Wilfred Bruce and Doctor Nikola set off for Tibet in search of a secret society "ten times as powerful as any government or priesthood in the world." Its members can extend life, perform magic, and raise the dead. With these miracles at his command, Nikola knows he can change the world. Using his talent for disguise, he plans to penetrate the forbidden citadel and learn its hidden mysteries...
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. — HOW I CAME TO MEET DR. NIKOLA
II. — NIKOLA'S OFFER
III. — NIKOLA'S SCHEME
IV. — WE SET OUT FOR TIENTSIN
V. — I RESCUE A YOUNG LADY
VI. — ON THE ROAD TO PEKIN
VII. — A SERIOUS TIME
VIII. — HOW PRENDERGAST SUCCEEDED
IX. — THE LLAMASERAI
X. — AN EXCITING NIGHT IN THE LLAMASERAI
XI. — EN ROUTE TO THIBET
XII. — THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS
XIII. — THE MONASTERY
XIV. — AN ORDEAL
XV. HOW NIKOLA WAS INSTALLED
XVI. — A TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE
XVII. — CONCLUSION
My Dear William George Craigie—
I have no doubt as to your surprise at receiving this letter, after so long and unjustifiable a period of silence, from one whom you must have come to consider either a dead man or at least a permanent refugee. When last we met it was on the deck of Tremorden's yacht, in the harbour of Honolulu. I had been down to Kauai, I remember, and the day following, you, you lucky dog, were going off to England by the Royal Mail to be married to the girl of your heart. Since then I have heard, quite by chance, that you have settled down to a country life, as if to the manner born; that you take an absorbing interest in mangel-wurzels, and, while you strike terror into the hearts of poachers and other rustic evil-doers, have the reputation of making your wife the very best of husbands. Consequently you are to be envied and considered one of the happiest of men.
While, however, things have been behaving thus prosperously with you, I am afraid I cannot truthfully say that they have fared so well with me. At the termination of our pleasant South Sea cruise, just referred to, when our party dismembered itself in the Sandwich Islands, I crossed to Sydney, passed up inside the Barrier Reef to Cooktown, where I remained three months in order to try my luck upon the Palmer Gold Fields. This proving unsatisfactory I returned to the coast and continued my journey north to Thursday Island. From the last-named little spot I visited New Guinea, gave it my patronage for the better part of six months, and received in return a bad attack of fever, after recovering from which I migrated to Borneo, to bring up finally, as you will suppose, in my beloved China.
Do you remember how in the old days, when we both held positions of more or less importance in Hong-Kong, you used to rally me about my fondness for the Celestial character and my absurd liking for going fantee into the queerest company and places? How little did I imagine then to what straits that craze would ultimately conduct me! But we never know what the future has in store for us, do we? And perhaps it is as well.
You will observe, my dear Craigie, that it is the record of my visit to China on this particular occasion that constitutes this book; and you must also understand that it is because of our long friendship for each other, and by reason of our queer researches into the occult world together, that you find your name placed so conspicuously upon the forefront of it.
A word now as to my present existence and abode. My location I cannot reveal even to you. And believe me I make this reservation for the strongest reasons. Suffice it that I own a farm, of close upon five thousand acres, in a country such as would gladden your heart, if matrimony and continued well-being have not spoilt your eyes for richness of soil. It is shut in on all sides by precipitous mountain ranges, on the western peaks of which at this moment, as I sit in my verandah writing to you, a quantity of cloud, tinted a rose pink by the setting sun, is gathering. A quieter spot, and one more remote from the rush and bustle of civilization, it would be difficult to find. Once every six months my stores are brought up to me on mule-back by a trusted retainer who has never spoken a word of English in his life, and once every six weeks I send to, and receive from, my post office, four hundred miles distant, my mails. In the intervals I imitate the patriarchal life and character; that is to say, I hoe and reap my corn, live in harmony with my neighbour, who is two hundred odd miles away, and, figuratively speaking, enjoy life beneath my own vine and fig-tree.
Perhaps when the cool west wind blows in the long grass, the wild duck whistle upon the lagoons, or a newspaper filled with gossip of the outer world finds its way in to me, I am a little restless, but at other times I can safely say I have few regrets. I have done with the world, and to make my exile easier I have been permitted that greatest of all blessings, a good wife. Who she is and how I won her you will discover when you have perused this narrative, the compiling of which has been my principal and, I might almost say, only recreation all through our more than tedious winter. But now the snow has departed, spring is upon us, clad in its mantle of luscious grass and accompanied by the twitterings of birds and the music of innumerable small waterfalls, and I am a new man. All nature is busy, the swallows are working overtime beneath the eaves, and to-morrow, in proof of my remembrance, this book goes off to you.
