It was broad daylight when I recovered consciousness, the sunshine wa_treaming into my room, and birds were twittering in the trees outside. Bu_hough I sat up and looked about me I could make neither head nor tail of m_osition; there was evidently something wrong about it. When I had falle_sleep, as I thought, my couch had been spread upon the floor, and wa_omposed of Chinese materials. Now I lay upon an ordinary English bedstead, boasting a spring mattress, sheets, blankets, and even a counterpane.
Moreover, the room itself was different. There was a carpet upon the floor, and several pretty pictures hung upon the walls. I felt certain they had no_een there when I was introduced to the apartment. Being, however, too weak t_xamine these wonders for very long, I laid myself down upon my pillow agai_nd closed my eyes. In a few moments I was once more asleep and did not wak_ntil towards evening.
When I did it was to discover some one sitting by the window reading. At firs_ looked at her—for it was a woman—without very much interest. She seemed par_f a dream from which I should presently wake to find myself back again in th_hinese house with Nikola. But I was to be disabused of this notion ver_peedily.
After a while the lady in the chair put down her book, rose, and came acros_o look at me. _Then it was that I realized a most astounding fact; she wa_one other than Miss Medwin, the girl I had rescued in Tientsin!_ She touche_y hand with her soft fingers, to see if I were feverish, I suppose, and the_oured into a medicine-glass, which stood upon a table by my side, som_octor's physic. When she put it to my lips I drank it without protest an_ooked up at her.
"Don't leave me, Miss Medwin," I said, half expecting that, now I was awake, she would gradually fade away and disappear from my sight altogether.
"I am not going to leave you," she answered; "but I am indeed rejoiced to se_hat you recognise me again."
"What is the matter with me, and where am I?" I asked.
"You have been very ill," she answered, "but you are much better now. You ar_n my brother-in-law's house in Pekin."
I was completely mystified.
"In your brother-in-law's house," I repeated. "But how on earth did I ge_ere? How long have I been here? and where is Nikola?"
"You have been here twelve days to-morrow," she answered; "you were taken il_n the city, and as you required careful nursing, your friend, Dr. Nikola, ha_ou conveyed here. Where he is now I cannot tell you; we have only seen hi_nce. For my own part I believe he has gone into the country, but in whic_irection, and when he will be back, I am afraid I have no idea. Now you hav_alked quite enough, you must try and go to sleep again."
I was too weak to disobey her, so I closed my eyes, and in a few minutes wa_n the land of Nod, once more.
Next day I was so much stronger that I was able to sit up and partake of mor_ourishing food, and, what was still more to my taste, I was able to have _onger conversation with my nurse. This did me more good than any doctor'_hysic, and at the end of half an hour I was a different man. The poor gir_as still grieving for her father, and I noticed that the slightest referenc_o Tientsin flooded her eyes with tears. From what I gathered later the Consu_ad acted promptly and energetically, with the result that the ringleaders o_he mob which had wrecked the house had been severely punished, while the ma_ho had gone further and murdered the unfortunate missionary himself had pai_he penalty of his crime with his life.
Miss Medwin spoke in heartfelt terms of the part I had played in the tragi_ffair, and it was easy to see that she was also most grateful to Nikola fo_he way in which he had behaved towards her. Acting on his employer'_nstructions, Williams had taken her in and had at once communicated with th_onsul. Then when Mr. Medwin had been buried in the English cemetery and th_egal business connected with his murder was completed, trustworthy servant_ad been obtained, and she had journeyed to Pekin in the greatest comfort.
During the morning following she brought me some beef-tea, and, while I wa_rinking it, sat down beside my bed.
"I think you might get up for a little while this afternoon, Mr. Bruce," sh_aid; "you seem so much stronger."
"I should like to," I answered. "I must do everything in my power to regain m_trength. My illness has been a most unfortunate one, and I expect Nikola wil_e very impatient."
At this she looked a little mortified, I thought, and an instant later I sa_hat a stupid thing I had said.
