Stolen Idols - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

Stolen Idols ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Opis

A young adventurer steals two complimentary idols of Buddha from a Chinese temple, one of which is supposed to have a debasing and malevolent effect upon its owners. One of the idols represents the Body, and all of the corruption and evil of Mankind, the other represents the Soul, and all that is good. The Ballastons are a spendthrift aristocratic family threatened with the loss of their ancestral home due to large debts. The son steals these idols, ends up with just the naughty one, and in the process crosses swords with Wu Ling, a wily Chinese merchant who later manages to become English. Mr. Oppenheim can be depended upon to give his plots that turn which is as admirable as it is unexpected, and this is one of the best of his many good and exciting books.

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Liczba stron: 395

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Contents

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

BOOK TWO

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

BOOK THREE

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER I

THE two ships, pursuer and pursued, quaintly shaped, with heavy, flapping sails, lay apparently becalmed in a sort of natural basin formed by the junction of two silently flowing, turgid rivers–rivers whose water was thick and oily, yellow in colour, unpleasant to look at. The country through which they passed was swamp-riven and desolate, though in the far distance were rice fields and the curiously fashioned roofs of a Chinese village. The sun beat down upon the glasslike water. The air was windless. Further movement seemed impossible until from the smaller boat, through unexpectedly opened hatches, half a dozen oars were suddenly thrust into the water. The huge Chinaman who stood at the helm, yellow-skinned and naked to the waist, picked up an enormous pole and let it gradually down into the river bed. The oars, languidly though they were wielded, cut the water, and the dhow began slowly to move. Wu Abst, the Mighty Terror of the Great River, as he loved to hear himself described, grinned mockingly as he looked backwards towards his pursuer. He shouted words through the glistening heat intended to convey his contempt of those who fancied that he was to be caught napping. Then he bent over his giant pole and glanced with satisfaction at the distant bank, which already showed signs of their progress.

At the bend of the river, not three miles distant, was a stretch of water into which no such craft as that which had chased him could follow. He relit his pipe, therefore, and smoked like a man at peace, whilst below the sweat rolled from the naked bodies of the men who were emulating their Roman predecessors of two thousand years ago. Wu Abst, pleased with their efforts, shipped his pole for a moment, and, leaning over the side, shouted encouragement and exhortation to the toilers. Then suddenly the words died away upon his lips. His whole frame stiffened. The remains of the grin faded from his face, the whole expression of which was now almost ludicrously changed. For across that little stretch of river came the horrible sound of which he had heard, the pop-pop-pop denoting the use of some devil-made mechanical contrivance, which triumphed over windless airs and opposing currents.

His horrified gaze became fastened upon the pursuing ship, now also moving, and not only moving, but moving very much faster than anything which all the efforts of his toiling gang were able to accomplish. Bewilderment gave place to anger, which in its turn became merged almost at once in the philosophy of his race–the graveyard of all emotions! He shouted an order to those down below. There was a clatter and a rumble as the men shipped their oars, and another more metallic sound as they exchanged them for other weapons.

Wu Abst thrust his hand through the window of a small cuddy hole, which he called his cabin, and drew out a long, antiquated rifle. It was one of a type manufactured in Birmingham fifty years ago, rejected since then by every South American band of patriots planning a revolution, and scoffed at even by West African savages. He nevertheless dropped a cartridge into its place and waited whilst the other ship glided almost alongside. His eyes swept its deck, and his bloodthirsty intentions were promptly changed. With expressionless face he slipped his weapon back again through the cuddy hole and called down another order below. Then he leaned over the rail and raised his hand in salute. A man who was seated aft in a basket chair upon the deck of the approaching ship, rose to his feet and came to the side. He wore Chinese garb and he spoke Chinese, but his linen clothes were spotlessly white and he wore no pigtail.

“Are you Wu Abst, the river pirate?” he called out.

“I am Wu Abst,” was the reply. “And who are you?”

“I am Wu Ling, the peaceful trader,” the other answered. “I bring prosperity to those whom you seek to rob.”

Wu Abst spat into the river.

“I know of you,” he growled. “You trade with foreign money. You take the jade and the gems, the silk and the handiwork of these people and sell them rubbish.”

“Where I take,” the other rejoined, “I give something in return, which is more than you do.”

“What is your business with me–” Wu Abst demanded, glancing sullenly at the two Maxim guns trained upon him, behind each of which was seated, crosslegged, a brawny and capable-looking Chinese sailor.

