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Peter the Brazen is back! In this next story in the series, Jonathan Driggs, journeying in search of his love, Gloria Dale, has learned that she was become the mistress of Fong-Chi-Ah, fiend of all Asia. At the same time, the Golden Cat—a symbol of the long-absent Queen Shari—has been stolen. Elsewhere in China, wireless operator Peter Moore receives a message from a "Gloria Dale:" a mysterious woman seemingly kidnapped, and wearing a Golden Cat around her neck.... Written by long-time Argosy author George F. Worts under his primary pen-name, Peter the Brazen made a marked impression on Argosy reader Lester Dent when he co-created Doc Savage. The saga of Peter the Brazen is amongst the best adventure series in the history of pulp fiction.
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The Adventures of Peter the Brazen, Volume 3
Altus Press • 2018
© 2018 Altus Press
“The Cat of Gold” originally appeared as “The Golden Cat” in the November 22, 29, and December 6, 13, 20, and 27, 1919 issues of Argosy magazine (Vol. 114, No. 4–Vol. 116, No. 1). Copyright © 1919 by The Frank A. Munsey Company.
“About the Author” originally appeared in the August 2, 1941 issue of Argosy magazine (Vol. 309, No. 5). Copyright © 1941 by The Frank A. Munsey Company. Copyright renewed © 1968 and assigned to Steeger Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Special Thanks to Gerd Pircher
“The Sphinx must solve her own riddle.”
AT the summit of the rise he drew rein with an exclamatory outgiving of breath. The surprise was thorough, as if a brown curtain had been unexpectedly snatched aside. Momentarily all of his impulses were numbed. And yet the man on the mule was inured to the astonishments of this life; experience was bitten into his weathered countenance—the hard, seasoned lines told you that.
There was, to be sure, an appalling grandeur in the prospect from the mountain brow. This firm, dark road drooped, ribbon-like, from the granite shoulders of the pass to the coiling blue river which was impressed like a python between banks green as the emerald.
A half mile from the blue river on the opposite shore an ancient city was established, and this was a city that might have been spilled from a jewel casket. It was a hand-painted poem of a city, with tiny houses peeping like bright toys from a brilliant rainbow garden, all held within walls ivory in their virginal whiteness.
A mist grew in the traveller’s eyes. He had been thoroughly unprepared, and surely the richness of its coloring and the ripe greenness of the plain on which centuries ago it had been erected were enough of themselves to pluck the breath from any unsuspecting wanderer.
That was a reasonable explanation. Unpreparedness added to contrast. The man had been pressing onward for hours through gulleys and ravines chopped into fruitless rock. Since dawn, since noon of yesterday, he had been following the unfamiliar trail through a sinister land of browns and grays.
Once in a while he had paused reluctantly for food or a few minutes’ relaxation under an unhappy cembra pine, or, in the lower reaches, where water bubbled at its thoughtless will, a starving date-palm bearing no fruit. On the whole the country through which he had journeyed most recently was a wrack of parched mountains, a harsh, lonely wilderness. Browns and grays were relieved only by the blue of the heaven, and even this at times oppressed him with its unbroken smoothness.
Since dawn of the new morning he had proceeded more rapidly along the treacherous road, urged onward by the delicious scent of the river which crept more sweetly into the crumbling hills as the miles were unrolled. Without warning he had approached the last of the ridges which barred him from the surprise. His mind was saturated with the hateful grays and browns when he reached the final rise in the road.
It was like peeping through the gate into a forbidden Oriental paradise.
The green-satin valley, the python that was a blue river, the miraculous city flung themselves at him and into him. He was no worshipper of scenery; too much of it had been spread under his sage young eyes. His immediate burst of laughter was only an expression of ecstatic relief, and the few intermingling tears were only an indication that the torture endured in the horrible country behind was taking its leave.
The nostrils of the mule he rode and of his smaller pack-mule quivered ardently at the touch of the river’s breath. A breeze was flowing up the mountain side flavored intoxicatingly with valley odors. The sweetness of rose blossoms, of flowery cinnamon, of water lilies, in contrast with the arid, deathly atmosphere of an hour ago, could almost be tasted.
Weary and hungry, Jonathan Driggs sat in his saddle and devoured the tropical city. Ly-Chang was brought all but within reach of his tired fingers by the clearness of the drowsy, sunlit morning. Yet he was unaware of the soft flood of odor carried up with the breeze, unaware of the tender and aged voice of a far-away temple bell.
And while he stoutly professed to dislike scenery, yet his youthful imagination was ravished by all of it. He could not express his thoughts, even to himself, or to the sympathetic and understanding mule, who had mournfully accepted his confidences during the hundreds of terrible miles from the Goblin Gobi.
The mind of Jonathan Driggs was in a roseate uproar. He was miserable; he was filled with the happiness of blissful anticipation—divided between the possibilities of the bitter disappointment and the joyful discovery which that fragrant city had in its power to give him.
It is said by the philosophically wise that a man madly in love is a fool, and in that respect Jonathan Driggs was a noteworthy one. He had been riding furiously for more than a month from the northern borders of Thibet to reach Ly-Chang and the girl who held his happiness in the palm of her hand.
She had been a child the last time he saw her. From Afghanistan to the Sungaria, from the Shamo into China proper, he had killed one mule after another by hard riding—to lay his heart and a diamond trinket at the exquisite feet of the child matured.