"I am afraid you will think me ungrateful," I hastened to remark; "but believ_e I was looking at it from a very different standpoint. I feel more gratitud_o you than I can ever express. When I said my illness was unfortunate, _eant that at such a critical period of our affairs my being incapacitate_rom work was most inconvenient. You do not think that I am not properl_ensible of your kindness, do you?"
As I spoke I assumed possession of her hand, which was hanging down beside he_hair. She blushed a little and lowered her eyes.
"I am very glad we were able to take you in," she answered. "I assure you m_rother and sister were most anxious to do so, when they heard what a servic_ou had rendered me. But, Mr. Bruce, I want to say something to you. You tal_f this critical position in your affairs. You told me in Tientsin that if yo_ontinued the work upon which you were embarking you 'might never come out o_t alive.' Is it quite certain that you _must_ go on with it—that yo_must_ risk your life in this way?"
"I regret to say it is. I have given my word and I cannot draw back. If yo_nly knew how hard it is for me to say this I don't think you would try t_empt me."
"But it seems to me so wicked to waste your life in this fashion."
"I have always wasted my life," I answered, rather bitterly. "Miss Medwin, yo_on't know what a derelict I am. I wonder if you would think any the worse o_e if I told you that when I took up this matter upon which I am now engaged _as in abject destitution, and mainly through my own folly? I am afraid I a_o good for anything but getting into scrapes and wriggling my way out of the_gain."
"I expect you hardly do yourself justice," she answered. "I cannot believ_hat you are as unfortunate as you say."
As she spoke there was a knock at the door, and in response to my call "com_n," a tall handsome man entered the room. He bore the unmistakable impress o_ missionary, and might have been anything from thirty to forty years of age.
"Well, Mr. Bruce," he said cheerily, as he came over to the bed and held ou_is hand, "I am glad to hear from my sister that you are progressing s_icely. I should have come in to see you, but I have been away from home. Yo_ave had a sharp touch of fever, and, if you will allow me to say so, I thin_ou are a lucky man to have got over it so satisfactorily."
"I have to express my thanks to you," I said, "for taking me into your house; but for your care I cannot imagine what would have become of me."
"Oh, you mustn't say anything about that," answered Mr. Benfleet, for such wa_is name. "We English are only a small community in Pekin, and it would b_ndeed a sorry thing if we did not embrace chances of helping each othe_henever they occur."
As he said this I put my hand up to my head. Immediately I was confronted wit_ curious discovery. When I was taken ill I was dressed as a Chinaman, wore _igtail, and had my skin stained a sort of pale mahogany. What could my kin_riends have thought of my disguise?
It was not until later that I discovered that I had been brought to the hous_n complete European attire, and that when Nikola had called upon Mr. and Mrs.
Benfleet to ask them to take me in he had done so clad in orthodox mornin_ress and wearing a solar topee upon his head.
"Gladys tells me you are going to get up this afternoon," said Mr. Benfleet.
"I expect it will do you good. If I can be of any service to you in you_ressing I hope you will command me."
I thanked him, and then, excusing himself on the plea that his presence wa_equired at the mission-house, he bade me good-bye and left the room.
I was about to resume my conversation with Miss Medwin, but she stopped me.
"You must not talk any more," she said with a pretty air of authority. "I a_oing to read to you for half an hour, and then I shall leave you to yoursel_ill it is time for tiffin. After that I will place your things ready for you, and you must get up."
She procured a book, and seating herself by the window, opened it and began t_ead. Her voice was soft and musical, and she interpreted the author's meanin_ith considerable ability. I am afraid, however, I took but small interest i_he story; I was far too deeply engaged watching the expressions chasing eac_ther across her face, noting the delicate shapeliness and whiteness of th_ands that held the book, and the exquisite symmetry of the little feet an_nkles that peeped beneath her dress. I think she must have suspecte_omething of the sort, for she suddenly looked up in the middle of a passag_hich otherwise would have monopolized her whole attention. Her heightene_olour and the quick way in which the feet slipped back beneath their coverin_onfirmed this notion. She continued her reading, it is true, but there wa_ot the same evenness of tone as before, and once or twice I noticed that th_ords were rather slurred over, as if the reader were trying to think of tw_hings at one and the same time. Presently she shut the book with a littl_nap and rose to her feet.
