As we left the last house of the native city of Tientsin behind us the sun wa_n the act of rising. Whatever the others may have felt I cannot say, but thi_ know, that there was at least one person in the party who was heartily gla_o have said good-bye to the town. Though we had only been in it a short tim_e had passed through such a series of excitements during that brief period a_ould have served to disgust even such a glutton as Don Quixote himself wit_n adventurous life.
For the first two or three miles our route lay over a dry mud plain, where th_ust, which seemed to be mainly composed of small pebbles, was driven abou_ur ears like hail by the dawn wind. We rode in silence. Nikola, by virtue o_is pretended rank, was some yards ahead, I followed next; Laohwan came behin_e, and the baggage ponies and the Mafoos (or native grooms) behind him again.
I don't know what Nikola was thinking about, but I'm not ashamed to confes_hat my own thoughts reverted continually to the girl whom I had bee_ermitted the opportunity of rescuing on the previous evening. Her pale swee_ace never left me, but monopolized my thoughts to the exclusion of everythin_lse. Though I tried again and again to bring my mind to bear upon th_nterprise on which we were embarking, it was of no use; on each occasion _ame back to the consideration of a pair of dark eyes and a wealth of nut- brown hair. That I should ever meet Miss Medwin again seemed most unlikely; that I wanted to I will not deny; and while I am about it I will even go s_ar as to confess that, not once but several times, I found myself wishing, for the self-same reason, that I had thought twice before accepting Nikola'_ffer. One moment's reflection, however, was sufficient to show me that had _ot fallen in with Nikola I should in all probability not only have neve_nown her at all, but, what was more to the point, I should most likely hav_een in a position where love-making would not only have been foolish, bu_ndeed quite out of the question.
When we had proceeded something like five miles Nikola turned in his saddl_nd beckoned me to his side.
"By this time," he said, "Prendergast and Eastover will have received th_elegrams I requested Williams to dispatch to them. They will not lose _oment in getting on their way, and by the middle of next week they shoul_ave the priest of Hankow in their hands. It will take another three days fo_hem to inform us of the fact, which will mean that we shall have to wait a_east ten days in Pekin before presenting ourselves at the Llamaserai. Thi_eing so, we will put up at a house which has been recommended to me in th_artar city. I shall let it be understood there that I am anxious to undertak_ week's prayer and fasting in order to fit myself for the responsibilities _m about to take upon me, and that during that time I can see no one. By th_nd of the tenth day, I should have heard from Prendergast and know enough t_enetrate into the very midst of the monks. After that it should be all plai_ailing."
"But do you think your men will be able to abduct this well-known pries_ithout incurring suspicion?"
"They will have to," answered Nikola. "If they don't we shall have to pay th_enalty. But there, you need have no sort of fear. I have the most perfec_aith in the men. They have been well tried, and I am sure of this, if I wer_o tell either of them to do anything, however dangerous the task might be, they would not think twice before obeying me. By the way, Bruce, I don't kno_hat you are looking altogether well."
"I don't feel quite the thing," I answered; "my head aches consumedly, but _on't doubt it will soon pass off."
"Well, let us push on. We must reach the rest-house to-night, and to do tha_e have got a forty-mile ride ahead of us."
It is a well-known fact that though Chinese ponies do not present ver_icturesque outward appearances, there are few animals living that can equa_hem in pluck and endurance. Our whole cavalcade, harness and pack-saddle_ncluded, might have been purchased for a twenty-pound note; but I very muc_oubt if the most costly animals to be seen in Rotten Row, on an afternoon i_he season, could have carried us half so well as those shaggy little beasts, which stood but little more than thirteen hands.
In spite of the fact that we camped for a couple of hours in the middle of th_ay, we were at the rest-house, half-way to Pekin, before sundown. And _retched place it proved—a veritable Chinese inn, with small bare rooms, quit_nfurnished, and surrounded by a number of equally inhospitable stables.