Can you imagine any man displaying foolishness so consistently? If you have wandered into the remote corners, you have probably glimpsed such a man, for each is typical of the other. Somewhere along the bund of Shanghai when the green lights are coming on, he steps ashore from a battered sampan; you are given a startling glimpse of murky eyes, of powerful chin, of bizarre garments—a disciple of Romance.
At the Metropole, in Panama, you see him again—boiled to furious redness by the Chagres sun and swollen pitifully with bites administered by the man-loving chigger, yet competent to adorn the bar rail and down some favorite and exotic liquor of amazing power.
You hear the whistle of his footsteps in the lonely singing sands at Rio, the wails produced by his fevered brains as coolies carry him limp from the jungles into Zanzibar, or Singapore. You admire him, you envy him, you disapprove of him, and sometimes you understand him. He toils not, neither does he spin. He is all that your youthful and romantic twenties urged you to be.
And only in your rapturous twenties can you properly understand and sympathize with his impulsiveness, such as the rare impulsiveness which sent Jonathan Driggs from an Italian convalescent hospital at the termination of the war into the festering heart of China, via Afghanistan and the Desert of Gobi and other unspeakable places, to lay his gift and his heart at the feet of a somewhat unattainable angel.
Centuries ago the untainted white walls of Ly-Chang were erected on the western slope of the Si-Kiang, a river which flows into the Bogue, at Canton, becomes the Pearl at that point, and ventures into the China Sea not far from where Hong Kong the beautiful endeavors to rule the morals and the commerce of this portion of the Eastern world.
Ly-Chang was Jonathan Driggs’s goal, but not his destination, for his destination might prove to be any of the places I have mentioned, where adventurous youth may be glimpsed madly pursuing grails and girls of exciting and frequently unadvertised character.
As a matter of fact, Driggs had made a detour some thousands of miles in extent in the hope that Gloria Dale might have continued her one-time residence in Ly-Chang with her adoring father. If Gloria Dale had taken herself to Shanghai or elsewhere, thither Jonathan Driggs intended promptly to take himself and his offering. He harbored no doubts of the outcome in any case.
The theatrical vision of the city and the winding blue river forced new vigor into him. Days and days ago he had lost the enormous yellow fiber hat he had picked up in a Sungarian village; he had, indeed, joyfully witnessed its mad flight over a mountain of black glass, where a furnace-like blast roared and ripped through that particular valley. The loss was negligible. His shapely head upheld a mass of curly brown and the deep brown eyes were sheltered by the strong and prominent forehead of the reasoner.
Days of pitiless tropical sunshine, unhampered by the diamond-clear lower Himalayan atmosphere, had roasted his firm skin to a ripe and pleasing tan. There was a rare, hungering quality in the smile he addressed to the ancient city when he began his descent.
The mule he was riding and the smaller animal that supported his provisions and sleeping roll might not have sensed the glorious promise of the city that came out of a jewel casket. If the flame-like pagoda and the groves of kanaros and banyans did not inspire them, certainly the fragrance of the Si-Kiang made up the loss fully, for they trotted eagerly down the brown ribbon-road to an obvious fording place and drank until their foolish sides were swelled.
Jonathan Driggs, while he indulged them, devoted himself to pointed questioning. Would Gloria Dale comprehend and approve the kind of love that had burned in his soul for years, that had propelled him recklessly across seas, and deserts, and mountains filled with snow, toward a city which had exerted some curious fascination upon her?
He had written to her careful, gently questioning letters, none of the score of them having evoked a reply. Did she frown upon the love of a man for a girl in her teens, a love founded on no stronger foundations than his resolute hopes?
He had often wondered, and he fell to wondering again as he urged the mules up the other bank, just what hold the city of Ly-Chang had upon the beautiful, grown-up daughter of Horace Dale. He knew that Gloria and her father made frequent visits to the home of Prince Chu. She had often mentioned the venerable prince and his remarkable city, yet she had never taken the trouble to explain the visits, and Driggs was too brimful of worship to ask her to explain.
He remembered from random remarks she had made that Ly-Chang differed strikingly from the ordinary Chinese city. He recalled that it was an exceptionally clean city filled with extraordinary people—extraordinary because they were at all times smilingly happy. The traditions of Ly-Chang had come to him from other mouths. It was a hospitable place; they went so far as to let down the drawbridge at night to welcome tired and hungry travellers. They regaled the wanderer with excellent food, rare wines, and happy songs accompanied by the lute. Ly-Chang was an Oriental shrine of good will and happiness.
So it was with a feeling of immense surprise and concern that Jonathan Driggs entered Ly-Chang by the drawbridge. There were no indications of happiness in the city he entered. Groups of men gathered conspicuously about the red-paved streets, in the doorways of the pastel houses, under the splendid southern trees, were whisperingly discussing some stern matter.
Two young girls glanced in his direction with only fugitive curiosity, and turned away with eyes swollen by tears. Other than the unobtrusive glances of these sorrowing ones, his entrance was ungreeted for a time.
Dreadful calamity must indeed be abroad in Ly-Chang.
ORDINARILY the arrival of a white foreigner is the signal for confusion in the interior towns of China. Jonathan Driggs had had amusing and strenuous experiences in villages along the trail. He had been, by turn, worshiped and attacked. The buttons had been plucked from his tunic; in the Tarim Basin he had been accepted as a divinity; in Ala Shan he had been stoned.
