"Come," said Nikola, when the last sounds of Edgehill's departure had die_way; "there is no time to lose; let us dress."
I followed him into an adjoining room, which, though somewhat larger than tha_n which we had hitherto sat, was even more poorly furnished. Here a number o_resses lay about on chairs, and from these Nikola chose two.
"The first thing to be considered," he said, as he seated himself on a chai_nd looked at me, "is that we have to change the form of our disguises i_lmost every particular. I have been thinking the matter most carefully out, and, as I said just now, we are going to be entirely different men. I shall b_he Priest of Hankow, you will be his secretary. Here are your things; _hould advise you to dress as quickly as you possibly can."
I took him at his word, and appropriating the garments he assigned to me, returned with them to the front room. At the end of a quarter of an hour I wa_o longer an Englishman. My dress was of the richest silk, figured an_mbroidered in every conceivable fashion, my shoulders were enclosed in a gre_loak of the finest texture, my pigtail was of extraordinary length an_hickness, while my sandals and hat were of the most fashionable make. If m_ank had been estimated by the gorgeousness of my attire and the value of th_aterial, I might have been a Taotai of a small province, or secretary to som_etropolitan dignitary. When I had dressed myself I sat down and waited fo_ikola to make his appearance.
A short while later a tall gaunt Chinaman, certainly fifty years of age, upo_he chin of whose weather-beaten countenance an ill-trimmed beard wa_eginning to show itself, came into the room, accompanied by a smaller ma_uch bent with age. I was resolved not to be hoodwinked this time, so I sai_n Chinese to the man who entered first, and who I estimated was neare_ikola's size:
"You've not been long in getting ready."
"It would be folly to be slow," he answered; "we have much to do," and the_ithout another word led the way down the passage towards the rear of th_ouse. Arriving at the yard we discovered a perfect cavalcade drawn up. Ther_ere several led ponies, half a dozen mounted men, and about twice that numbe_f hangers on.
"One word," I said, drawing Nikola, as I thought, on one side. "What part am _o play in this pageant?"
"Is there not some little mistake?" the man said. "For whom do you take me?"
"For my master," I answered.
"Then I'm afraid you have chosen the wrong man," he returned. "If you want Dr.
Nikola, there he is mounting that pony yonder."
I could hardly believe my eyes. The second man resembled Nikola in no possibl_articular. He was old, thin, and nearly bent double. His face was wrinkle_nto a hundred lines, and his eyes were much sunken, as also were his cheeks.
If this were Nikola he might have gone through the whole length and breadth o_hina without any fear of his identity being for one moment questioned. I wen_cross to him, and, scarcely believing what I had been told, addressed him a_ollows:
"If you are Nikola," I said—"and I can hardly credit it—I want you to give m_y instructions."
"You don't recognize me then?" he whispered. "I'm glad of that; I wanted t_ry you. I thought to myself, if he does not find me out it is scarcely likel_hat any one else will. Your own disguise is most excellent; I congratulat_ou upon it. With regard to your position, you are of course supposed to be m_ecretary. But I will give you a few points as we proceed. Now let us b_tarting."
"But first, who is the man whom I mistook for you?"
"He is a fellow for whom I sent to Tientsin while you were ill; and as I hav_aken some trouble to ensure his fidelity you need have no fear of hi_etraying us. He will only accompany us as far as the Llamaserai, and then, having posed as chief of my retinue, he will leave us and return to the coast.
Now mount your animal and let us start."
I went back to my pony, and when I was in the saddle we filed slowly out o_he gateway, down the crowded street and through the gates towards the Yung- Ho-Kung, or the great Llama temple. This enormous building, which has th_eputation of being one of the most inaccessible places in China to Europeans, is located on the outskirts of the city, nearly five miles from the quarter i_hich Edgehill's house was situated.
Remembering its sinister reputation, you may imagine my sensations as we rod_p to the first great gate. I could not help wondering what the Fates had i_tore for us inside. For all I knew to the contrary I might be destined neve_o see the world outside the walls again. It was not a cheering thought, and _ried to divert my attention from it by looking about me.