"I think I must go now and see if I can help my sister in her work," she sai_urriedly.
"Thank you so much for reading to me," I answered. "I have enjoyed it ver_uch."
Whether she believed what I said or not I could not tell, but she smiled an_ooked a little conscious, as if she thought there might possibly be anothe_eaning underlying my remark. After that I was left to myself for nearly a_our. During that time I surrendered myself to my own thoughts. Some wer_leasant, others were not; but there was one conclusion to which I inevitably, however much I might digress, returned. That conclusion was that of all th_irls I had ever met, Miss Gladys Medwin was by far the most adorable. Sh_eemed to possess all the graces and virtues with which women are endowed, an_o have the faculty of presenting them to the best advantage. I could not hel_eeing that my period of convalescence was likely to prove a very pleasan_ne, and you will not blame me, I suspect, if I registered a vow to make th_ost of it. How long I should be allowed to remain with them it was impossibl_or me to say. Nikola, my Old Man of the Sea, might put in an appearance a_ny moment, and then I should be compelled to bid my friends good-bye in orde_o plunge once more into his mysterious affairs.
When tiffin was finished I dressed myself in the garments which had been pu_ut for me, and as soon as my toilet was completed took Mr. Benfleet's arm an_roceeded to a terrace in the garden at the back of the house. Here chairs ha_een placed for us, and we sat down. I looked about me, half expecting to fin_iss Medwin waiting for us, but she did not put in an appearance for som_onsiderable time. When she did, she expressed herself as pleased to see m_bout again, and then went across to where a little Chinese dog was lying i_he sunshine at the foot of a big stone figure. Whether she was always as fon_f the little cur I cannot say, but the way she petted and caressed it on thi_articular occasion would have driven most men mad with jealousy. I don't kno_hat I am in any way a harsh man with animals, but I am afraid if I had bee_lone and that dog had come anywhere near me I should have been tempted t_ake a stick to him, and to have treated him to one of the finest beatings h_ad ever enjoyed in his canine existence.
Presently she looked up, and, seeing that I was watching her, returned t_here we sat, uttered a few commonplaces, more than half of which wer_ddressed to her brother-in-law, and finally made an excuse and returned t_he house. To say that I was disappointed would scarcely be the truth; t_escribe myself as woefully chagrined would perhaps be nearer the mark. Had _ffended her, or was this the way of women? I had read in novels that it wa_heir custom, if they thought they had been a little too prodigal of thei_avours whilst a man was in trouble, to become cold and almost distant to hi_hen he was himself again. If this were so, then her action on this particula_ccasion was only in the ordinary course of things, and must be taken as such.
That I was in love I will not attempt to deny; it was, however; the first tim_ had experienced the fatal passion, and, like measles caught in later life, it was doubly severe. For this reason the treatment to which I had just bee_ubjected was not, as may be expected, of a kind calculated to make m_eelings easier.
Whether Mr. Benfleet thought anything I cannot say, he certainly said nothin_o me upon the subject. If, however, my manner, after Miss Medwin's departur_id not strike him as peculiar, he could not have been the clear-headed man o_he world his Pekin friends believed him. All I know is that when I returne_o the house, I was about as irritable a piece of man-flesh as could have bee_ound in that part of Asia.
But within the hour I was to be treated to another example of the strang_ontrariness of the feminine mind. No sooner had I arrived in the house tha_verything was changed. It was hoped that I had not caught a fresh cold; th_ost comfortable chair was set apart for my use, and an unnecessary footstoo_as procured and placed at my feet. Altogether I was the recipient of as man_ttentions and as much insinuated sympathy as I had been subjected to coldnes_efore. I did not know what to make of it; however, under its influence, i_ess than half an hour I had completely thawed, and my previous ill-temper wa_orgotten for good and all.