Ly-Chang did not recognize his existence; it was evident that some terrible distraction prevailed in all the minds of Ly-Chang’s prosperous, well-dressed inhabitants.
A boy of nineteen with features as delicate and eyes as beautiful as those of a girl was making his way toward the dusty newcomer. A round hat of bright green silk was fitted tightly about his ears.
Jonathan Driggs’s brown eyes opened with wonder when the boy addressed him in English, tinted with the gutturals and resonance not of western China, but of Indo-China.
“You come from afar, my friend?”
“From Afghanistan,” the adventurer replied.
The boy nodded sadly. “We always welcome the stranger to our gates,” he said with a deep sigh. “It is a regret that we cannot give the heaven-sent our usual greeting. As you see, we are in great confusion. Will you forgive our weakness? I will find a place for you to sleep and fetch you food and drink myself.”
“What has happened?” Driggs asked bluntly. He dismounted and darted a concerned glance from the bright face of the unknown host to a girl who was braiding her hair and weeping in the shade of a royal palm nearby.
“The prince would be infuriated if I annoyed any guest with our trouble,” the boy replied rather stiffly.
“No annoyance, my lad,” Driggs took him up with a sympathetic air. “What’s wrong?”
The boy hesitated. He studied the countenance of the weary stranger who professed to have travelled all the way from Afghanistan, and the inspection seemed to remove all of his doubts. The face of Jonathan Driggs was indeed that of a trustworthy man.
“A jewel we value more highly than all of our lives combined was stolen yesterday from the green shrine by men sent from a great thief!” the boy said breathlessly.
“A jewel—a shrine—a thief—” Driggs muttered, as if incredulous.
The Oriental eyes glowed, and the slender lips twitched a little.
“Would the heaven-born care to see—” He paused. “My name is Belubar.”
“Hsing-la! Lead the way!” Driggs urged him cheerily.
“We are a helpless people, sir,” the boy explained apologetically as they proceeded up the street of red tile and made their way into a vast garden of white roses whose scent lay heavily on the morning air. “Prince Chu does not approve of war, so we are at the mercy of our friends, such as you, master.”
Jonathan Driggs was too impressed with the beauty of the rose garden, which spread out in white-and-green folds on all sides of him, to make comment. Ly-Chang from the mountain brow had promised complete fulfilment of the traditions which had come to his ears; the air of sorrow ruling within the ivory walls was as unexpected and confusing as his first dramatic glimpse of the valley.
A sudden turn in the dirt path brought into view a tiny round building of worn green stone nestling in the shade provided by an arch burdened with white blossoms. The path led to a doorway cut in the shape of an oval, only large enough for a man of Jonathan Driggs’s heroic proportions to squeeze through.
He found himself in a tiny room paved with white marble. Light sifted into the curious little temple through a dome of crystalline green. Shoulder high at equal distances carved brass sockets were fixed in the glazed wall. These were empty. Several of them were twisted, and small heaps of powdered plaster on the marble floor underneath them indicated that the disturbance had been recent.
Growing out of the pavement in its precise center, a square column of lapislazulæ reached to Jonathan’s waist. A fragment of the dense blue stone had been cracked from the corner nearest the oval door. The cuplike summit of the blue pedestal was empty.
Belubar turned on the adventurer with impulsive ferocity.
“Why should the great thief have sent his wolves to Ly-Chang yesterday?” he demanded.
“Why?” Driggs murmured softly.
The boy continued, in a low, powerful voice:
“In those brackets were gold cups which we filled every day with lotus buds from the river. They wrenched the cups away and stole them, too. Oh, but the gold cups were of no value. They were old, very old, but they can be replaced a thousand times!”
“What did they steal from the pedestal?” Driggs was curious to know.
Belubar seemed not to have heard. He went on excitedly:
“Why should the pig of the north prey upon our master? He will say nothing. He is alone now, sir, with his grief. He has sent out word that he will wait until his son comes home from the war of many nations.”
Driggs lifted his dark brows, but said nothing.
“We welcomed these men yesterday, a dozen of them, sir. They came to Ly-Chang as friends on a black junk from Canton way. We welcomed them, gave them food and gifts, and last night they came to this temple and stole the golden cat and the chain of sapphires!”
“The golden—what?” Driggs demanded.
Belubar looked wildly into the eyes of his listener; and the points of his mouth began twitching again.
“We are a pagan people, sir!” he burst out with his former ferocity. “We love those who befriend us, and the golden cat was the symbol of our dearest one, the Queen Shari. She was the one who taught us to live and to smile. The golden cat was all we had. She went away from Ly-Chang before she died—no one knows where.” He blinked tears out of his dark eyes.
“For centuries the shrine of Shari has been undisturbed. Not even the pilgrims to Ly-Chang have been allowed to enter this place. Only the people of Ly-Chang. Those who were in trouble came here, to touch it with their fingers. Where will we go now when we are in trouble? We are Buddhists, Taoists—yes! But above all gods we worshipped the golden cat of Shari.”
Belubar drew his hands over his face and trembled. Driggs watched him narrowly, and his fine mouth was a hard red line.
“Who is this great thief?”
The boy blinked at him uneasily. “His name is Fong-Chi-Ah, master.”
“Fong, of Shanghai?” Driggs snapped.