“Last night,” Wu Ling announced, “I traded at the village of Hyest, and I heard a strange tale. I heard that you had on board your ship a foreigner tied with ropes, and that you were waiting to reach your own stretches to throw him to the crocodiles. Is this the truth, Wu Abst, or am I to search your ship?”

“It is the truth,” the other admitted grimly. “He is a foreign devil who merits death and even torture. He is a thief and a sacrilegious pest upon the earth.”

“You speak hard words of him,” Wu Ling observed.

“What words other than hard can be spoken of such?” Wu Abst retorted. “Presently I shall tell you of his deeds. I like not your speech, Wu Ling. You speak our tongue but speak it strangely. There are rumours of you in many places. There are some who say that not only is the money with which you trade the money of foreign devils, but that you, too, are one of them in spirit if not by birth.”

“What I am is none of the present business,” Wu Ling declared. “What of this prisoner of yours?”

“I shall speak of him now,” Wu Abst answered.

“Then, if you are indeed a man of this country, you shall see that I do no evil thing in casting him to the crocodiles. He was caught, a thief in the sacred temple of the sacred village of Nilkaya, in the temple where the Great Emperor himself was used to worship. The priests who caught him tied his body with ropes–not I. They brought him to .the riverside, and they gave me silver to deal with him.”

“Your story is true,” Wu Ling admitted. “The circumstances you relate are known to me. But there were two of these robbers. What of the other, his companion?”

“The priests say that he escaped, and with him the two sacred Images of the great God, reverenced for nine hundred years,” the pirate confided. “It is because of the escape of the other that they wish to make sure of the death of this one.”

Wu Ling considered for a moment.

“Wu Abst,” he pronounced at last, “you have told me a true story, and you have acted in this matter as a just man. Therefore these guns of mine shall bring no message of evil to you, nor shall I declare war, so long as you keep to your side of the river and above the villages where I trade. But as for the foreign devil, you must hand him over to me.”

Wu Abst raised his hands to heaven. For a time his speech was almost incomprehensible. He was stricken with a fit of anger. He shouted and pleaded until he foamed at the mouth. Wu Ling listened unmoved. When at last there was silence he spoke.

“It is clear to me what you intended, Wu Abst,” he said. “There was to be torture and more silver from the priests before you cast this prisoner to the sea fish.”

“It is a hard living that one makes nowadays,” Wu Abst, the Terror of the River, muttered.

“Nevertheless in this matter I am firm,” the other insisted. “Hand me over the foreigner and go your way. You know of me. I travel into dangerous places when I leave my ship, and I have a score of men below who could hew their way through a regiment of your cutthroats, and a gun in the bows there which would send you to the bottom with a single discharge. I am your master, Wu Abst, and I command. Bring me the foreigner and go your way.”

So, a few minutes later, a half-naked, barely conscious, young Englishman, the remains of his garments rags upon his back, blue in the face from lack of circulation, a hideous and pitiful sight, was carried up from the hold of Wu Abst’s sailing dhow and laid upon the deck of the trading schooner of Wu Ling. His cords were cut, brandy and water were poured down his throat, a sail reared as a shelter from the sun, whilst from a small hose, cool, refreshing water was sprayed over him until consciousness returned and speech began to stammer from his lips. Then, from the petrol engine, commenced once more the noise which had brought consternation to Wu Abst. The ship swung round in a circle and passed on its way down the river.

Wu Abst, with a little shrug of the shoulders, relit his pipe. Perhaps, after all, there would have been no more silver!

That evening seemed to the released man like a foretaste of paradise. He lay on a couch in Wu Ling’s cabin, with the roof and sides rolled back and nothing but a cunning arrangement of mosquito netting between him and the violet twilight. Above was the moon and the brilliantly starlit night; on either side occasional groves of trees–trees growing almost down to the river’s edge, some with poisonous odours, others almost sickly sweet. Sometimes there was a light from a distant village, but more often they were enveloped.in a thick, velvety darkness. And they were pointing for the great port at the mouth of the river, and safety. The released man was sipping brandy and water, and smoking. His host sat opposite him, grave and enigmatic.

“I talk English little,” Wu Ling said, “but I understand all. Speak your story, and tell how called.”

The young man raised himself slightly.

“My name is Gregory Ballaston,” he announced. “I am an Englishman, as you know, a traveller and fond of adventure. For years this story of the temple of Nilkaya has been in my brain. I heard all about it from some one who lived in Pekin for many years.”

“The story?” Wu Ling enquired politely.