Strangely enough the first two gates were by no means hard to pass, but at th_hird the real difficulty began.
It was shut in our faces, and though we knew our coming had been observed b_hose inside, not a sign of any living soul presented itself. An awe-inspirin_ilence reigned in the great building, and for some time our servants hammere_pon the door in vain. Then a shaven head appeared at a small grille an_nquired our business.
Whether the answer he received was satisfactory or not I could not say, bu_eeing that it did not unbar the gate, Nikola rode forward and, leaning ove_n his saddle, said something in a low voice. The effect was magical: th_oors flew open instantly. Then a man came forward and assisted Nikola t_light. He signed to me to do the same, and I accordingly dismounted besid_im. As I did so a servant approached him and, greeting him with the utmos_everence, never daring to raise his eyes to his face, said something which _ould not hear. When he had got through with it Nikola turned to me, and bad_e pay off the men. I did so, and they immediately returned to the city by th_ay they had come. Then turning to the monk who was still waiting, Nikol_aid, pointing to me:
"This is my secretary. He is necessary to my well-being, so I beg that he ma_e allowed to enter with me." The monk nodded, and then the gate being opene_ide we passed through it. Once inside we ascended, by means of a long fligh_f stone steps, to a courtyard, round which were a number of small stone room_ot unlike cells. In the centre stood an enormous wooden statue of Buddh_hich riveted the attention at once; the figure was at least seventy fee_igh, was covered with all sorts of beautiful ornamentation, and held a_normous flower resembling a lotus in either hand. On its head was a gol_rown, and in each section of the latter I could discern a smaller image, reproducing the large one in every particular.
Above the cells, just described, were a series of long galleries, which wer_eached by stairs from the courtyard, and above them again rose roof afte_oof and tower after tower. From this terrace, if one may so call it, w_assed on to another, the approach to which was guarded by two magnificen_ronze lions. Making our way through many temples, each decorated with Chines_angings, to say nothing of ornaments in gold, silver, ivory, bronze an_namel, we came at last to one where we were requested to wait while ou_uide, who was evidently a person in authority, went off in search of the Hig_riest.
For nearly twenty minutes we remained alone together. The place was eerie i_he extreme. The wind, entering by the windows on either side, rustled th_ong silken hangings; there was an intolerable odour of joss-sticks; and, a_f this were not enough, we had the pleasure of knowing that we were onl_mpostors, dependent upon our wits for our lives. If but one suspicion entere_he minds of those we were deceiving, we might consider ourselves as good a_ead men. In such an enormous building, unvisited by foreigners, and ownin_ardly any allegiance—if indeed such a feeble reed could help us—to th_mperor of China, the news of our death would excite no concern, and we woul_e as completely lost as the bubble which rises majestically from a child'_ipe, only to burst unnoticed in mid-air.
As I watched the morning light playing among the hangings and listened to th_ooming of a gong which came to us from some distant part of the building, _ould not help thinking of the sweet girl to whom I had plighted my troth, an_ho at that very moment might also be thinking of me and wondering how _ared. That I did not deserve such consideration on her part was only to_ertain, for surely never in the history of the world had a man embarked upo_ more foolish undertaking. Columbus in his lonely little ship ploughing it_ay across the unknown ocean in search of a continent, the existence of whic_t times _he_ must almost have doubted himself, was not one whit les_esperate than we were at that moment. Franklin amid the ice, unconsciou_hether another week might not find his vessel ground to powder between th_ce floes, and himself floating in the icy water, was not one tittle neare_eath than we were while we waited for an audience with the father abbot o_his most awesome monastery.
At the end of the twenty minutes my ears—which of late had bee_reternaturally sharp—detected the pattering of sandalled feet upon the ston_taircase at the further end of the room. Next moment three figures appeared, two of whom were leading a third between them. The supporters were men in th_rime of life. The third must have been at least eighty years of age. On_lance was sufficient to show me that he was not a pure Mongol, but ha_robably Thibetan blood in his veins. Both he and his monks were attired i_he usual coarse dress of the Buddhist priests, their heads being as destitut_f hair as a billiard ball.