Whether I shall ever again see Dr. Nikola, the principal character in it, is more than I can tell you. But I sincerely trust not. It is for the sake of circumstances brought about by that extraordinary man that I have doomed myself to perpetual exile; still I have no desire that he should know of my sacrifice. Sometimes when I lie awake in the quiet watches of the night I can hardly believe that the events of the last two years are real. The horror of that time still presses heavily upon me, and if I live to be a hundred I doubt if I shall outgrow it. When I tell you that even the things, I mean the mysteries and weird experiences, into which we thrust our impertinent noses in bygone days were absolutely as nothing compared with those I have passed through since in Nikola's company, you will at first feel inclined to believe that I am romancing. But I know this, that by the time you have got my curious story by heart all doubt on that score will have been swept away.
One last entreaty. Having read this book, do not attempt to find me, or to set my position right with the world. Take my word for it, it is better as it is.
And now, without further preamble, let us come to the story itself. God bless you, and give you every happiness. Speak kindly of me to your wife, and believe me until death finishes my career, if it does such a thing, which Dr. Nikola would have me doubt,
Your affectionate friend,
IT was Saturday afternoon, about a quarter-past four o'clock if my memory serves me, and the road, known as the Maloo, leading to the Bubbling Well, that single breathing place of Shanghai, was crowded. Fashionable barouches, C-spring buggies, spider-wheel dogcarts, to say nothing of every species of 'rickshaw, bicycle, and pony, were following each other in one long procession towards the Well. All the European portion of Shanghai, and a considerable percentage of the native, had turned out to witness the finish of the paper hunt, which, though, not exciting in itself, was important as being the only amusement the settlement boasted that afternoon. I had walked as far as the Horse Bazaar myself, and had taken a 'rickshaw thence, more from pride than because I could afford it. To tell the truth, which will pop out sooner or later, however much I may try to prevent it, I was keeping up appearances, and though I lay back in my vehicle and smoked my cheroot with a princely air, I was painfully conscious of the fact that when the ride should be paid for the exchequer would scarcely survive the shock.
Since my arrival in Shanghai I had been more than usually unfortunate. I had tried for every billet then vacant, from those choice pickings at the top of the tree among the high gods, to the secretaryship of a Eurasian hub of communistical tendencies located somewhere on the confines of the native city, but always without success. For the one I had not the necessary influence, for the other I lacked that peculiar gift of obsequiousness which is so essential to prosperity in that particular line of business.
In the meantime my expenditure was going remorselessly on, and I very soon saw that unless something happened, and that quickly too, I had every prospect of hiding myself deprived of my belongings, sleeping on the Bund, and finally figuring in that Mixed Court in the Magistrate's Yamen, which is so justly dreaded by every Englishman, as the debtor of a Cochin China Jew. The position was not a cheerful one, look at it in whatever light I would, but I had experienced it a good many times before, and had always come out of it, if not with an increased amount of self-respect, certainly without any very great degree of personal embarrassment.
Arriving at the Well, I paid off my coolie and took up a position near "the last jump," which I noticed was a prepared fence and ditch of considerable awkwardness. I was only just in time, for a moment later the horses came at it with a rush; some cleared it, some refused it, while others, adopting a middle course, jumped on the top of it, blundered over, and finally sent their riders spinning over their heads into the mud at the feet of their fairest friends. It was not exactly an aesthetic picture, but it was certainly a very amusing one.
When the last horse, had landed, imagining the sport to be over for the day, I was in the act of moving away when there was a shout to stand clear, and wheeling round again, I was just in time to see a last horseman come dashing at the fence. Though he rode with considerable determination, and was evidently bent on putting a good finish to his day's amusement, it was plain that his horse was not of the same way of thinking, for, when he was distant about half a dozen yards from the fence, he broke his stride, stuck his feet into the mud, and endeavoured to come to a standstill. The result was not at all what he expected; he slid towards the fence, received his rider's quirt, viciously administered, round his flank, made up his mind to jump too late, hit the top rail with his forehead, turned a complete somersault, and landed with a crash at my feet. His rider fell into the arms of the ditch, out of which I presently dragged him. When I got him on the bank he did not look a pretty sight, but, on the other hand, that did not prevent him from recognizing me.
"Wilfred Bruce, by all that's glorious!" he cried, at the same time rising to his feet and mopping his streaming face with a very muddy pocket-handkerchief. "This is a fortunate encounter, for do you know, I spent two hours this morning looking for you?"
"I am very sorry you should have had so much trouble," I answered; "but are you sure you are not hurt?"
"Not in the least," he answered, and when he had scraped off as much mud as possible, turned to his horse, which had struggled to his feet and was gazing stupidly about him.
"Let me first send this clumsy brute home," he said, "then I'll find my cart, and if you'll permit me I'll take you back to town with me."