As soon as we arrived we dismounted and entered the building, on the threshol_f which the boorish Chinese landlord received us. His personality was i_eeping with his house; but observing that we were strangers of importance h_ondescended to depart so far from his usual custom as to show us at least th_utward signs of civility. So we chose our rooms and ordered a meal to b_nstantly prepared. Our blankets were unpacked and spread upon the floor o_ur bedrooms, and almost as soon _as_ this was done the meal was announce_s ready.
It consisted, we discovered, of half a dozen almost raw eggs, two tough fowls, and a curiously cooked mess of pork. The latter dish, as every one knows wh_as had anything to do with the Celestial Empire, is one of the staple diet_f all but Mohammedan Chinamen.
Swarms of beggars, loathsome to a degree, infested the place, begging an_hining for any trifle, however insignificant. They crawled about th_ourtyards and verandahs, and at last became so emboldened by success tha_hey ventured to penetrate our rooms. This was too much of a good thing, and _aw that Nikola thought so too.
When one beggar, more impertinent than the rest, presented himself before us, after having been warned repeatedly, Nikola called Laohwan to him and bade hi_ake the fellow outside and, with the assistance of two coolies, treat him t_ supper of bamboo. Any one who has seen this peculiar punishment will neve_orget it; and at last the man's cries for mercy became so appalling as t_arrant my proceeding to the courtyard and bidding them let him go.
After I returned to my room, which adjoined that occupied by Nikola, we sa_alking for nearly an hour, and then retired to rest.
But though I disrobed myself of my Chinese garments, and stretched myself ou_pon the blankets, sleep would not visit my eyelids. Possibly I was a littl_everish; at any rate I began to imagine all sorts of horrible things. Strang_houghts crowded upon my brain, and the most uncanny sounds spoke from th_ilence of the night. Little noises from afar concentrated themselves unti_hey seemed to fill my room. A footfall in the street would echo against th_all with a mysterious distinctness, and the sound of a dog barking in _eighbouring compound was intensified till it might have been the barking of _ozen. So completely did this nervousness possess me that I soon found mysel_iscovering a danger in even the creaking of the boards in an adjoining room, and the chirrup of an insect in the roof.
How long I remained in this state I cannot say. But at last I could bear it n_onger. I rose therefore from my bed and was about to pace the room, in th_ope of tiring myself into sleeping, when the sound of a stealthy footstep i_he corridor outside caught my ears. I stood rooted to the spot, trying t_isten, with every pulse in my body pumping like a piston rod. Again i_ounded, but this time it was nearer my door. There was a distinct difference, however; it was no longer a human step, as we are accustomed to hear it, bu_n equalized and heavy shuffling sound that for a moment rather puzzled me.
But my mystification was of scarcely an instant's duration. I had heard tha_ound before in the Manillas the same night that a man in my hotel wa_urdered. One second's reflection told me that it was made by some on_roceeding along the passage upon his hands and knees. But why was he doin_t? Then I remembered that the wall on the other side of the corridor was onl_ foot or two high. The intruder, whoever he might be, evidently did not wis_o be seen by the occupants of the rooms across the square. I drew back into _orner, took a long hunting-knife that I always carried with me, from beneat_y pillow, and awaited the turn of events. Still the sound continued; but b_his time it had passed my door, and as soon as I realized this, I crep_owards the passage and looked out.
From where I stood I was permitted a view of the narrow corridor, but it wa_mpty. Instinct told me that the man had entered the room next to mine. Sinc_ had first heard him he would not have had time to get any further. Th_djoining apartment was Nikola's, and after the fatigue of the day it was te_hances to one he would be asleep. That the fellow's mission was an evil on_t did not require much penetration to perceive. A man does not crawl abou_onely corridors, when other men are asleep, on hands and knees, for any goo_urpose. Therefore, if I wished to save my employer's life, I knew I must b_uick about it.
A second later I had left my own room and was hastening up the passage afte_im. Reaching the doorway I stood irresolute, trying to discover by listenin_hereabouts in the room the man might be. It was not long before I heard _eavy grunt, followed by a muttered ejaculation. Then I rushed into the room, and across to where I knew Nikola had placed his bed. As I did so I came i_ontact with a naked body, and next moment we were both rolling and tumblin_pon the floor.
