. Their eyes met.
Timid, gray ones with innocent candor searched him. Shining dark hair rippled down either side of a pale, lovely face. She was younger than he had expected, more beautiful than he had hoped. Her rosebud of a mouth trembled in the overtures of a smile.
His feelings were divided between admiration for her and horror—she had escaped so narrowly. In the realization of that moment Peter shaped his course. His following thought was of finances.
He brought to light a handful of change. Less than one dollar, disregarding four twenty-cent Hu-Peh pieces; hardly enough to pay off the sampan coolie.
His charge sighed helplessly, thereby clinching his resolution. "I haven't a penny," she said.
He explored the side-pocket of his coat, hoping against fact that he had not changed his bill-fold to his grip. His fingers encountered an unfamiliar object.
The struggling pantheress flashed into his mind. And the wrinkled envelope she had drawn from her satin jacket and pressed into his hand. Past dealings with Chinese gave him the inkling that he had been unknowingly bribed.
A scarlet stamp, a monograph, was imposed in the upper right corner of the pale blue oblong.
"Money—Chinese bills. Full of them!" Miss Lorimer gasped. "I saw it. What are they for? And why did that dreadful woman——"
"Jet-t-e-e-ee!" sang the coolie, swinging the oar hard over. The sampan grated against a landing. "Shanghai. Ma-tou! Hān liang bu dung yāng che lāi!"
Peter was counting the pack. "Fifty one-thousand-dollar Bank of China bills!"
Excited yelpings occurred on the ma-tou. The rickshaw coolies were dickering for their unseen fare.
Peter tossed the sampan boy all the coins he had, and left him to gibber over them as he lifted the girl to the jetty. She clung to his arm, trembling, as the coolies formed a grinning, shouting circle about them. More raced in from the muddy bund.
"What are we going to do?" she groaned.
"We are going to cable your mother that you are starting for home by the first steamer," Peter cried, swinging her into the cleanest and most comfortable rickshaw of the lot. "The Mongolia sails this afternoon."
"What will become of you?" she demanded.
Peter gave her his ingenuous smile. "I will vanish—for a while. Otherwise I may vanish—permanently."
Miss Lorimer reached out with her small white hand and touched his sleeve. They were jouncing over the Su-Chow bridge, on their way to the American Consulate. "Won't I see you again? Ever?" She looked bewildered and lost, as if this strange old land had proved too much for her powers of readjustment. Her rosebud mouth seemed to quiver. "Are you in danger, Mr. Moore?"
Peter glimpsed a very yellow, supercilious face swinging in his direction from the padding throng.
"A little, perhaps," he conceded.
"Because of me?"
The yellow face reappeared and was swallowed again by the crowd, as a speck of mud is engulfed by the Yangtze.
Miss Lorimer repeated her question. Peter shook his head in an extravagant denial, and helped her down from the rickshaw. They had stopped before the consulate in the American quarter.
"I'm leaving you here," he said.
"But—but I like you!" her small voice faltered. "Aren't you going to explain—anything? Is this—is this all?"
Peter smothered his rising feelings under an air of important haste. "Your way lies there"—he pointed down river. "For the present mine lies here"—and he jerked a thumb in the general direction of Shanghai's narrow muddy alleys.
"Shall I—won't you—gracious!" Miss Lorimer stared into her left hand. Two one-thousand-dollar Bank of China bills were folded upon it. She was confused. When she looked back the young man who had miraculously delivered her from an unguessable fate had been spirited with Oriental magic from her sight.
The bund of Shanghai was striped with the long, purple shadows of coming night, a night which seemed to be creeping out of the heart of the land, ushering with it a feeling of subtle tension, as though the touch of darkness stirred to wakefulness a populace of shadows, which skulked and crouched and whispered, comprising an underworld of sinister folk which the first glow of dawn would send scampering back to a thousand evil-smelling hiding-places.
The rhythmic chant of coolies on the river ended. Mammoth go-downs, where the products of China flowed on their way to distant countries, became gloomily silent and empty. Handsome, tall sikhs, the police of the city, appeared in twos and threes where only one had been stationed before; for in China, as elsewhere, wickedness is borne on the night's wings.
With the descent of the velvety darkness the late wireless operator of the transpacific greyhound, the Vandalia, slipped out of an obscure, shadowy doorway on Nanking Road and directed his steps toward the glittering bund, where he was reasonably sure his enemies would have difficulty in recognizing him.