We saw the horse led away, and, when we had discovered his dog-cart among the crowd of vehicles waiting for their owners, mounted to our seats and set off—after a few preliminary antics on the part of the leader—on our return to the settlement.
Once comfortably on our way George Barkston, whom, I might mention here, I had known for more than ten years, placed his whip in the bucket and turned to me.
"Look here, Bruce," he said, flushing a little in anticipation of what he was about to say, "I'm not going to mince matters with you, so let us come straight to the point; we are old friends, and though we've not seen as much of each other during this visit to Shanghai as we used to do in the old days when you were deputy-commissioner of whatever it was, and I was your graceless subordinate, I think I am pretty well conversant with your present condition. I don't want you to consider me impertinent, but I do want you to let me help you if I can."
"That's very good of you," I answered, not without a little tremor, however, as he shaved a well-built American buggy by a hair's breadth. "To tell the honest truth, I want to get something to do pretty badly. There's a serious deficit in the exchequer, my boy. And though I'm a fairly old hand at the game of poverty, I've still a sort of pride left, and I have no desire to figure in the Mixed Court next Wednesday on a charge of inability to pay my landlord twenty dollars for board and lodging."
"Of course you don't," said Barkston warmly; "and so, if you'll let me help you, I've an idea that I can put you on to the right track to something. The fact is, there was a chap in the smoking-room at the club the other night with whom I got into conversation. He interested me more than I can tell you, for he was one of the most curious beings who, I should imagine, has ever visited the East. I never saw such an odd-looking fellow in my life. Talk about eyes—well, his were—augh! Why, he looked you through and through. You know old Benwell, of the revenue-cutter Y-chang? Well, while I was talking to this fellow, after a game of pool, in he came.
"'Hallo! Barkston,' he said, as he brought up alongside the table, 'I thought you were shooting with Jimmy Woodrough up the river? I'm glad to find you're not, for I——' He had got as far as this before he became aware of my companion. Then his jaw dropped; he looked hard at him, said something under his breath, and, shaking me by the hand, made a feeble excuse, and fled the room. Not being able to make it out at all, I went after him and found him looking for his hat in the hall. 'Come, I say, Benwell, 'I cried;' what's up? What on earth made you bolt like that? Have I offended you?' He led me on one side, so that the servants should not hear, and having done so said confidentially: 'Barkston, I am not a coward; in my time I've tackled Europeans, Zulus, Somalis, Malays, Japanese, and Chinese, to say nothing of Manilla and Solomon boys, and what's more, I don't mind facing them all again; but when I find myself face to face with Dr. Nikola, well, I tell you I don't think twice, I bolt! Take my tip and do the same.' As he might just as well have talked to me in low Dutch for all I should have understood, I tried to question him, but I might have spared myself the trouble, for I could get nothing satisfactory out of him. He simply shook me by the hand, told the boy in the hall to call him a 'rickshaw, and as soon as it drew up at the steps jumped into it and departed. When I got back to the billiard-room Nikola was still there, practising losing hazards of extraordinary difficulty.
"'I've an opinion I've seen your friend before,' he said, as I sat down to watch him. 'He is Benwell of the Y-chang, and if I mistake not Benwell of the Y-changremembers me.'
"'He seems to know you,' I said with a laugh.
"'Yes, Nikola continued after a little pause; 'I have had the pleasure of being in Mr. Benwell's company once before. It was in Haiphong.' Then with peculiar emphasis: 'I don't know what he thinks of the place, of course, but somehow I have an idea your friend will not willingly go near Haiphong again.' After he had said this he remained silent for a little while, then he took a letter from his pocket, read it carefully, examined the envelope, and having made up his mind on a certain point turned to me again.
"'I want to ask you a question,' he said, putting the cue he had been using back into the rack. 'You know a person named Bruce, don't you? a man who used to be in the Civil Service, and who has the reputation of being able to disguise himself so like a Chinaman that even Li Chang Tung would not know him for a European?'
"'I do,' I answered; 'he is an old friend of mine; and what is more, he is in Shanghai at the present moment. It was only this morning I heard of him.'
"'Bring him to me," said Nikola quickly. 'I am told he wants a billet, and if he sees me before twelve to-morrow night I think I can put him in the way of obtaining a good one. Now there you are, Bruce, my boy. I have done my best for you."
"And I am sincerely grateful to you," I answered. "But who is this man Nikola, and what sort of a billet do you think he can find me?"
"Who he is I can no more tell you than I can fly. But if he is not the first cousin of the Old Gentleman himself, well, all I can say is, I'm no hand at finding relationships."
"I am afraid that doesn't tell me very much," I answered. "What's he like to look at?"