Having brought the old fellow down to the bottom of the stairs, the young me_eft him there, and returned up the steps again. Then it was that we made th_iscovery that, besides being old and infirm, the High Priest of th_lamaserai was nearly blind. He stood perfectly still for a moment after h_ad entered, a queer trembling figure, dressed in dingy yellow. Finally, wit_ands outstretched, he came towards where we stood.
"I beg you to tell me," he said, "who you are, and how it comes about that yo_hus crave our hospitality?"
He put the question in a high tremulous voice, more like a woman's than _an's.
"I am the Priest of the Temple of Hankow," said Nikola gravely. "And I am her_or reasons that are best known to those who called me."
"If it is as you say, how shall I know you?"
"Is the moon no longer aware that there are little stars?" asked Nikola, speaking with a perfection of accent that no Chinaman living could hav_xcelled.
"Yea, but the dawn makes all equal," replied the old man. "But if you be h_hom we have expected these last three weeks, there are other means whereb_ou can assure us of the truth of what you say."
Nikola slipped his right hand inside his long outer jacket and drew from hi_ocket the tiny stick he had obtained from Wetherell, and handed it to the ol_an. No sooner had he received it, and run his fingers over the quaint Chines_haracters engraved upon it, than the old fellow's demeanour changed entirely.
Dropping upon his knees he kissed the hem of Nikola's dress.
"It is sufficient. I am satisfied that my lord is one of the Masters of Lif_nd Death. If my lord will be pleased to follow his servant, accommodatio_hall be found for him."
As he spoke he fumbled his way towards the staircase by which he had entere_he room. Nikola signed to me to follow, and in single file we made our way t_he room above. As we went I could not help noticing the solidity of th_uilding. The place might have withstood a siege with the greatest ease, fo_he walls were in many cases two feet, and in not a few nearly three fee_hick.
The stairs conducted us to a long passage, on either side of which were smal_ooms or cubicles. Leaving these behind us, we approached another flight o_teps which led to the highest floor of the building. At the end of a lon_orridor was a small ante-chamber hung round with dark coloured silks, just a_e had seen hi the great hall below. From this we entered another nearly twic_he size, which was lighted with three narrow windows. From one of these, _fterwards discovered, a good view of the city of Pekin was obtainable.
As soon as we were safely inside, the High Priest assured us, in a quaverin_oice, that everything we might find in his humble dwelling was at ou_isposal, and that we might consider his rooms our home during our stay in th_onastery. Then, with another expression of his deep respect, he left us, presumably to see that some sort of meal was prepared for us. As soon as th_ound of his steps had died away Nikola leaped to his feet.
"So far so good," he cried. "He does not suspect us you see. We have playe_ur parts to perfection. Tomorrow, if I can only get him into the proper fram_f mind, I'll have the rest of the information I want out of him before he ca_urn round."
For the rest of that day we amused ourselves perambulating the building, walking slowly with dejected bearings whenever we met any of the monks, greeting the various shrines with deepest reverences, prostrating ourselves a_he altars, and in every way, so far as lay in our power, creating th_mpression that, in the practices of our faith, we were without our equals. A_ive o'clock we participated in the usual evening service held in the grea_all, and for the first time saw the monks assembled together. A mor_isreputable crew, I can unhesitatingly assert, I had never seen before. The_ere of all ages and of all ranks, but, so far as I could tell, there was no_ face amongst them that did not suggest the fact that its owner was steepe_o the eyebrows in sensuality and crime. Taken altogether, I very much doub_f, for general blackguardism, their equal could have been found in the lengt_nd breadth of Asia. Also I could not help speculating as to what sort of _hance we should stand if our secret should happen to be discovered, and w_ere compelled to run the gauntlet of the inmates. The service was not a lon_ne, and in something under half an hour we were back in our rooms again. The_ikola was summoned to an interview with the High Priest, and, while he wa_way, I wandered downstairs and strolled about the courtyards.
It was the time of the evening meal, and those monks who had already dined, were lolling about smoking, and gossiping over the affairs of the day. Wha_hey thought of my presence there I could not tell, but from one or tw_emarks I heard it struck me that I was not regarded with any too much favour.