Peter's uniform now reposed on a dark shelf in the rear of a silkshop. He had no desire to be stabbed in the back, which was a probability in case certain up-river men should find him. The Chinese gentleman who conducted the silkshop was an old friend, and trustworthy.
Peter now wore the garb of a Japanese merchant. His feet were sandaled. His straight, lithe figure was robed in an expensive gray silk kimono. Jammed tight to his ears, in good Nipponese fashion, was a black American derby. His eyebrows were penciled in a fairly praiseworthy attempt to reproduce the Celestial slant, and he carried a light bamboo cane.
Yet the ex-operator of the Vandalia was not altogether sure that the disguise was a success. If the scowling yellow face he had detected among the throngs on the bund that morning should have followed him to the silk-shop, of what earthly use was this silly disguise?
He padded along in the lee of a money-changer's, keeping close to the wall. By degrees he became aware that he was followed; and he endeavored to credit the feeling to imagination, to raw nerves. A ghostly rickshaw flitted by. The soft chugging of the coolie's bare feet became faint, ceased. A muttering old woman waddled past.
He looked behind him in time to see a gaunt face, lighted by the dim glow of a shop window, bob out of sight into a doorway. Turning again a moment later, he saw the man dive into another doorway.
Peter ran to the dark aperture, seized a muscular, satin-covered arm, and dragged a whispering Chinese, a big, brawny fellow, into the circular zone of the yellow street-light. Quickly recovering from his surprise, the Chinese reached swiftly toward his belt. Peter, hoping that only one man had been set on his trail, gave a murderous yell, and at the same time drove his fist into a yielding paunch.
With a groan the Chinese staggered back against the shop window, caving in a pane with his elbow. Peter raised his fist to strike again.
Then a monumental figure, with a clean turban coiled about his head, strode austerely into the circle of yellow light.
"Ta dzoh shēn mō szi?"
"Thief," said Moore simply, indicating the broken shop window.
"Lāo shēn lāo shēn!" growled the sikh. He seized the luckless window-breaker by both shoulders, backed him against an iron trolley-post, and strapped him to it.
With a jovial, "Allah be with you!" Peter Moore continued his stroll toward the bund. Now that the trailer was out of his way for the night at least, he could make his way in peace to the Palace bar and find out what might be in the wind for him.
As he crossed Nanking Road where it joined the bund, a frantic shout, mingled with a scream of fear or of warning, impelled him to leap out of the path of a rickshaw which was making for him at a breakneck speed. A white face, with a slender gloved hand clutched close to the lips, swept past.
Peter gasped in surprise quite as staggering as if the girl in the rickshaw had slapped him across the face. He shouted after her. But she went right on, without turning.
"Licksha?" A grinning coolie dropped the shafts of an empty rickshaw at Peter Moore's heels.
He ceased being angry as a softer glow crept into his veins. The rickshaw turned to the right, following the other, which occupied the center of the almost deserted bund, and speeding like the wind.
"Ni chue ba!" shouted Peter Moore. The girl seemed to be headed for the bund bridge. But why? A number of questions stormed futilely in his brain. Why had the girl ignored him? Why had she not gone aboard the Manchuria, as she had promised?
The coolie joggled along, his naked legs rising and falling mechanically. The wireless operator drew the folds of the kimono more closely about his throat, for the night air blowing off the Whang-poo was chill and damp.
At the bridge the rickshaw ahead suddenly stopped, waiting. Peter Moore drew alongside, and leaped to the ground.
The near-by street-light afforded him the information that he had made a mistake. Undeniably similar to the girl he had sent away on the Manchuria that morning was the young lady in the rickshaw. She had the same white, wistful face, the same alert, appealing eyes, the same rosebud mouth. Any one might have made such a mistake. It was very embarrassing.
"Why are you following me?" she demanded.
"I thought I knew you. I am sorry. I'll go at once."
"No! Wait." Her volte relented. It was a fresh young voice, not indeed unlike that of Miss Lorimer's. She was smiling. "Why are you dressed as a Jap?"
"I am sorry," Peter faltered, retreating. "Mistake. You're not the girl I—I expected. Sayonara!"