"Well, in appearance he might be described as tall, though you must not run away with the idea that he's what you would call a big man. On the contrary, he is most slenderly built. Anything like the symmetry of his figure, however, I don't remember to have met with before. His face is clean shaven, and is always deadly pale, a sort of toad-skin pallor, that strikes you directly when you see him and the remembrance of which never leaves you again. His eyes and hair are as black as night, and he is as neat and natty as a new pin. When he is watching you he seems to be looking through the back of your head into the wall behind, and when he speaks you've just got to pay attention, whether you want to or not. All things considered, the less I see of him the better I shall like him."
"You don't give me a very encouraging report of my new employer. What on earth can he want with me?"
"He's Apollyon himself," laughed Barkston, "and wants a maitre d'hotel. I suppose he imagines you'll suit."
By this time we had left the Maloo and were entering the town.
"Where shall I find this extraordinary man?" I asked, as we drew near the place where I intended to alight.
"We'll drive to the club and see if he's there," said Barkston, whipping up his horses. "But, putting all joking aside, he really seemed most anxious to find you, and as he knew I was going to look for you I don't doubt that he will have left some message for one of us there."
Having reached the Wanderers' Club, which is too well known to need any description here, Barkston went inside, leaving me to look after the horses. Five minutes later he emerged again, carrying a letter in his hand.
"Nikola was here until ten minutes ago," he said, with a disappointed expression upon his handsome face; "unfortunately he's gone home now, but has left this note for me. If I find you he begs that I will send you on to his bungalow without delay. I have discovered that it is Fere's old place in the French Concession, Rue de la Fayette; you know it, the third house on the right hand side, just past where that renegade French marquis shot his wife. If you would care about it I'll give you a note to him, and you can dine, think it over quietly, and then take it on yourself this evening or not, as pleases you best."
"That would be the better plan," I said. "I should like to have a little time to collect my thoughts before seeing him."
Thereupon Barkston went back into the building, and when he returned, which was in something under a quarter of an hour, he brought the letter he had promised me in his hand. He jumped up and took the reins, the Chinese groom sprang out of the way, and we were off.
"Can I drive you round to where you are staying?" he asked.
"I don't think you can," I answered, "and for reasons which would be sure to commend themselves to you if I were to tell them. But I am very much obliged to you all the same. As to Nikola, I'll think the whole matter carefully out this evening, and, if I approve, after dinner I'll walk over and present this letter personally."
I thereupon descended from the dogcart at the corner of the road, and having again thanked my friend for the kindness he had shown me, bade him good-bye and took myself off.
Reaching the Bund I sat myself down on a seat beneath a tree and dispassionately reviewed the situation. All things considered it was a pretty complicated one. Though I had not revealed as much to Barkston, who had derived such happiness from his position of guide, philosopher, and friend, this was not the first time I had heard of Nikola. Such a strange personality as his could not expect to go unremarked in a gossip-loving community such as the East, and all sorts of stories had accordingly been circulated concerning him. Though I knew my fellow-man too well to place credence in half of what I had heard, it was impossible for me to prevent myself from feeling a considerable amount of curiosity about the man.
Leaving the Bund I returned to my lodgings, had my tea, and about eight o'clock donned my hat again and set off in the direction of the French Concession. It was not a pleasant night, being unusually dark and inclined towards showery. The wind blew in fitful gusts, and drove the dust like hail against one's face. Though I stood a good chance of obtaining what I wanted so much—employment, I cannot affirm with any degree of truth that I felt easy in my mind. Was I not seeking to become connected with a man who was almost universally feared, and whose reputation was not such as would make most people desire a closer acquaintance with him? This thought in itself was not of a reassuring nature. But in the face of my poverty I could not afford to be too squeamish. So leaving the Rue de la Paix on my left hand I turned into the Rue de la Fayette, where Nikola's bungalow was situated, and having picked it out from its fellows, made my way towards it.
The compound and the house itself were in total darkness, but after I had twice knocked at the door a light came slowly down the passage towards me. The door was opened, and a China boy stood before me holding a candle in his hand.
"Does Dr. Nikola live here?" I inquired, in very much the same tone as our boyhood's hero, Jack of Beanstalk climbing fame, might have used when he asked to be admitted to the residence of the giant Fee-fo-fum. The boy nodded, whereupon I handed him my letter, and ordered him to convey it to his master without delay. With such celerity did he accomplish his mission that in less than two minutes he had returned and was beckoning me to follow him. Accordingly I accompanied him down the passage towards a small room on the left hand side. When I had entered it the door was immediately closed behind me. There was no one in the apartment, and I was thus permitted an opportunity of examining it to my satisfaction, and drawing my own conclusions before Dr Nikola should enter.