It was a unique experience that fight in the dark. Over and over the man and _olled, clinging to each other and putting forth every possible exertion t_ecure a victory. Then I heard Nikola spring to his feet, and run towards th_oor. In response to his cry there was an immediate hubbub in the building, but before lights could reach us I had got the upper hand and was seate_cross my foe.
Laohwan was the first to put in an appearance, and he brought a torch. Nikol_ook it from him and came across to us. Signing me to get off the man whom _as holding, toe bent down and looked at him.
"Ho, ho!" he said quietly. "This is not burglary then, but vengeance. So, yo_ogue, you wanted to repay me for the beating you got to-night, did you? I_eems I have had a narrow escape."
It was as he said. The man whom I had caught was none other than the begga_hose persistence had earned him a beating earlier in the evening.
"What will your Excellency be pleased to do with him?" asked Laohwan.
Nikola saw his opportunity. He told the man to stand up. Then looking hi_traight in the eyes for perhaps a minute, he said quietly:
"Open your mouth."
The man did as he was ordered.
"It is impossible for you to shut it again," said Nikola. "Try."
The poor wretch tried and tried in vain. His jaws were as securely fastened a_f they had been screwed top and bottom. He struggled with them, he tried t_ress them together, but in vain; they were firmly fixed and defied him. I_is terror he ran about the room, perspiration streaming from his face, an_ll the time uttering strange cries.
"Come here!" said Nikola. "Stand before me. Now shut your mouth."
Instantly the man closed his mouth.
"Shut your eyes."
The man did as he was ordered.
"You are blind and dumb; you cannot open either your eyes or your mouth."
The man tried, but with the same result as before. His mouth and eyes wer_irmly sealed. This time his terror was greater than any words could express, and he fell at Nikola's feet imploring him in inarticulate grunts to spar_im. The crowd who had clustered at the door stood watching this strange scen_pen-mouthed.
"Get up!" said Nikola to the miserable wretch at his feet. "Open your mout_nd eyes. You would have murdered me, but I have spared you. Try again wha_ou have attempted to-night, and both sight and speech will be instantly take_rom you and never again restored. Now go!"
The man did not wait to be bidden twice, but fled as if for his life, partin_he crowd at the doorway just as the bows of a steamer turn away the water o_ither side.
When only Laohwan remained, Nikola called him up.
"Are you aware," he said, "that but for my friend's vigilance here I shoul_ow be a dead man? You sleep at the end of the passage, and it was your dut_o have taken care that nobody passed you. But you failed in your trust. No_hat is your punishment to be?"
In answer the man knelt humbly at his master's feet.
"Answer my question! What is your punishment to be?" the same remorseles_oice repeated. "Am I never to place trust in you again?"
"By the graves of my ancestors I swear that I did not know that the man ha_assed me."
"That is no answer," said Nikola. "You have failed in your duty, and that is _hing, as you know, I never forgive. But as you have been faithful in al_lse, I will not be too hard upon you. In an hour's time you will saddle you_orse and go back to Tientsin, where you will seek out Mr. Williams and tel_im that you are unsatisfactory, and that I have sent you back. You wil_emain with him till I communicate with you again. Fail to see him or to tel_im what I have said, and you will be dead in two days. Do you understand me?"
Once more the man bowed low.
Without a word the fellow rose to his feet and went towards the door. In m_wn heart I felt sorry for him, and when he had left, I said as much t_ikola, at the same time inquiring if he thought it prudent to make an enem_f a man who held our lives in his hand.
"My friend," he answered, "there is a Hindu proverb which says, 'A servant wh_annot be trusted is as a broken lock upon the gateway of your house.' As t_hat you say about prudence, you need have no fear. I have had many dealing_ith Laohwan, and he knows me. He would rather die the death of a Thousan_uts than betray me. But while I am blaming him I am forgetting to do justic_o you. One thing is very certain, but for your intervention I should not b_alking to you now. I owe you my life. I can only ask you to believe that, i_ver the chance occurs, you will not find me ungrateful."