"Please don't run away," said the girl with a soft laugh. "I'm not afraid, or I would have run, instead of waiting, when you followed me. I've just come up from Amoy—alone. And I leave to-morrow for Ching-Fu—alone. You're American!" she murmured. "But why the Jap—disguise? I'm American, too. I used to live in New York, on Riverside Drive. Oh! It must have been ages ago!"
"Why?" asked Peter unguardedly.
"I haven't met one of my countrymen in centuries! And to-morrow I go up the river, 'way beyond Ching-Fu, beyond Szechwan!"
"Bad travelling on the river this time of the year," Peter murmured politely. "She's out of her banks up above Ichang, I have been told."
"Yes," replied the girl sadly. "If I could only have just one evening of fun—a dance or two, maybe—I—I—wouldn't mind half so much. I—I——"
Peter advised himself as follows: I told you so. Aloud he said:
"I believe there's a dance at the Astor Hotel. If we can get a table——"
"Oh, how lovely!" exclaimed the girl. "Do—do you mind very—much?"
"Tickled to death," Peter declared amiably.
At a small round table in the end of the room over which hung the orchestra balcony, Peter found himself in the presence of two disarming gray eyes, which drank in every detail of his good-looking young face, including the penciled eyebrows.
Miss Vost—Miss Amy Vost—gave him to understand that she was really grateful for his hospitality, rushed on to assure him that it was not customary for her to meet strange young men as she had met him, and then frankly asked him what he was doing in China. Every time she thought of him her curiosity seemed to trip over the Japanese kimono.
Influenced by his third glass of Japanese champagne, he almost told her the truth. He modified it by saying that he was a wireless operator; that he had missed his ship, and that his plans were to linger in China for a while. He liked China. Liked China very much.
Miss Vost caressed the tip of her nose with a small, pink thumb. She was not the kind who hesitated.
"You can do me a favor," she said, and halted.
The Philippine orchestra burst into a lilting one-step. Miss Vost arched her eyebrows. Peter arose, and they glided off. It developed that Miss Vost was well qualified. There was divineness in her youthful grace; she put her heart into the dance. It seemed probable to Peter Moore that she put her heart into everything she did.
"You spoke about my doing a favor," he suggested, glancing sternly at a dark-eyed Eurasian girl who seemed to be trying to divert his attention.
"There is a man in Shanghai I want you to try to find for me—to-night. Last time I saw him—this morning—he was drunk. He was the first officer on the steamer that brought me up from Amoy. Perhaps you know him. He's only been on the coast a short while. Before that he ran on the Pacific Mail Line between San Francisco and Panama. His name is MacLaurin, a nice boy. Scotch. But he drinks."
"MacLaurin? I know a man named MacLaurin—Bobbie MacLaurin."
"No!" gasped Miss Vost. "I suppose I ought to make that old remark about what a small world it is! Do you know where Bobbie MacLaurin is?"
"No," he murmured. "Why is he drunk?"
"That is a matter," replied Miss Vost, somewhat distantly, "that I prefer not to discuss. Will you try to find him for me? He threatened to be—be captain of the river-boat, the Hankow, that I leave on to-morrow for Ching-Fu. I'd rather like to know if he intends to carry out his threat. Will you find out, if you can, if he is going to be sober enough to make the trip—and let me know?" requested Miss Vost, as the music stopped. "I'd rather he wouldn't, Mr. Moore," she added quickly. "But I do wish you were going to make the trip. I'd love to have you!"
The ex-operator of the Vandalia experienced a warm suffusion in the vicinity of his throat. In the next breath he felt genuinely guilty. As he looked deep into the anxious, appealing gray eyes of Miss Vost, he cursed himself for being, or having the tendencies to be, a trifler; and in his estimation a trifler was not far removed from the reptile class. Yet somehow, damn it, that trip to Ching-Fu on the Hankow appealed to him now as a most profitable excursion, for Ching-Fu was only a few hundred li from Len Yang.
Something of the doughtiness of a mongoose marching into a den of monster cobras characterized Peter Moore's intention to penetrate the stronghold of the cinnabar king. He knew that his chances for entering Len Yang were absurdly small. Yet the whole of the Chinese Empire was not particularly safe for him now. The Gray Dragon had paid him the compliment of recognizing in him an enemy. He no longer doubted Minion's warning; the dragon of Len Yang controlled a powerful organization. No part of China was safe. If he desired to run away from this very actual danger in which direction could he run?