Belubar nodded. “Yes, Fong-Chi-Ah, of Shanghai. But you must not be bothered. You are hungry and tired.”
Jonathan Driggs brushed the implication aside with a gesture of impatience.
“Why did Fong steal your golden cat? Is its gold so valuable?”
“Prince Chu’s secrets are his own,” the boy replied. “It is some old enmity, we think. The gold was not heavy. It was once a charm at Queen Shari’s throat. Let us go. You are hungry. And your eyes are tired.”
Gently the boy urged him out of the miniature temple and into the presence of three maidens who scampered down the path at sight of them.
Jonathan Driggs was meditatively silent for a dozen steps. In the unexpected problems of Ly-Chang his own had been momentarily forgotten. His eyes softened.
In a studiously casual manner he broke the silence.
“What has become of the jen Dale, from Shanghai, and his daughter? They sometimes spent—”
He stopped abruptly. Belubar’s solicitous expression had been engulfed by a shocking grimace. His full red lips were pressed apart like bow-strings: his thin eyebrows seemed to have skipped to concealment under the bright green hat.
Driggs watched this display of ferocity with amazement.
“What is it, Belubar?” he demanded anxiously.
The boy expelled a harsh laugh. “The goddaughter of Prince Chu is no longer here, master!”
“Where is she? What has happened to her?”
“I—do not know, master!” Belubar whimpered.
Driggs seized him by the arm and thrust his eyes close to those of the emotional youth.
“We are forbidden to speak her name!” he burst out, flinging himself away. “I—I cannot—”
Jonathan Driggs followed him grimly across the path, with lower lip thrust out, head down, shoulders pushed forward.
Belubar regarded the raging expression without dismay or fear. In the presence of the other man’s danger, his own had fled, a phenomenon not uncommonly witnessed in the lands where yellow meets white.
“Where is Gloria Dale?” Driggs exploded.
The boy’s expression was inscrutable. He looked at his inquisitor steadily.
“She was a traitor to us, master,” he replied in a cool, smooth voice. “We believed she loved Ly-Chang. But she loved the great fat pig all the while! Chen pu-ts’o! She came up the river to insult our master less than a month ago! She has gone to live with Fong-Chi-Ah. Shih!”
JONATHAN DRIGGS struck once with his great right fist, while his lips worked over a moan, and the color fled out of his cheeks. Redness burned again instantly.
He plucked Belubar out of the thorns of the low rose bush and dangled him in front of him. His glare was met by a meek expression, dazed and pained.
“You dam’ lyin’ little rat!” he roared. “Spit out the truth, or, so help me—I’ll brain you!”
“Yes! Yes! Oh master, I am so sorry!” Belubar gasped.
“Be careful!” the pitiless giant warned him. “Out with the truth you mongoose! I know when yellow men lie. Quick! Has—she—gone—to—live—with—that—pig?”
“Yes, master; by Budha, yes!”
Driggs lowered him to the path. He swallowed an enormous breath before removing his eyes from the pained ones. Belubar looked back unflinchingly; there was, indeed, an aspect of tender sympathy in the sturdy glance.
Beyond question the boy was telling the truth as it was known to him. Certainly he had no reasons for lying. But the uttered truth was absolutely unbelievable. He could believe that Gloria Dale might be dead, but that golden-haired, blue-eyed girl—gone to live with Fong-Chi-Ah? Never!
“Where are they?” he snapped.
Belubar shook his green hat sadly, and rubbed the spot on his broad-jacketed chest where the fist had landed.
“None of us knows, master. She went to him in Shanghai. All China will tell you the same, for he is so wicked and she is so beautiful. Perhaps they are in Canton now; the river thieves came up the Si-Kiang from the Gate of the Tiger. Listen. I start for Hong Kong to-night to take the daughter of Prince Chu the Princess Shari, to meet her brother, Jan Sing, who is returning from the war of many nations. Will you go with us?”
Driggs shook away the pleading hand impatiently.
“I go to Shanghai. First I must see Prince Chu.”
“But he will receive no one, master,” Belubar reminded him gently. “He has retired to the room of meditation with his grief. Wherever you go, you must have food and drink before starting. At any other time but this terrible one Prince Chu himself would have welcomed you at the drawbridge. Let me prepare your tiffin with my own hands!”
It was necessary for Belubar to run while he delivered the latter suggestion, for the amazing and gigantic visitor from Afghanistan-way was taking himself along the worn red pavement with enormous strides.
Jonathan Driggs was no longer aware of the flowery flavors: the gem-like beauty had all gone out of Ly-Chang; the jewel casket was an empty one. The city of happiness had been reduced in an hour to a hideous symbol of Orientalism; they mourned the loss of a lump of metal which a woman centuries dead had worn at her throat. It was chaff to the golden grain in comparison with his loss.
His eyes were wet; this heart was thumping tragically. The sorrowful voice of Belubar, the weeping of a cluster of women near his mules, stopped at his eardrums. For years he had worshiped Gloria Dale; thousands of dreary miles he had endured, to offer her his heart.
Was it all forever over?
You will have a clearer conception of Jonathan Driggs when his resolutions are mentioned. Love is sometimes said to be an expression of selfishness. The wanderer reached his mules with his mind made up. He would take pains to verify the statement that Gloria Dale had ceased being a good woman, or he would hear the contradiction from her own lips. If the former proved to be the case, he would reach her somehow. Somewhere in her good existed.