"It was fortunate," I said, "that I heard him pass along the passage, otherwise we might both have perished."
"It was strange, after all the exertions of the day, that you should have bee_wake. I was sleeping like a top. But let me look at you. Good heavens, man! _old you this morning you were looking ill. Give me your wrist."
He felt my pulse, then stared anxiously into my face. After this he took _mall bottle from a travelling medicine-chest, poured a few drops of what i_ontained into a glass, filled it up from a Chinese water-bottle near by, an_hen bade me drink it. Having done so I was sent back to bed, and within fiv_inutes of arriving there was wrapped in a dreamless sleep.
When I woke it was broad daylight and nearly six o'clock. I felt considerabl_etter than when I had gone to bed the previous night, but still I was by n_eans well. What was the matter with me, however, I could not tell.
At seven o'clock an equivalent for breakfast was served to us, and at half- past the ponies were saddled and we proceeded on our journey. As we left th_nn I looked about to see if I could discover any signs of poor Loahwan, bu_s he was not there I could only suppose he had accepted Nikola's decision a_inal and had gone back to Tientsin.
As usual Nikola rode on ahead, and it was not difficult to see that the stor_f his treatment of his would-be murderer had leaked out. The awe with whic_e was regarded by the people with whom we came in contact was most amusing t_itness. And you may be sure he fully acted up to the character which had bee_iven him.
After halting as usual at midday we proceeded on our way until four o'clock, when a pleasurable sensation was in store for us. Rising above the monotonou_evel of the plain were the walls of the great city of Pekin. They seemed t_tretch away as far as the eye could reach. As we approached them they gre_ore imposing, and presently an enormous tower, built in the usual style o_hinese architecture, and pierced with innumerable loop-holes for cannon, appeared in sight. It was not until we were within a couple of hundred yard_f it, however, that we discovered that these loop-holes were onl_ounterfeit, and that the whole tower was little more than a sham.
We entered the city by a gateway that would have been considered insignifican_n a third-rate Afghan village, and, having paid the tolls demanded of us, wondered in which direction we had best proceed, in order to find the lodging_o which our friend in Tientsin had directed us.
Having pressed a smart-looking youth into our service as guide, we wer_onducted by a series of tortuous thoroughfares to a house in a mean quarte_f the city. By the time we reached it it was quite dark, and it was onl_fter much waiting and repeated knockings upon the door that we contrived t_ake those within aware of our presence. At last, however, the door opened an_n enormously stout Chinaman stood before us.
"What do you want?" he asked of Nikola, who was nearest to him.
"That which only peace can give," said Nikola.
The man bowed low.
"Your Excellency has been long expected," he said.
"If you will be honourably pleased to step inside, all that my house contain_s yours."
We followed him through the dwelling into a room at the rear. Then Nikola bad_im call in the chief Mafoo, and when he appeared, discharged his account an_ade him be gone."
"We are now in Pekin," said Nikola to me as soon as we were alone, "and i_ehooves us to play our cards with the utmost care. Remember, as I have s_ften told you, I am a man of extreme sanctity, and I shall guide my life an_ctions accordingly. There is, as you see, a room leading out of this. In it _hall take up my abode. You will occupy this one. It must be your business t_ndertake that no one sees me. And you must allow it to be understood that _pend my time almost exclusively in study and upon my devotions. Every nigh_hen darkness falls I shall go out and endeavour to collect the information o_hich we stand in need. You will have charge of the purse and must arrange ou_ommissariat."
Half an hour later our evening meal was served, and when we had eaten it, being tired, we went straight to bed. But I was not destined to prove of muc_ssistance to my friend, for next morning when I woke my old sickness ha_eturned upon me, my skin was dry and cracked, and my head ached t_istraction. I could eat no breakfast, and I could see that Nikola was growin_ore and more concerned about my condition.
After breakfast I went for a walk. But I could not rid myself of the heavines_hich had seized me, so returned to the house feeling more dead than alive.
During the afternoon I lay down upon my bed, and in a few minutes los_onsciousness altogether.