As I have said, it was not large, nor was its furniture, with a few exceptions, in any way extraordinary. The greater part of it was of the usual bungalow type, neither better nor worse. On the left hand as one entered was a window, which I observed was heavily barred and shuttered; between that and the door stood a tall bookshelf, filled with works, standard and otherwise, on almost every conceivable subject, from the elementary principles of Bimetallism to abstract Confucianism. A thick matting covered the floor and a heavy curtain sheltered a doorway on the side opposite to that by which I had entered. On the walls were several fine engravings, but I noticed that they were all based on uncommon subjects, such as the visit of Saul to the Witch of Endor, a performance of the magicians before Pharaoh, and the converting of the dry bones into men in the desert. A clock ticked on the bookcase, but with that exception there was nothing to disturb the silence of the room.
I suppose I must have waited fully five minutes before my ears caught the sound of a soft footstep in an adjoining apartment, then the second door opened, the curtain which covered it was drawn slowly aside, and a man, who could have been none other than Dr. Nikola, made his appearance. His description was exactly what Barkston had given me, even to the peculiar eyes and, what proved to be an apt illustration, the white toad-coloured skin. He was attired in faultless evening dress, and its deep black harmonized well with his dark eyes and hair. What his age might have been I could not possibly tell, but I afterwards discovered that he was barely thirty-eight. He crossed the room to where I stood, holding out his hand as he did so and saying—
"Mr. Wilfred Bruce?"
"That is my name," I answered, "and I believe you are Dr. Nikola?"
"Exactly," he said, "I am Dr. Nikola; and now that we know each other, shall we proceed to business?"
As he spoke he moved with that peculiar grace which always characterized him across to the door by which he had entered, and having opened it, signed to me to pass through. I did so, and found myself in another large room, possibly forty feet long by twenty wide. Ac the further end was a lofty window, containing some good stained glass; the walls were hung with Japanese tapestry, and were ornamented with swords, battle-axes, two or three specimens of Rajput armour, books galore, and a quantity of exceedingly valuable china. The apartment was lit by three hanging lamps of rare workmanship and design, while scattered about the room were numberless cushioned chairs and divans, beside one of which I noticed a beautifully inlaid huqa of a certain shape and make that I had never before seen out of Istamboul.
"Pray sit down," said Dr. Nikola, and as he spoke he signed me to a chair at the further end. I seated myself and wondered what would come next.
"This is not your first visit to China, I am given to understand," he continued, as he seated himself in a chair opposite mine, and regarded me steadfastly with his extraordinary eyes.
"It is not," I answered. "I am an old resident in the East, and I think I may say I know China as well as any living Englishman."
"Quite so. You were present at the meeting at Quong Sha's house in the Wanhsien on the 23rd August, 1907, if I remember aright, and you assisted Mah Poo to evade capture by the mandarins the week following."
"How on earth did you know that?" I asked, my surprise quite getting the better of me, for I had always been convinced that no other soul, save the man himself, was aware of my participation in that affair.
"One becomes aware of many strange things in the East," said Nikola, hugging his knee and looking at me over the top of it, "and yet that little circumstance I have just referred to is apt to teach one how much one might know, and how small after all our knowledge is of each other's lives. One could almost expect as much from brute beasts."
"I am afraid I don't quite follow you," I said simply.
"Don't you?" he answered. "And yet it is very simple after all. Let me give you a practical illustration of my meaning. If you see anything in it other than I intend, the blame must be upon your own head."
Upon a table close to his chair lay a large sheet of white paper. This he placed upon the floor. He then took a stick of charcoal in his hand and presently uttered a long and very peculiar whistle. Next moment, without any warning, an enormous cat, black as his master's coat, leapt down from somewhere on to the floor, and stood swishing his tail before us.
"There are some people in the world," said Nikola calmly, at the same time stroking the great beast's soft back, "who would endeavour to convince you that this cat is my familiar spirit, and that, with his assistance, I work all sorts of extraordinary magic. You, of course, would not be so silly as to believe such idle tales. But to bear out what I was saying just now let us try an experiment with his assistance. It is just possible I may be able to tell you something more of your life."
Here he stooped and wrote a number of figures up to ten with the charcoal upon the paper, duplicating them in a line below. He then took the cat upon his knee, stroked it carefully, and finally whispered something in its ear. Instantly the brute sprang down, placed its right fore-paw on one of the numerals of the top row, while, whether by chance or magic I cannot say, it performed a similar action with its left on the row below.
"Twenty-four," said Nikola, with one of his peculiar smiles.
Then taking the piece of charcoal once more in his hand, and turning the paper over, he wrote upon it the names of the different months of the year. Placing it on the floor he again said something to the cat, who this time stood upon June. The alphabet followed, and letter by letter the uncanny beast spelt out "Apia."
"On the 24th June," said Nikola, "of a year undetermined you were in Apia. Let us see if we can discover the year."
Again he wrote the numerals up to ten, and immediately the cat, with fiendish precision, worked out 1895.
"Is that correct?" asked this extraordinary person when the brute had finished its performance.
It was quite correct, and I told him so.