He would bring forth that good. Perhaps she had succumbed to weakness. No matter what the cause, no matter how slight the extenuation, he would give her his love unreservedly. His love was not bounded by selfish worldly morals or hypocritical conventions; it was a superb, selfish power.
The dusty traveller did not wait for tiffin. He mounted his mule and struck off down the trail through the blue hills toward Shanghai, with the intention of exhausting that possibility before adventuring to Canton and Hong Kong.
He travelled harder than before. His mule collapsed under him before he reached Nan-Chang. And in Nan-Chang the statements of Belubar were upheld by a Japanese silk buyer whom he had known in the past, when he was stationed as wireless operator on the Yangtze-kiang gunboat, the Madrusa.
Mokuri Karishi had just come in from Amoy, and Amoy, he declared volubly, was fairly creeping with the scandal. He had known neither of the pair, and certain details had escaped his memory. But he remembered distinctly that Fong-Chi-Ah, credited with vicious deeds along the whole of the China coast in spite of his reputation as a great personal coward, had taken unto himself the beautiful daughter of Horace Dale, who was prominent enough in coastal official circles to lend zest to the scandal.
Driggs hastened on to Shanghai with his rage better in hand. His early fury had passed on to bitterness, the bitterness to a grim determination. His love for the treacherous girl burned no less ardently than on the day, months before, when he had set out from the Italian Red Cross hospital to find her.
He had no plan, but he knew that somehow Fate would help him gain his desire. He began to believe, somewhat fatuously perhaps, that she needed his help; he was willing to give her his life.
In Shanghai he visited the Palace bar and overheard candid loungers airing the matter. It was the meatiest bit of gossip the coast had been provided with for months; and the coast was making the most of it.
Quite unconscious of his savage appearance, Driggs called at the office of Horace Dale. He was informed by an inquisitive young clerk that Horace Dale was absent on a business trip to Japan and would not return for a fortnight.
Two sympathetic old friends discovered in the barroom of the Shanghai Club, of which he had long been a member, pieced together other parts of the heart-breaking history. In the first place, Horace Dale had wiped his hands of her, and was bearing up pitifully under the disgrace; he was spending as much time as possible in Tokio and Yokohama these days, drowning his sorrows in saki, presumably, or dubious native champagne.
It appeared that the two of them—the yellow man and the white girl—had gone down to Canton together months ago, to the small and disreputable outlying village of Yow-hien, where Fong-Chi-Ah had established a gambling house; in reality, he was understood to be carrying on mysterious practices having nothing to do with fan-tan.
His organization numbered hundreds of northern Chinamen with discolored reputations. He was known to be a great physical coward, but an effective villain nevertheless, exerting through his pack an enormous amount of power for evil. He would cut a throat as willingly as most men would propound an innocent question.
Some said he was a murderer pure and simple, others that he was an out-and-out pirate with a preference for under-manned merchant junks, but as a pirate must necessarily dispose of his victims, it was reasonable to assume that there was a great deal of blood on his fat fingers in any event.
Certainly the throat-cutters who carried out his plans were as heartless a legion as ever defrauded the automatics of a river gunboat and the rifles of the Sikh policemen.
Such, then, was the society that Gloria Dale had elected to enter. And there were sinister possibilities in store for the witless one who took upon himself the task of removing her from it.
One white-faced Belgian, freshly returned from the war to his electrical interests, advanced the information that Miss Dale had fallen madly in love with the hideous Fong on sight at a dance given in the ballroom of the Astor House Hotel, when she was waltzing in the arms of an Australian army officer.
The accounts varied slightly, but the fundamentals remained unaltered. There were no loopholes. The most beautiful woman in China had gone voluntarily to the arms of the blackest criminal in China, and was reported happy in her degraded state.
Jonathan Driggs, without exposing his tragic interest in the disgusting affair, listened as long as he was able to listen without knocking somebody down, then strode down the bund with a black cigar at his teeth.
When he reached a bench hidden by a little tree from the stabbing green lights, he sank down, with his chin on his breast and his fingernails biting into his scalp. As it is not pleasant to contemplate the breaking down of a strong man, we will pass on immediately to the return of another wanderer to China.
IT was like waiting for the moon—or for a pot to boil. The city of Amoy was making valiant efforts not to lose her way in the souplike fog which steamed down to the China Sea in enormous clots and coils upon the discharge of the Pearl River.
When darkness arrived the liner was still creeping with stealth toward Hong Kong in the southern neighborhood of the West Lamma Channel, and the fog was tightening about her. Bells and sirens of other ships, similarly embarrassed, floated to her decks like the warnings of ghostly ships sailing an unearthly sea.
Smoking an after-dinner cigarette, a lone passenger late that evening slowly toured the promenade deck with his hands tangled behind him, his head tilted a little to the right side in an attitude of profound mediation, and two curling streamers of tobacco smoke lifting from his shoulders to mingle with the unspeakable fog.
Peter Moore was exasperated, and he was unhappy. He had hoped to be set ashore by midafternoon at latest, to be dining leisurely and comparing anecdotes at the Peak Hotel with his temperamental Chinese friend, Jan Sing, before the sun made its way into the Gate of the Tiger.
He craved the particular fragrance, the tuneless jumble of sounds, the delicate and the indelicate odors which were combined in his memory in a reproduction of the alluring atmosphere of the China he had departed from five years ago. In a way, he thrilled with anticipation.