Next day I was so much stronger that I was able to spend the greater part o_y time in the garden. On this occasion, both Mr. and Mrs. Benfleet bein_therwise engaged, Miss Medwin was good enough to permit me a considerabl_mount of her company. You may be sure I made the most of it, and we while_he time away chatting pleasantly on various subjects.
At tiffin, to which I sat up for the first time, it was proposed that durin_he afternoon we should endeavour to get as far as the Great Wall, a matter o_ quarter of a mile's walk. Accordingly, as soon as the meal was over, we se_ff. The narrow streets were crowded with coolies, springless private carts, sedan chairs, ponies but little bigger than St. Bernard dogs, and camels, som_aden with coal from the Western Hills, and others bearing brick-tea fro_ekin away up into the far north. Beggars in all degrees of loathsomeness, carrying the scars of almost every known ailment upon their bodies, and i_ine cases out of ten not only able but desirous of presenting us with _eplica of the disease, swarmed round us, and pushed and jostled us as w_alked. Add to this the fact that at least once in every few yards we wer_ssailed with scornful cries and expressions that would bring a blush to th_heek of the most blasphemous coalheaver in existence, accompanied by gesture_hich made my hands itch to be upon the faces of those who practised them. Mi_p with all this the sights and smells of the foulest Eastern city you ca_magine, add to it the knowledge that you are despised and hated by the mos_espicable race under the sun, fill up whatever room is left with the dus_hat lies on a calm day six inches deep upon the streets, and in a storm—an_torms occur on an average at least three times a week—covers one from head t_oot with a coating of the vilest impurity, you will have derived but th_mallest impression of what it means to take a walk in the Streets of Pekin.
To the Englishman who has never travelled in China this denunciation ma_ppear a little extravagant. My regret, however, is that personally I do no_onsider it strong enough.
Not once but a hundred times I found good reason to regret having brought Mis_edwin out. But, thank goodness, we reached the Wall at last.
Having once arrived there, we seated ourselves on a bastion, and looked dow_pon the city. It was an extraordinary view we had presented to us. From th_all we could see the Chi-en-Men, or Great Gate; to the north lay the Tarta_ity. Just below us was a comparatively small temple, round which a multitud_f foot-passengers, merchants, coolies, carts, camels, ponies, privat_itizens, beggars, and hawkers, pushed and struggled. Over our heads rose th_wo great towers, which form part of the Wall itself, while to right and left, almost as far as the eye could reach, and seeming to overlap each other i_ndless confusion, were the roofs of the city, covered, in almost ever_nstance, with a quantity of decaying brown grass, and in many cases havin_mall trees and shrubs growing out of the interstices of the stone_hemselves. Away in the distance we could see the red wall of the "Forbidde_ity," in other words, the Imperial Palace; on another side was the Great Bel_ower, with the Great Drum Tower near it, and farther still the roofs of th_lamaserai. The latter, as you will suppose, had a particular attraction fo_e, and once having seen them, I could hardly withdraw my eyes.
When we had examined the view and were beginning to contemplate making our wa_ome again, I turned to my companion and spoke the thoughts which were in m_ind.
"I suppose, now that I am well again, I shall soon have to be leaving you," _egan. "It cannot surely be very long before I hear from Nikola."
She was quiet for a moment, and then said:
"You mustn't be angry with me, Mr. Bruce, if I tell you that I do no_ltogether like your friend. He frightens me."
"Why on earth should he?" I asked, as if it were a most unusual effect fo_ikola to produce. Somehow I did not care to tell her that her opinion wa_hared by almost as many people as knew him.
"I don't know why I fear him," she answered,"unless it is because he is s_ifferent from any other man I have ever met. Don't laugh at me if I tell yo_hat I always think his eyes are like those of a snake, so cold an_assionless, yet seeming to look you through and through, and hold yo_ascinated until he withdraws them again. I never saw such eyes in my lif_efore, and I hope I never may again."
"And yet he was very kind to you."
"I can't forget that," she answered, "and it makes me seem so ungrateful; bu_ne cannot help one's likes and dislikes, can one?"
Here I came a little closer to her.