“In this temple,” the young man narrated, “is a great statue of a Chinese god–Buddha, I suppose– and on either side of it are two smaller ones made from hard wood, marvellously carved, and, some say, a thousand years old. Each is supposed to be a counterpart of the greater God, and yet they demonstrate an amazingly presented allegory. They bear a likeness to one another, they bear a likeness to the God himself, but each is curiously different. In one you seem to trace the whole of the evil qualities which could ever enter into the character of man, and in the other, all the good qualities. One is hideous and the other beautiful. Yet, if you put them side by side and glance quickly from one to the other, the two seem to grow together so that the impression of the Image which is left in your mind is that of the great God above. They are called the Body and the Soul.”

“This story I have heard,” Wu Ling admitted.

“I have heard it many times, but I scarcely believed it–until I saw,” the young man continued. “I had only a few minutes in the temple and there was danger all around, yet for a moment they took my breath away. I could scarcely move. Why, the man who fashioned them might have been an oriental Phidias.”

“Proceed,” Wu Ling begged.

“Well, the point of the story is this. Generations ago there was a great rising amongst the people, an invasion from the north, and robbers seem to have overrun the whole place. They sacked even the temples, and the priests–those who had warning of their coming–stripped their robes and their temples of all the precious stones which they possessed, and hid them.”

“Hid them,” Wu Ling repeated. “Ah!”

“Some of this story, you have, of course, heard,” the young man went on, “because your trade brings you, I suppose, within a hundred miles of Nilkaya. The temples were rich in jewels –the emperors of China had sent them gifts for centuries–and the legend is that all the most valuable were concealed within these two Images–the Body and the Soul.”

“That,” Wu Ling commented, “is a strange story.”

“As I told you,” the young man continued, “I heard it from one who lived in Pekin and I believe that it is the truth. For centuries the priests have possessed a manuscript which has been handed down from one High Priest to the other, and this manuscript tells how these Images have been fashioned, so that there is within them a hollow place. There are directions for finding it, and for opening the Images, and they say that without these directions no man in the world could guess how to do it. I have spoken with one who has visited the temple, and who was not quite so much pressed for time as I was, who has seen these Images only a few feet away, and who insists upon it that there is not a sign of any possible aperture or any break in the wood.”

“A simple thing,” Wu Ling suggested blandly, “would be to break with choppers.”

The young man raised his eyebrows.

“It is strange to hear you, a Chinaman, propose such a thing,” he remarked. “I suppose any one who attempted it in this country would sooner or later be cut into small pieces, for these Images are blessed just as the larger one. But there is another reason against attempting such a thing. You are a very wonderful race, you Chinese, and you were more wonderful still, generations ago.”

“Ah!” Wu Ling murmured.

“There are plenty of people,” the young man proceeded, “who say that there is scarcely a discovery in the world which you have not anticipated and then declined to use because the central tenet of your religion and your philosophy was to leave things that are. Well, they say that you discovered gunpowder and all manner of explosives about the time these Images were fashioned. They must always, from the first, have been intended for a possible hiding place, for the old legend concerning them–I know this from the only European who has ever visited the temple–declared that if these are subjected to violence in any way, then the earthquake follows. The priests all believe this implicitly, and, although it sounds a far-fetched idea, the man who first told me the story is convinced that when the jewels were stored away inside, they were imbedded in some sort of explosive.”

“It becomes more than ever a strange story,” Wu Ling said didactically.

The young man looked searchingly for a moment at his host. Was it his fancy, he wondered, or was there a faint note of sardonic disbelief in his even tone?

“Of course,” he went on, “it must sound to you, as it does to me, although you would scarcely understand the word, like rot, but the man from whom I heard it was a great person in Pekin, a friend even of the Emperor, and not only of the Emperor, but of the Emperor’s great adviser whom some people think the greatest Chinaman who ever lived. He had privileges which had never before been extended to any European.”

Wu Ling nodded gravely.

“So,” he said, with the painstaking air of one trying to solve a problem, “you were seeking to take Images from temple, away from priests to whom belong, that you might possess jewels.”

The young man coughed. Somehow or other Wu Ling’s eyes were very penetrating.

“Well,” he admitted, “I suppose in a way it was robbery, but robbery on a legitimate scale. I don’t suppose you’ve read much European history, have you?”

“Read never,” Wu Ling replied.