"When menaced by danger," runs an old Chinese proverb, "go to the very heart of it; there you will find safety."
It lacked a few minutes of midnight when Peter entered the Palace bar by the bund side. Only a few lights were burning, and the exceedingly long teak bar—"the longest bar east of Suez"—was adorned by a few knots of men only. Tobacco smoke was thick in the place, nearly obscuring the doorway into the hotel lobby.
He scanned the idlers, looking for the cloth of sailormen. His quest was ended. Bobbie MacLaurin was here, disposing of all of the imported Scotch whiskey that came convenient to his long and muscular reach.
In a deep and sonorous voice he was pointing out to a group of uniformed sailors, burdening his point with a club-like forefinger with which he pounded on the edge of the teak bar, that while he rarely drank off duty, he never drank when on. This claim Peter had reason to know was not untrue.
The wireless operator edged his way to MacLaurin's side, and touched his arm, making a whispered remark which the Scotchman evidently did not comprehend. For MacLaurin wheeled on him, and bestowed upon him a red, glassy, and hotly indignant stare.
Bobbie MacLaurin was, in the language of the sea, a whale of a man. His head seemed unnecessarily large until you began to compare it with his body; and his body was the despair of uniform manufacturers, who desire above all things to make a fair percentage of profit. He was like a living monument, two and a half hundred weight of fighting flesh and bones, which, when all of it went into action, could better be compared to a volcano than to a monument. Otherwise he was an exceedingly amiable young giant.
The redness and hotness of the stare he imposed upon the friend of more than one adventurous expedition slowly receded, leaving only the glassiness in evidence. Bobbie fidgeted uneasily.
"Damn my hide!" he roared. "Your face is familiar! It is! It is! Where have I seen that face before? Ah! I know now! I had a fight with you once."
"More than once," corrected Peter Moore, grinning. "The last time was in Panama. Remember? I tripped you up, after you knocked the wind out of me, and you fell, clothes and all, into the Washington Hotel's swimming tank."
"Peter Moore!" gasped Bobbie MacLaurin, and Peter Moore was smothered in log-like arms and the fumes of considerable alcohol.
Extricating himself at length from this monstrous embrace, Peter permitted himself to be held off at arm's length and be warmly and loquaciously admired.
"My old side-kick of the damn old San Felipe!" announced Bobbie MacLaurin to the small group of somewhat embarrassed sailors. "The best radio man that God ever let live! He can hear a radio signal before it's been sent. Can't you, Peter? Boys, take a long look at the only livin' man who can fight his weight in sea serpents; the only livin' man who ever knocked me cold, and got away with it! Boys, take a long, lastin' look, for the pack o' you're goin' out o' that door inside of ten counts! God bless 'um! Just look at that there Jap get-up! Sure as God made big fish to eat the little fellows, Peter Moore's up to some newfangled deviltry, or I'm a lobster!"
"Sh!" warned Peter Moore, conscious that in China the walls, doors, floors, ceilings, windows, even the bartenders, have ears.
"Out with the lot of you!" barked MacLaurin. "There's big business afoot to-night. We must be alone. Eh, Peter?"
And Peter was convinced that business could not be talked over to-night. Of one thing only did he wish to be certain.
"You're taking the Hankow up-river to-morrow?"
"That I am, Peter!"
"Then we'll take the express for Nanking to-morrow morning."
"We'll turn in now. Otherwise you'll look like a wreck when Miss Vost sees you."
"Miss Vost!" exploded MacLaurin. "When did you see Miss Vost?"
"A little while ago, Bob. Shall we turn in now?"
"Miss Vost is why I'm drunk, Peter," said Bobbie MacLaurin sadly.
"So she admitted. To-morrow we'll talk her over, and other important matters."
"As you say, Peter. I'm the brawn, but you're the brains of this team—as always! The bunks are the order."
When Bobbie MacLaurin's not unmusical snore proceeded from the vast bulk disposed beneath the white bedclothes, Peter Moore again descended to the lobby, let himself into the street, and hailed a rickshaw.
The mist from the Whang-poo had changed to a slanting rain. The bund was a ditch of clay-like mud. Each street light was a halo unto itself.
He lighted a cigarette, suffered the coolie to draw up the clammy oilskin leg-robe to his waist, and dreamily contemplated the quagmire that was Shanghai.