"I hope, Miss Medwin, you have not conceived such a violent antipathy to me?"
She began to pick at the mud between the great stones on which we wer_itting.
"No, I don't think I have," she answered softly, seeming to find a source o_nterest in the movements of a tiny beetle which had come out of a hole, an_as now making its way towards us.
"I am glad of that," I replied; "I should like you to think well of me."
"I am sure I do," she answered. "Think how much I owe to you. Oh, tha_readful night! I shall never be able to drive the horror of it out of m_ind. Have you forgotten it?"
I saw that she was fencing with me and endeavouring to divert the conversatio_o a side issue. This I was not going to permit. I looked into her face, bu_he turned away and stared at a cloud of dun-coloured dust that was rising o_he plain behind.
"Miss Medwin," I said, "I suppose into the life of every man there must, sooner or later, come one woman who will be all the world to him. Gladys, ca_ou guess what I am going to say?"
Once more she did not answer; but the unfortunate beetle, who had crawle_nnoticed within reach of her foot, received his death-blow. And yet a_rdinary times she was one of the kindest and most gentle of her sex. Thi_ignificant little action showed me more than any words could have done ho_erturbed her feelings were.
"I was going to say," I continued, "that at last a woman—the one woman, of al_thers—has come into _my_ life. Are you glad to hear it?"
"How can I be if I do not know her?" she protested feebly.
"If _you_ do not," I said, "then nobody else does. Gladys, _you_ are tha_oman. I know I have no right to tell you this, seeing what my presen_osition is, but God knows I cannot help it. You are dearer to me than all th_orld; I have loved you since I first saw you. Can you love me a little i_eturn? Speak your mind freely, tell me exactly what is in your heart, and, come what may, I will abide by your decision."
She was trembling violently, but not a word passed her lips. Her face was ver_ale, and she seemed to find a difficulty in breathing, but at any cost I wa_oing to press her for an answer. I took her hand.
"What have you to say to me, Gladys?"
"What _can_ I say?"
"Say that you love me," I answered.
"I love you," she answered, so softly that I could scarcely hear the words.
And then, in the face of all Pekin, I kissed her on the lips.
Once in most men's lives—and for that reason I suppose in most women'_lso—there comes a certain five minutes when they understand exactly wha_nalloyed happiness means—a five minutes in their little spans of existenc_hen the air seems to ring with joy-bells, when time stands still, and ther_s no such thing as care. That was how I felt at the moment of which I a_riting. I loved and _was_ loved; but almost before I had time to realize m_appiness a knowledge of my real position sprang up before my eyes, and I wa_ast down into the depths again. What right had I, I asked myself, to tell _irl that I loved her, when it was almost beyond the bounds of possibilit_hat I could ever make her my wife? None at all. I had done a cruel thing, an_ow I must go forward into the jaws of death, leaving behind me all that coul_ake life worth living, and with the knowledge that I had brought pain int_he one life of all others I desired to be free from it. True, I did not doub_ut that if I appealed to Nikola he would let me off my bargain, but woul_hat be fair when I had given my word that I would go on with him? No, ther_as nothing for it but for me to carry out my promise and trust to Fate t_ring me safely back again to the woman I loved.
The afternoon was fast slipping by, and it was time for us to be thinkin_bout getting home. I was disposed to hurry, for I had no desire to take _ady through the streets of Pekin after dusk. They, the streets, were ba_nough in the daytime, at night they were ten times worse. We accordingl_escended from the Wall, and in about ten minutes had reached the Benfleets'
bungalow once more.
By the time we entered the house I had arrived at a determination. As a_onourable man there were only two courses open to me: one was to tell Mr.
Benfleet the state of my affections, the other to let Gladys firmly understan_hat, until I returned—if return I did—from the business for which I had bee_ngaged, I should not consider her bound to me in any shape or form.
Accordingly, as soon as the evening meal was finished, I asked the missionar_f he could permit me five minutes' conversation alone. He readily granted m_equest, but not, I thought, without a little cloud upon his face. We passe_nto his study, which was at the other end of the building, and when we go_here he bade me take a seat, saying as he did so:
"Well, Mr. Bruce, what is it you have to say to me?"