"I'm glad of that. And now do you want to know any more?" he asked. "If you wish it I might perhaps be able to tell you your business there."
I did not want to know. And I can only ask you to believe that I had very good reasons for not doing so. Nikola laughed softly, and pressed the tips of his long white fingers together as he looked at me.
"Now tell me truthfully what you think of my cat?" said he.
"One might be excused if one endowed him with Satanic attributes," I answered.
"And yet, though you think it so wonderful, it is only because I have subjected him to a curious form of education. There is a power latent in animals, and particularly in cats, which few of us suspect. And if animals have this power, how much more may men be expected to possess it. Do you know, Mr. Bruce, I should be very interested to find out exactly how far you think the human intelligence can go; that is to say, how far you think it can penetrate into the regions of what is generally called the occult?"
"Again I must make the excuse," I said, "that I do not follow you."
"Well, then, let me place it before you in a rather simpler form. If I may put it so bluntly, where should you be inclined to say this world begins and ends?"
"I should say," I replied—this time without hesitation—"that it begins with birth and ends with death."
"And after death?"
"Well, what happens then is a question of theology, and one for the parsons to decide."
"You have no individual opinion?"
"I have the remnants of what I learned as a boy."
"I see; in that case you believe that as soon as the breath has forsaken this mortal body a certain indescribable part of us, which for the sake of argument we will denominate soul, leaves this mundane sphere and enters upon a new existence in one or other of two places?"
"That is certainly what I was taught," I answered.
"Quite so; that was the teaching you received in the parish of High Walcombe, Somersetshire, and might be taken as a very good type of what your class thinks throughout the world, from the Archbishop of Canterbury down to the farm labourer's child who walks three miles every seventh day to attend Sunday school. But in that self-same village, if I remember rightly, there was a little man of portly build whose adherents numbered precisely forty-five souls; he was called Father O'Rorke, and I have not the slightest doubt, if you had asked him, he would have given you quite a different account of what becomes of that soul, or essence, if we may so call it, after it has left this mortal body. Tobias Smallcombe, who preaches in a spasmodic, windy way on the green to a congregation made up of a few enthusiasts, a dozen small boys, and a handful of donkeys and goats, will give you yet another, and so on through numberless varieties of creeds to the end of the chapter. Each will claim the privilege of being right, and each will want you to believe exactly as he does. But at the same time we must remember, provided we would be quite fair, that there are not wanting scientists, admittedly the cleverest men of the day, who assert that, while all our friends are agreed that there is a life after death—a spirit world, in fact—they are all wrong. If you will allow me to give you my own idea of what you think, I should say that your opinion is, that when you've done with the solid flesh that makes up Wilfred Bruce it doesn't much matter what happens. But let us suppose that Wilfred Bruce, or his mind, shall we say?—that part of him at any rate which is anxious, which thinks and which suffers—is destined to exist afterwards through endless aeons, a prey to continual remorse for all misdeeds: how would he regard death then?"
"But before you can expect an answer to that question it is necessary that you should prove that he does so continue to exist," I said.
"That's exactly what I desire and intend to do," said Nikola, "and it is to that end I have sought you out, and we are arguing in this fashion now. Is your time very fully occupied at present?"
"I quite understand," he said. "Well, I have got a proposition to make to you, if you will listen to me. Years ago and quite by chance, when the subject we are now discussing, and in which I am more interested than you can imagine, was first brought properly under my notice, I fell into the company of a most extraordinary man. He was originally an Oxford don, but for some reason he went wrong, and was afterwards shot by Balmaceda at Santiago during the Chilian war. Among other places, he had lived for many years in North-Western China. He possessed one of the queerest personalities, but he told me some wonderful things, and what was more to the point, he backed them with proofs. You would probably have called them clever conjuring tricks. So did I then, but I don't now. Nor do I think will you when I have done with you. It was from that man and an old Buddhist priest, with whom I spent some time in Ceylon, that I learnt the tiny fact which put me on the trail of what I am now following up. I have tracked it clue by clue, carefully and laboriously, with varying success for eight long years, and at last I am in the position to say that I believe I have my thumb upon the key-note. If I can press it down and obtain the result I want, I can put myself in possession of information the magnitude of which the world—I mean the European world, of course—has not the slightest conception. I am a courageous man, but I will confess that the prospect of what I am about to attempt almost frightens me. It is neither more nor less than to penetrate, with the help of certain Chinese secret societies, into the most extraordinary seat of learning that you or any other men ever heard of, and when there to beg, borrow, or steal the marvellous secrets they possess. I cannot go alone, for a hundred reasons, therefore I must find a man to accompany me; that man must be one in a thousand, and he must also necessarily be a consummate Chinese scholar. He must be plucky beyond the average, he must be capable of disguising himself so that his nationality shall never for a moment be suspected, and he must go fully convinced in his own mind that he will never return. If he is prepared to undertake so much I am prepared to be generous. I will pay him £5,000 down before we start and £5,000 when we return, if return we do. What do you say to that?"