The rickshaw crossed the Soochow-Creek bridge and drew up, dripping, under the porte-cochere of the Astor House Hotel, where a majestic Indian door-tender emerged from the shadows, bearing a large, opened umbrella.
Contrary to her promise Miss Vost was not waiting for his message. However, she sent back word by the coolie, that she would dress and come down, if he desired her to. Peter pondered a moment. A glimpse of Miss Vost at this time of night meant nothing to him. Or was he hungry for that glimpse? Nonsense!
He dashed off a hasty note, sealed it in an envelope, and gave it to the room-boy to deliver.
He pictured her sleepy surprise as she opened it, and read:
Bobbie seems much put out. We take morning express to Nanking. Try to make it. We'll have tea, the three of us, at Soochow.
At Soochow! There he was—at it again! A trifler.
"Damn my withered-up sense of honor, anyway!" observed Peter Moore to himself, as he climbed into the rain-soaked rickshaw.
With the pristine dawn, Robert MacLaurin arose from his bed like a large, yellow mountain; for his pajamas—every square yard of them—were of fine Canton silk, the color of the bulbous moon when it reposes low on China's horizon.
Satisfying himself at length that the bedroom had another occupant, he drained the contents of a fat, white water-jug, then tossed the jug upon the incumbent of the bedroom's other bed.
At such times as this critical one, the smiling destiny which held the fate of Peter Moore in the hollow of her precious hand was ever watchful, and the white water-jug caromed from his peaceful figure with no more than an unimportant thud. The jug bounded to the floor and ended its career against the hard wall. Peter Moore sat up, rubbing his eyes.
"Dead or alive, Peter?"
"You nearly broke my back."
"Serves you right, old slug-abed! You tucked me in last night with the warning that we pick up the early express for Nanking."
"Quite so," admitted Peter Moore thickly. In the past two days he had managed to set aside altogether four hours for sleep; and he felt that way. He examined his room-mate, but was not surprised at what met his glance.
Bobbie MacLaurin, disregarding the fact that he had not yet shaved, looked as fresh as a rose. His endurance was like that of a range of mountains. His sea-blue eyes were cannily clear, his complexion was transparent and glowing. The ill effects of last night had been absorbed with about as much apparent effort as a gigantic sponge might display in absorbing a dewdrop.
"Chinamen's eyes and Chinamen's knives have been running through my dreams," Peter muttered.
"Cheer up! The pirates are thick above Ichang. We'll both have our bloody necks slit a dozen times before we make Ching-Fu." Bobbie turned from the miniature mirror. His sea-blue eyes glared through a white lake of lather. "Hurry up and shave, you loafer! We'll miss that train."
"I'm not going to shave for six months!"
"When your utterly worthless life has been endangered as many times as——"
"What you need is a drink, my lad!"
"When you have evidence that the greatest criminal-at-large wants to have you stuck like a pig——"
MacLaurin swung his big frame about and stared. "You're not serious."
"I am referring to—a Gray Dragon. Ever hear of one?"
The razor in the large, red hand of Bobbie MacLaurin flashed. It came away from his cheek. A broad trickle of crimson spread down the lathered jaw, But he did not curse.
"We must hurry for that train," rumbled his big voice. "We must talk this over. We must hurry, Peter," he said again.
Miss Amy Vost was not in evidence when the two rickshaws rattled up to the platform of the red brick station.
"Perhaps she's waiting for us in the coach, holding seats for us," Peter suggested.
"Just like her," said MacLaurin. "She's a little peach!"
Peter entered the compartment first and scanned the heads. The only tresses in evidence were the long, black, shining ones of a bejeweled Chinese lady. The other passengers were men.
"There will be no tete-a-tete in Soochow," observed Peter Moore to his conscience.
"I'd go to hell for that girl!" declared Bobbie MacLaurin as he sat down at Peter's side. "Now, tell me what you were doing in that Jap rigging. Two years, isn't it, since we were chased out of Panama City by the spigotties?"
"I came over on the Vandalia."
"And didn't go back, I gather."
"She sailed up-river for Soo-chow yesterday. No, I won't go back. Bobbie, I started something on that ship, and I'm on my way to Ching-Fu—and 'way beyond Ching-Fu—to finish it."
"It will be beautifully finished, Peter! Or your name's not Moore."
"There was a girl, a beautiful girl——"
"There usually is," MacLaurin sighed.