“That makes it difficult to explain,” his companion regretted, pausing for a moment to breathe in, with great satisfaction, a gulp of the cool night air. “However, most of the territories in different parts of the world which England possesses and a great deal of her inherited wealth, have come because centuries ago Englishmen went across the seas to every country in the world and helped themselves to pretty well what they wanted.”

“That,” Wu Ling remarked, “sounds like Wu Abst, the pirate.”

Gregory Ballaston smiled.

“Well,” he continued, “the invasion of a foreign country for purposes of aggrandisement is robbery, I suppose, only, you see, it is robbery on a big scale. We looked at this present affair in the same way. If it is true that there are a million pounds’ worth of jewels in these images, what good can they possibly do to any one hidden there for centuries? No one could see them. No one could derive any good from them. Their very beauty is lost to the world. Robbery, if you like, Wu Ling, but not petty larceny.”

Wu Ling shook his head with an uncomprehending smile.

“Of course you won’t understand that,” the other observed. “Still, what I mean to say is, that the very danger of the exploit, the fact that you risk your life– look how near I came to losing mine!–makes the enterprise almost worth while. Nothing mean about it, anyway.”

“Ah!” Wu Ling murmured meditatively. “And now please tell, where Images?”

The young man was silent.

“That’s a long story, Wu Ling,” he sighed. “There were two^of us in this. The other got away. He didn’t desert me exactly. It was according to plan, but he had to leave first, and he left damned quick.”

“And the Images?” Wu Ling persisted softly.

Gregory Ballaston leaned back. The night had become a thing of splendour, the water, no longer yellow, but glittering with the reflection of the moon. They were passing through a narrow strip of country which might have been the garden of some great nobleman’s palace. There were flowering shrubs down to the river’s edge, a faint perfume of almond blossom, in the distance a stronger scent of something like eucalyptus, and all the time a divine silence. After his terrible quarters in the pirate ship this was a dream of luxury. The young man was full of gratitude to his benefactor, and yet he hesitated. Could one trust any Chinaman, even though he has saved one’s life, with a secret like this?

“The Images no longer stand in the Temple, Wu Ling,” he said, “but just where they are now I do not know. It was my part of the affair–if you understand military language –to fight a rearguard action. I did, but there were too many of them for me. They fought like furies, those priests. I might have killed them, but I hadn’t the heart to do it. I shot one or two in the limbs, and then chucked it when I saw it was no use. Whether my friend succeeded in getting away with the Images or not, I shall not know for many days.”

They passed a tiny village. From a plastered house with a curving roof, two lanterns were hanging. A girl’s figure was dimly visible through the strings of thin bamboo, rustling musically together in the breeze. She was singing to a kind of guitar, an amazing melody, uncouth in its way, and unintelligible. Yet the young man turned over and smiled as he listened.

“Is there no other thing but money to be desired amongst you of the West,” Wu Ling asked, “that even in youth you risk so much?”

Gregory Ballaston clasped his hands behind his head. He was gazing steadily up at the stars, listening to the melody dying away in the distance. Although he addressed his companion, he had the air of one soliloquising.

“The further West you go, Wu Ling,” he said, “the more you need money to taste life. Artistically, of course, it’s all wrong, but then the world’s all wrong. It’s slipped out of shape somehow, during the last thousand years. We aren’t natural any longer. The natural person accepts pleasure, but doesn’t seek it. Directly you seek, you begin a terrible chase, and we’re all seekers over westward, Wu Ling. We have lost the art of being. We have lost the gift of repose. We have lost the capacity for quiet enjoyments. Sport, ambitions and love-making have all joined in the debacle. No one man can live alone and away from his fellows, even if he sees into the evil of these things. All life to us has come to run on wheels which need always the oil of money.”

“And for the chance of gaining that,” Wu Ling murmured, “you young Englishmen have come so far and risked your lives.”

The young man looked round the cabin and beyond. There was a rack of rifles against the wall, boxes of ammunition which reached to the ceiling. The moonlight outside glinted now and then upon the muzzles of the Maxims.

“You yourself, Wu Ling,” he pointed out, “r«n risks. For what? For the same thing. For wealth. You wouldn’t carry those firearms unless you had trouble sometimes. You are past the time of life when an adventure alone appeals. You too seek wealth, and you seek it with Maxim guns and Enfield rifles to protect yourself.”

“There are evil men upon the river,” Wu Ling admitted. “There are men like Abst and others, but these are for protection. We have a proverb in this country–‘The strong man only is safe.’”

“A wise saying,” the young man acknowledged drowsily.

Wu Ling rose to his feet.

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