I didn't know what to say. The magnitude of the proposal, to leave the value of the honorarium out of the question, completely staggered me. I wanted money more than I had ever done in my life before, and this was a sum beyond even my wildest dreams; I also had no objection to adventure, but at the same time I must confess this seemed too foolhardy an undertaking altogether.
"What can I say?" I answered. "It's such an extraordinary proposition."
"So it is," he said. "But as I take it, we are both extraordinary men. Had you been one of life's rank and file I should not be discussing it with you now. I would think twice before I refused if I were you; Shanghai is such an unpleasant place to get into trouble in, and besides that, you know, next Wednesday will see the end of your money, even if you do sell your watch and chain, as you proposed to yourself to-night."
He said this with such an air of innocence that for the moment it did not strike me to wonder how he had become acquainted with the state of my finances.
"Come," he said, "you had better say yes."
"I should like a little more time to think it over," I answered. "I cannot pledge myself to so much without giving it thorough consideration. Even if it were not folly on my part it would scarcely be fair to you."
"Very good then. Go home and think about it. Come and see me to-morrow night at this time and let me have your decision. In the meantime if I were you I would say nothing about our conversation to any one."
I assured him I would not, and then he rose, and I understood that our interview was at an end. I followed him into the hall, the black cat marching sedately at our heels. In the verandah he stopped and held out his hand, saying with an indescribable sweetness of tone—
"I hope, Mr. Bruce, you will believe that I am most anxious for your companionship. I don't flatter you, I simply state the truth when I affirm that you are the only man in China whose co-operation I would ask. Now good-night. I hope you will come to me with a favourable answer to-morrow."
As he spoke, and as if to emphasize his request, the black cat, which up to that time had been standing beside him, now came over and began to rub its head, accompanying its action with a soft, purring noise, against my leg.
"I will let you know without fail by this time tomorrow evening," I said. "Good-night."
AFTER I had bidden Dr. Nikola good-night in the verandah of his house, I consulted my watch, and discovering that it was not yet eleven o'clock, set off for a long walk through the city in order to consider my position. There were many things to be reckoned for and against his offer. To begin with, as a point in its favour, I remembered the fact that I was alone in the world. My father and mother had been dead some years, and as I was their only child, I had neither brother nor sister dependent upon my exertions, or to mourn my loss if by ill-chance anything desperate should befall me. In the second place, I had been a traveller in strange lands from my youth up, and was therefore the more accustomed to hard living. This will be better understood when I say that I had run away from home at the age of fifteen to go to sea; had spent three years in the roughest life before the mast any man could dream of or desire; had got through another five, scarcely less savage, as an Australian bushman on the borders of the Great Desert; another two in a detachment of the Cape Mounted Police; I had also held a fair appointment in Hong-Kong, and had drifted in and out of many other employments, good, bad, and indifferent. I was thirty-five years of age, had never, with the exception of my attack of fever in New Guinea, known what it was to be really sick or sorry, and, if the information is of any use to the world, weighed thirteen stone, stood close upon six feet in my stockings, had grey eyes and dark-brown hair, and, if you will not deem me conceited for saying so, had the reputation of being passably good-looking.
My position at that moment, financially and otherwise, was certainly precarious in the extreme. It was true, if I looked long enough I might find something to do, but, on the other hand, it was equally probable that I should not, for, as I knew to my cost, there were dozens of men in Shanghai at that moment, also on the look-out for employment, who would snap up anything that offered at a moment's notice. Only that morning I had been assured by a well-known merchant, upon whom I had waited in the hope of obtaining a cashiership he had vacant in his office, that he could have filled it a hundred times over before my arrival. This being so, I told myself that I had no right to neglect any opportunity which might come in my way of bettering my position. I therefore resolved not to reject Nikola's offer without the most careful consideration. Unfortunately, a love of adventure formed an integral part of my constitution, and when a temptation, such as the present, offered it was difficult for me to resist it. Indeed, this particular form of adventure appealed to me with a voice of more than usual strength. What was still more to the point, Nikola was such a born leader of men that the mysterious fascination of his manner seemed to compel me to give him my co-operation, whether I would or would not. That the enterprise was one involving the chance of death was its most unpleasant feature; but still, I told myself, I had to die some time or other, while if my luck held good, and I came out of it alive, £10,000 would render me independent for the rest of my existence. As the thought of this large sum came into my mind, the sinister form of my half-caste landlord rose before my mind's eye, and the memory of his ill-written and worse-spelled account, which I should certainly receive upon the morrow, chilled me like a cold douche. Yes, my mind was made up, I would go; and having come to this decision, I went home.