Peter gazed bitterly at the scenery flitting evenly past the window: groves of feathery bamboo, flaming mustard fields, exquisite gardens, and graves—graves beyond count.
"Perhaps she is passing through the Inland Sea by now. Bobbie, I wanted her to go home. She was—she was that kind of a girl. She wanted to stay. Bobbie, that girl could have made a man of me! She—she even told me she—liked me!"
"They have a way of doing that," commented Bobbie sadly.
Several miles rolled by before either of the men spoke.
"Why is Miss Vost making the trip to Ching-Fu?"
"You'll have to find that out, Peter. I was too busy letting her know how bright my life has become since she entered it!"
The square, red jaw swung savagely toward Peter. Of a sudden the sea-blue eyes seemed a trifle inflamed. "She's probably going to Ching-Fu on serious business. She's like that. She's not like you!"
"What do you mean?" said Peter.
"You're going to try to break into Len Yang; that's what I mean! Some day, on one of these reckless expeditions of yours, Peter, you're going to run plumb into a long, sharp knife! If I could head you off, I would."
"You can't, Bobbie. My mind is made up."
"Get out of China. Why enter the lion's den? You're too confiding, too trusting, too young. In duty to my conscience, I oughtn't to let you go. But I know you'd walk or fly or swim if I tried to head you off."
"I certainly would," agreed Peter.
No member of the earth's great brotherhood of dangerous waterways is blessed with quite the degree of peril which menaces those hardy ones who dare the River of the Golden Sands.
Bobbie MacLauren's steamer, the Hankow, was the net result of long ship-building experience. Dozens of apparently seaworthy boats have gone up the Yangtze-Kiang, not to return. After years of experiment a somewhat satisfactory river-boat has been evolved. It combines the sturdiness of a sea-going tug with the speed of a torpedo-boat destroyer.
The Hankow was ridiculously small, and monstrously strong. Chiefly it consisted of engines and boilers. Despite their security, despite the shipwrecks and deaths that have been poured into their present design, Yangtze river-boats sink, a goodly crop of them, every season.
But the world of commerce is an arrogant master. There is wealth in the land bordering the upper reaches of the river. This wealth must be brought down to the sea, and scattered to the lands beyond the sea. In return, machinery and tools must be carried back to mine and farm the wealth.
Little is heard, less is told, and still less is written of the men who dare the rapids and the rocks and the sands of the great river. Sometimes the spirit of adventure sends them up the Yangtze. Frequently, as is the case with men who depart unexplainedly upon dangerous errands, a woman is the inspiration, or merely the cause.
Miss Amy Vost, of New York City, but more recently of Amoy, China, province Fu-Kien, was the generator in the case of Bobbie MacLaurin.
When Miss Vost tripped blithely aboard the Sunyado Maru, anchored off the breaks of Amoy, and captured, at first blush, the hearts of the entire forward crew, Bobbie MacLaurin was the most eager prisoner of the lot.
Perhaps she took notice of him out of the corner of her glowing young eyes long before he became seriously and mortally afflicted. Certainly the first mate of the Sunyado Maru was no believer in the theory of non-resistance.
Had Miss Vost been a susceptible young woman, it is safe to assume that Bobbie MacLaurin would not have accepted command of the Hankow from tide-water to that remote Chinese city, Ching-Fu.
He wooed her in the pilot-house—where passengers were never allowed; he courted her in the dining-room; and he paid marked attention to her at all hours of the day and night, in sundry nooks and corners of the generous promenade deck.
Miss Vost sparred with him. As well as being lovely and captivating, she was clever. She seemed to agree with the rule of the philosopher who held that conversation was given to mankind simply for purposes of evasion. By the end of the first week Bobbie MacLaurin was earning sour glances from his staid British captain, and glances not at all encouraging from Miss Vost.
He informed her that all of the beauty and all of the wonder of the stars, the sea, the moonlight, could not equal the splendor of her wide, gray eyes. She replied that the moon, the stars, and the sea had gone to his head.
He insisted that her smile could only be compared to the sunrise on a dewy rose-vine. He threw his big, generous heart at her feet a hundred times. Being fair and sympathetic, she did not kick it to one side. She merely side-stepped.
He closed that evening's interview with the threat that he would follow her to the very ends of the earth. She gave him the opportunity, literally, by observing dryly that her destination was precisely at the world's end—in the hills of Szechuen, to be exact.