In another way, however, he was positively afraid of the China he was about to rediscover, a feeling not unlike that enjoyed by a returning lover, long separated from his heart’s desire—vivid longing coupled with the sinking fear of disappointment. Peter Moore’s return to China was, in a larger sense, a pilgrimage to a shrine. The friends of his boisterous adventures in the East were scattered. Some were dead. His companions, mirroring Peter Moore himself, were wanderers all, wistful and ardent followers of rainbow trails.
Peter had embarked from England with the intention of renewing his youth upon the soil of his youth. Hateful lands and detestable climes are hypnotists; as a matter of unrefutable fact, Peter Moore was going back to China because he could not help himself.
Fate had nothing to do with the case. He really hated the Orient—and he had bought his ticket to Hong Kong as deliberately as if a vital summons had reached him. He was drawn as helplessly as a chip to the whirl.
His friendship for Sergeant Jan Sing as an excuse was ridiculous; nor did Jan Sing’s adorable sister, Shari, sometimes poetically described as Tsi-lo-lan (the violet), whom he had never seen, excite his interest. Jan Sing and Shari provided, perhaps, a reasonable, if romantic, excuse. Peter Moors always liked to have reasonable excuses for his rash impulses.
He had maintained a studious isolation since coming aboard the City of Amoy; he had wanted to be left alone, to reflect. It was his wish to contemplate the many aspects of his new problem, which happened to be his old problem, with the clearness and tranquility obtainable only in solitude. He wanted to analyze his soul and his capacities in light of the considerable change which the five years and a string of bitter disappointments had wrought in him.
Once more—for the twentieth time perhaps—he had found himself at the end of his tether—penniless and without plan. It had always been so; he seemed to have been designed by a malignant destiny for the role of failure: he was an honorable member of the saddest race of men on earth—the ones who never fit in.
On one of his turns about the after end of the promenade deck he was supplied with a timely diversion. His mood at that particular moment was at lowest ebb. Struggling across his inward vision of the white and blue and unfriendly city which the mournful morning sun would probably bring forth was the wistful countenance of a girl with brown hair, whose tender gray eyes persistently were lost beneath the blue-white lids of an awful, endless sleep. His selfishness would not permit the glimpse to seem beautiful—the realization was too hideous.
Peter’s unhappy attention was diverted by the low, peevish voice of a fat, little man in the blue uniform of a ship’s officer, who was standing with his right hand on one of the rungs of an iron ladder which stretched upward through a hole in a canvas awning from the promenade to the boat deck.
The second mate was unburdening his displeasure upon a gloomy and sympathetic listener, the purser, who attended his barking with short, indignant wags of the head.
“Didn’t I warn him not to eat fresh vegetables in these countries?” the second mate was sputtering. “Hasn’t he lived in the East long enough to know? Somebody is trying to reach him with a message. Can’t hear a dot or dash! Blundering head’s so chock full of noises!”
“Good lord!” the purser muttered, clicking his lips and moving away.
The second mate, gesticulating with his fists, walked beside him.
“Sprawled out up there with his nose to the wall like a stuck pig! Won’t budge! Won’t pay any attention to civil questions! Receivers strapped on his ears. I tell you, something is going on in them! Says he can’t make it out! And just look at this fog! Phew!”
“Phew!” agreed the sympathetic purser, who had the yellowish eyes of a lynx.
The two petulant voices grew fainter and muffled as the feet of their owners scuffled forward.
Peter loitered at the rail unseen with the cigarette spark dying at his lips until the two officers took themselves from sight around the cafe cabin. He flipped a cigarette overboard, sprang energetically up the ladder to “top side” and picked his way toward a yellow layer of light that was imposed like a strip of carpet upon the dewy planks.
The yellow light emerged from a doorway ajar, the entrance to a square, white cabin, the interior of which was lined with banks and tiers of electrical apparatus. The small room glinted and rippled with nickel, polished copper, bronze, and hard rubber. An electric fan lugged to a beam in a corner of the ceiling roiled the stale air with a dismal whine. There was a sinister atmosphere about the place.
The wireless equipment Peter appraised and catalogued with a quick, wise glance, and immediately devoted himself to a shabby black couch which occupied the yellow wall opposite the door.
Upon this ancient divan was established the gaunt frame of a man in uniform. His face was invisible. A pallid, shrunken hand dangled over the edge with the knuckles resting on the red carpet; and a small round head covered with a thatch of mouse-colored hair reclined upon its companion. The breast of the sick man was rising and falling spasmodically; and now and then the fingers on the red carpet trembled.
From the mahogany instrument ledge a telephone cord, brilliantly green, drooped to the nickel and vulcanized rubber receivers clamped upon the sick man’s head.
Peter lifted off the receivers with care, adjusted them to his ears, slipped into the swivel chair; and tapped the detector’s silvery “cat whisker” experimentally. A wave of exquisite nervousness went over him, a sensation not unlike the deep thrill enjoyed by a man who returns after a prolonged absence to the city of his birth.
Bloodshot eyes, yellowed with the poison of the tropical disease, peered wildly at him. This feverish glance was followed by a groan; and the mouse-colored head was once more pillowed upon the white hand.