But when I woke next morning Prudence sat by my bedside. My dreams had not been good ones. I had seen myself poisoned in Chinese monasteries, dismembered by almond-eyed headsmen before city gates, and tortured in a thousand terrible ways and places. Though these nightmares were only the natural outcome of my anxiety, yet I could not disabuse my mind of the knowledge that every one was within the sphere of probability. Directly I should have changed into Celestial dress, stained my face and sewn on my pigtail, I would be a Chinaman pure and simple, amenable to Chinese laws and liable to Chinese penalties. Then there was another point to be considered. What sort of travelling companion would Nikola prove? Would I be able to trust him in moments of danger and difficulty? Would he stand by me as one comrade should by another? And if by any chance we should get into a scrape and there should be an opportunity of escape for one only, would Nikola, by virtue of being my employer, seize that chance and leave me to brave the upshot, whatever it might be? In that case my £5,000 in the Shanghai Bank and the £5,000 which was to be paid to me on my return would be little less useful than a worn-out tobacco pouch. And this suggested to my mind another question: Was Nikola sufficiently rich to be able to pay £10,000 to a man to accompany him on such a harebrained errand? These were all matters of importance, and they were also questions that had to be satisfactorily answered before I could come to any real decision. Though Barkston had informed me that Nikola was so well known throughout the East, though Benwell, of the Chinese Revenue Service, had shown himself so frightened when he had met him face to face in the club, and though I, myself, had heard all sorts of queer stories about him in Saigon and the Manillas, they were none of them sufficiently definite to be any guarantee to me of his monetary stability. To set my mind at rest, I determined to make inquiries about Nikola from some unbiassed person. But who was that person to be? I reviewed all my acquaintances in turn, but without pitching upon any who would be at all likely to be able to help me in my dilemma. Then, while I was dressing, I remembered a man, a merchant, owning one of the largest hongs along the Bund, who was supposed to know more about people in general, and queer folk in particular, than any man in China.
I ate my breakfast, such as it was, received my account from my landlord with the lordly air of one who has £10,000 reposing at his banker's, lit an excellent cigar in the verandah and then sauntered down town.
Arriving at the Bund, I walked along until I discovered my friend's office. It overlooked the river, and was as fine a building as any in Shanghai. In the main hall I had the good fortune to discover the merchant's chief comprador, who, having learned that his master was disengaged, conducted me forthwith to his presence.
Alexander McAndrew hailed from north of the Tweed—this fact the least observant would have noticed before he had been five minutes in his company. His father had been a night watchman at one of the Glasgow banks, and his own early youth was spent as a ragged, barefooted boy in the streets of that extraordinary city. Of his humble origin McAndrew, however, was prouder than any De la Zouch could have been of friendship with the Conqueror; indeed, he was wont, when he entertained friends at his princely bungalow in the English Concession, to recall and dwell with delight upon the sordid circumstances that brought about the happy chance which, one biting winter's morning, led him to seek fame and fortune in the East.
"Why, Mr. Bruce," he cried, rising from his chair and shaking me warmly by the hand, "this is a most unexpected pleasure! How long have you been in Shanghai?"
"Longer than I care to remember," I answered, taking the seat he offered me.
"And all that time you have never once been to see me. That's hardly fair treatment of an old friend, is it?"
"I must ask your pardon for my remissness," I said, "but somehow things have not gone well with me in Shanghai this time, and so I've not been to see anybody. You observe that I am candid with you."
"I am sorry to hear that you are in trouble," he said. "I don't want to appear impertinent, but if I can be of any service to you I sincerely hope you will command me."
"Thank you," I answered. "I have already determined to do so. Indeed, it is to consult you that I have taken the liberty of calling upon you now."
"I am glad of that. Upon what subject do you want my advice?"
"Well, to begin with, let me tell you that I have been offered a billet which is to bring me in £10,000."
"Why, I thought you said things were not prospering with you?" cried my friend. "This doesn't look as if there is much wrong. What is the billet?"
"That, I am sorry to say, I am not at liberty to reveal to any one."
"Then in what way can I be of use to you?"
"First, I want to know if you can give me any information about my employer?"
"Tell me his name and I'll see what I can do," the merchant answered, not without a show of pride. "I think I know nine out of every ten men of any importance in the East."
"Well," I said, "this man's name is Nikola."
"Nikola!" he cried in complete astonishment, wheeling round to face me. "What possible business can you have with Nikola that is to bring you in £10,000?"
"Business of the very utmost importance," I answered, "involving almost life and death. But it is evident you know him?"
In reply the old man leant over the table and sank his voice almost to a whisper.
"Bruce," he said, "I know more of that man than I dare tell you, and if you will take my advice you will back out while you have time. If you can't, why, be more than careful what arrangements you make with him."
"You frighten me," I said, more impressed by his earnestness than I cared to own. "Is he not good for the money, then?"
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