Now I don't think I am a particularly nervous man, but I will confess to no_eeling at my ease in this particular situation. I cast about me for a way t_egin my explanation, but for the life of me I could find none that suited me.
"Mr. Benfleet," I said at last in desperation, "you will probably be able t_gree with me when I assert that you know very little about me."
"I think I can meet you there," said the clergyman with a smile. "If I am t_e plain with you, I will admit that I know _very_ little about you."
"I could wish that you knew more."
"For what reason?"
"To be frank, for a very vital one. You will understand when I tell you that _roposed to your sister-in-law, Miss Medwin, this afternoon."
"I must confess I thought you would." he said. "There have been signs an_onders in the land, and though Mrs. Benfleet and I live in Pekin, we ar_till able to realize what the result is likely to be when a man is a_ttentive to a girl as you have been to my sister-in-law of late."
"I trust you do not disapprove?"
"Am I to say what I think?"
"By all means. I want you to be perfectly candid."
"Then I am afraid I must say that I _do_ disapprove."
"You have, of course, a substantial reason?"
"I don't deny it is one that time and better acquaintance might possibl_emove. But first let us consider the light in which you stand to us. Until _ortnight or so ago, neither I, my wife, nor Miss Medwin were aware that ther_as such a person in the world. But you were ill, and we took you in, knowin_othing, remember, as to your antecedents. You will agree with me, I think, that an English gentleman who figures in Chinese costume, and does not furnis_ reason for it, and who perambulates China with a man who is very generall_eared, is not the sort of person one would go out of one's way to accept fo_he husband of a sister one loves. But I am not a bigoted man, and I know tha_ery often when a man has been a bit wild a good woman will do him more goo_han ever the Archbishop of Canterbury and all his clergy could effect. If yo_ove her you will set yourself to win her, and, in sporting parlance, this i_ race that will have to be won by waiting. If you think Gladys is wort_orking and waiting for, you will do both, and because I like what I have see_f you I will give you every opportunity in my power of achieving your end. I_ou don't want to work or to wait for her, then you will probably sheer of_fter this conversation, in which case we shall be well rid of you. And vic_ersa. One thing, however, I think would be prudent, and that is that yo_hould leave my house to-morrow morning."
For the whole of the time that I was absent with Nikola we would no_ommunicate in any way. By this means we should be able to find out the tru_tate of our own minds, and whether our passion was likely to prove lasting o_ot.
"But oh! how I wish that I knew what you are going to do," said Gladys, whe_e had discussed the matter in all its bearings save one.
"I am afraid that is a thing I cannot tell even you," I answered. "I am hemme_n on every side by promises. You must trust me, Gladys."
"It isn't that I don't trust you," she said, with almost a sob in her voice.
"I am thinking of the dangers you will run, and of the long time that wil_lapse before I shall hear of you or see you again."
"I'm afraid that cannot be helped," I said. "If I had only met you before _mbarked on this wild-goose chase things might have been arranged differently, but now I have made my bed and must lie upon it."
"As I said this afternoon, I am so afraid of Nikola."
"But you needn't be. I get on very well with him, and as long as I play fai_y him he will play fair by me. You might tremble for my safety if we wer_nemies, but so long as we remain friends I assure you you need have no fear."
"And you are to leave us to-morrow morning?"
"Yes, darling, I _must_ go! As we are placed towards each other, more tha_riends, and yet in the eyes of the world, less than lovers, it would hardl_o for me to remain here. Besides, I expect Nikola will be requiring m_ervices. And now, before I forget it, I want you to give me the ring I gav_ou in Tientsin."
She left the room to return with it in a few moments. I took it from her and, raising her hand, placed it upon her finger, kissing her as I did so.
"I will wear it always," she said; as she spoke, Mrs. Benfleet entered th_oom. A moment later I caught the sound of a sharp, firm footstep in th_assage that was unpleasantly familiar to me. Then Nikola entered and stoo_efore us.