The receivers were adjusted upon Peter Moore’s sensitive ears before he was fully aware of the impulse that had sent him in such haste to the wireless house; his intentions during the entire voyage out had been to refrain from visiting that alluring place. Sympathy for the neglected operator was behind his act, yet he was governed in all of his actions by a degree of impulsiveness which had, on many past occasions, sent him speeding into delicate situations. To be sure, the City of Amoy was in need of a man at the wireless key; important messages might be in the air.
It seemed many more than the actual number of years since he had last listened to the electrical whispers of the western Pacific, yet the ghostly whispers were unchanged. A silvery, piping voice leagues away, he recognized as an effort on the part of a Japanese gunboat to establish communication with the powerful shore station on Formosa.
Closer at hand issued the plaintive muttering of a P. & O. liner, outbound for England. She was having a word to say to a boat in the Messagerie Maritimes service.
Delicate scratchings and soft murmurings, occurring without plan or intelligence, grated in the head-telephones with a noise like that produced by grains of sand tumbling across tar paper. These noises, known in wireless circles as “static,” were the cracklings of the earth’s atmosphere as it adjusted itself to a state of electrical balance.
The sensitive wireless ear of the City of Amoy registered in tuneless splashes of sound a distant display of heat lightning down Hainan way. It heard the electrical currents moving about restlessly in the earth’s crust, and the conflict between masses of air, cool and warm, which met and duelled with invisible thunderbolts miles above the befogged China Sea.
In addition to these disturbances Peter Moore heard others millions of miles away—the electrical whispers of the stars, the voices of constellations beyond reach of the most powerful telescopes, for the entire starry universe is in a perpetual state of electrical turmoil.
The wireless machine, despite its amazing progress toward perfections, remains in many respects an unsolved mystery. Its phenomena were endlessly fascinating to Peter Moore. That a delicately adjusted receptor gave him access to the wordless and incoherent mutterings of worlds swimming in the velvety star dust ages away from him was always an inspiring realization.
Climbing upon a chair before a wireless machine and fixing the nickeled straps about his hair never failed to give him the feeling that he was in contact with divine currents. Eternity was at his fingertips! Infinity was brought all but within reach of his hypersensitive ears!
In the vicinity of China this feeling was intensified. Near the slowly pulsing heart of the oldest civilized nation he was placed in alignment with the years, those of the molding past and the ones to come out of the future, flowing toward the earth from her remote starry neighbors.
What conceptions of the hereafter he tolerated were reduced to terms of an electrical everlasting heaven. His theory—part-pagan that vivid earlier years in China had made of him—disclosed a spiritual existence wherein moons and stars were populated by the souls of the departed.
The poetic Oriental mind assumes a divine relationship between stars and bodies of water; and Peter, hardly subscribing to that theory even privately, was comforted by it. The ocean had given to him the only woman he had deeply loved; it was the ocean that had taken her.
And are not the suns and stars and moons reflected each for the other upon the face of the ocean?
Such theories, it is true, are discouraged in the logical brains of Christians. Yet Christians who have lived long in the Orient have been known to alter their religious views radically.
And China was the mother soil of Peter Moore’s romantic imagination. China meant more to him than a nation of filth, and yellow, leering faces covering inscrutable souls.
ANOTHER drone was recorded in the head telephones, the harsh sibilance of a low powered steamship apparatus.
Peter adjusted the tuning handle of the receiving coil, pressed the rubber receivers so tightly against his ears that a partial vacuum was formed in them, and tilted his head a little to one side, in an attitude he always unconsciously employed in listening to the indistinct voices of men and wireless machines.
An examination of a typewritten list of steamship call letters tacked on the yellow cracking wall before him divulged that a steamer, the Piung-tu, desired to establish communication with the City of Amoy.
And at the first sound of the Piung-tu’s squeaking, nervous spark—like the voice of a frightened rat—a portrait in full detail, based on past observation, flashed into his mind, of an ancient and disreputable little river boat, which plied in the old golden days between Canton and the Kowloon landing stage, sometimes venturing as far away as Kypong Island. That was his memory of the Piung-tu, now squawking at him through the fog-laden night—a lousy little tramp, infested by river rats and river men of sinister repute and intentions.
Message for the City of Amoy! Message for the City of Amoy! Where are you? Answer me! Are you dead?
Peter clapped the starting handle of the motor-generator rheostat against the magnet, whipped the aerial switch into a transmitting position, and lowered his slender fingers to the rubber knob of the key.
A tongue of violent silver flame exploded harshly in the spark gap, assuring him that the apparatus was in working order.
At the first flash of the bottled white thunderbolt, the man on the couch leaped up as if he had been stung by a snake. He fell back immediately, with one hand grasping the frayed couch edge, the other rubbing feebly his blue, sagging mouth.
Peter gave the sick man a friendly grin, and told the man on the Piung-tu in a succession of jolting white flashes to go ahead. The man on the black couch was watching him with fascination.
The Piung-tu’s spark was bubbling:
Message from Piung-tu to captain City of Amoy at sea. Anchor outside as near Kau-Lung Point as possible. Point search-light straight upward.
Per Gloria Dale.
Another—from Piung-tu to Lieutenant Peter Moore, City of Amoy, at sea. Must see you. Urgent. Expect me off Kau-Lung Point. Sea-ladder. Port side.
(Signed) Gloria Dale.
