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Chapter 6 On The Road To Pekin

  • 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.
  • "Then go!"
  • 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.