Peter methodically counted the words in both radiograms, to make sure that his reckoning corresponded with the “check” of the sending operator. He flashed back: “O.K. both,” and added: “Stand by for answer. Moment.”
The man on the couch had by this time discovered enough energy to bring him to his feet. He stood now behind Peter with one anæmic hand resting on the back of the chair. His countenance was struggling damply with the exertion, as if he were bursting with pain and fatigue.
Peter looked gravely over his shoulder with the pencil still in his fingers. The yellow eyes fixed themselves anxiously upon his Oriental blue ones
“Who—who in the devil’r you?” the sick man demanded wildly. “Only one man in the world ever handled a wireless key like that. But you are not that man! Peter Moore will never come back to China!”
“Then one of us,” said Peter with a queer smile, “must be mistaken.”
The operator staggered to the couch and sank down heavily with a groan, as though the reality had fairly overpowered him. He blinked several times.
“I heard you’d gone to war,” he whispered, continuing to stare as if he saw a ghost.
The sick man added faintly: “You ought to remember me. You never saw me before, but you—” His incredulity overcame him again. “Back in China! By all the little devils!”
The bleary eyes were empty of jest as they admiringly traveled from Peter Moore’s cordovan puttees to the single silver bars at his shoulder straps, and proceeded upward to the deep blues eyes and tumbled yellow hair.
“I used to sign ‘VN’ at the Manila station in the old days. You remember ‘VN,’ don’t you?” The voice was trembling with eagerness.
“You’re Bob Nevins!” Peter exclaimed.
“Ah! Don’t forget your invisible friends, do you?” Nevins muttered with satisfaction. “Well, maybe you think some people in these quarters won’t be interested! Moore back in China! A whole dam’ lot of water has gone under the Siong-tsz-kio since you packed your tents!”
Peter’s countenance expressed nothing. The sick man’s look was pathetically eager.
“What—d’you mind telling an old timer what you intend doing in China, now?” Nevins blurted, with his pallid lips expectantly apart.
“I planned to meet Sergeant Jan Sing, of my old company, and his sister, in Hong Kong, and take a trip up the Si-Kiang to their home on the river at Ly-Chang—for a rest,” Peter replied frankly.
“Shall I deliver this message to your captain? ’Phone to the bridge working?”
Nevins seemed frightened.
“Why—yes, if you don’t mind. Awfully thoughtful of you. Ring once for the old man. He’ll be above now. Did you make carbon copies?”
Peter gave him the carbons and went to the wall telephone, while Nevins, after wiping out his eyes with the backs of his hands, examined the crimson blanks.
“Feeling a bit more like standing your watch, Sparks?” an irritable voice came down the telephone wire.
“This is a friend of Sparks,” Peter stated crisply. “I have a message for the captain, from the river boat, Piung-tu.”
“Where did you come from?” replied the irritable voice. “You a passenger?”
“From England,” said Peter.
“You that lieutenant?”
“I thought so! Back to China, and back to your old tricks again, eh?”
“What?” said Peter softly.
“Oh, I know all about you, Moore,” said the voice, no longer irritable. “You left quite a reputation on the China coast. How about that radio?”
Peter read the message, and listened with patience to a profane explosion.
“How in the devil can I find Kau-lung Point on a night like this?” snarled the captain. “And what does that woman want aboard my ship? See here—are you—do you know what this means?”
“It’s Greek to me,” said Peter quietly. “Shall I tell the Piung-tu you’ll try?”
There was a moment of silence. Then—
“Moore, what would you do?”
“I’d tell her to go to the devil,” said Peter.
“That’s because you don’t know Fong-Chi-Ah and his devil woman,” the captain came back wearily. “Tell her we’ll try to make Kau-lung Point. And Moore—”
“Why’ve you been hiding in your shell all this trip? Drop in for a chat when you get through down there. Want to ask you some questions.”
And the telephone line, with a snap, fell dead and empty.
Peter replaced the tiny receiver upon its tiny hook and turned to behold that his new friend, who was yet an old friend, now occupied the red carpet in a disorderly heap, with his blue lips apart, his tongue projecting from his uneven teeth, his eyes lightly shut, and the two crimson message forms lying crumpled upon the nearest outflung hand.
LIFTING the unconscious man in his arms, Peter deposited him gently upon the black couch, with a vague premonition that the little black devils of mystery were stirring.
Assuring himself that the operator’s poisoned heart was performing its difficult labor, he reoccupied the swivel chair and instructed the operator of the river boat that the City of Amoy would endeavor to reach Kowloon Point before midnight.
For private reasons he neglected to answer the message addressed to himself. He did not like the flavor of this affair.
On receipt of the Piung-tu’s squealed “O.K.” he stripped the hot receivers from his ears, dropped them to the blotter, and pressed a wall button beneath which was pasted a pale pink card inscribed in blue crayon with the invitation: “Ring once for deck steward.”
A deck boy of the ancient régime, with polished, hard little eyes, made his appearance shortly, and Peter sent him scurrying for a pitcher of ice water. He was surprised to discover that his knowledge of “pidgin” was not rusty as he had been prepared to believe.
Returning to the couch, he was relieved to see Nevins’s eyelids fluttering. He opened a canvas deck chair, sat down, and pressed his cool palm against the sick man’s inflamed forehead.
“What’s the matter with the officers of this ship?” Peter demanded indignantly. “You ought to be in a hospital.”
The wasted head wagged feebly.
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