At the end of one of the courtyards, that in fact in which we had noticed th_arge statue of Buddha, there was a well, and round the coping were seate_uite a dozen men. Their quaintly coloured garments, their shaven heads an_heir curiously constructed pipes, backed by the rosy glow of the sunset, constituted a most picturesque and effective group. I crossed towards them, and bowing to the party, seated myself in a place which had just been vacated.
One of those present was an accomplished story-teller, and was in the middl_f a lengthy narrative bristling with gods, devils, virtuous men, and reveren_ncestors, when I sat down to listen. After he had finished I applaude_igorously, and being desirous of ingratiating myself with the company, calle_or silence and commenced a tale myself. Fortunately it was received wit_onsiderable favour, but I could not help noticing that my success was no_ery palatable to the previous narrator. He had been watching me ever since _oined the circle, and it struck me as I proceeded with my story that hi_nterest increased. Then, like a flash, the knowledge dawned upon me that _ad seen him before. As I remembered the circumstance a cold sweat of fea_urst out upon me, my voice shook under my emotion, and in trying to thin_hat I had better do, I lost the thread of my narrative. I saw my listener_ook up in surprise, and an expression of malignant satisfaction came into m_ival's face. Instantly I pulled myself together and tried to continue as i_othing out of the common had occurred. But it was too late; I had arouse_uspicion, and for some reason or another the men had come to the conclusio_hat all was not right. How bitterly I regretted having joined the circle a_ll I need not say! But it was no use crying over spilt milk, so after awhil_ made an excuse and left them to their own devices, returning to the room_et apart for the use of Dr. Nikola and myself. Fortunately he was alone. No_nowing, however, who might be about, I did not address him at once, but sa_own near the door and waited for him to speak. He very soon did so.
"I have been wanting you," he said rather sharply. "What have you been doin_his hour past?"
"Wandering about the building," I answered, "and at the same time discoverin_omething which is the very reverse of pleasant."
"What do you mean," he asked, his eyes—for he had removed hi_pectacles—glittering like those of a snake.
"I mean that there is a man in this monastery whom I have met before," I said,
"and under very unpleasant circumstances."
"Do you think he recognizes you?"
"I hope not," I answered; "but I fear he does."
"Where did you meet him, and why do you say 'unpleasant'?"
"It was in Canton," I answered, "and this fellow tried to break into my house.
But I caught him in time, and in the fight that followed he stabbed me in th_rist. I carry the mark to this day. Look at it for yourself. He would hav_een executed for it had not the magistrate before whom he was brough_ossessed a personal grudge against me and allowed him to escape."
"Let me look at the mark," said Nikola.
I gave him my left hand, pulling up my sleeve as I did so, that he might hav_ better view of it. Half way across, a little above the wrist bone, was _ong white scar. Nikola gazed at it attentively.
"This is serious," he said. "You will have to be very careful, or that ma_ill carry his news to the High Priest, and then we shall be nicely caught.
For the future make it your habit to walk with your hands folded beneath you_leeves, and take care who you let come up beside you."
"I will remember," I answered, and as I spoke the great gongs, calling th_onks to the last service of the day, boomed out from the courtyard below.
Being determined not to show ourselves lacking in religious zeal we descende_o the large hall, which we found already filled with worshippers. Nikola, b_irtue of his sanctity, took up his place in a prominent position, hard b_here sat the High Priest himself. I was near the western wall, surrounded b_ set of the most loathsome and blackguardly ruffians it would be possible t_magine. At first I took but little notice of them, but when a new monk cam_p and pushed his way in alongside me my suspicions were aroused. It was no_ong before they were confirmed; the man next to me was the fellow who ha_ooked at me in such a curious fashion when we were seated round the well, an_bout whom I had spoken to Nikola only a few minutes before. But even if h_ecognized me he did not allow a sign to escape him to show that he did.
Throughout the service he occupied himself completely with his devotions, turned his face neither to the right hand nor to the left, and it was no_ntil we were about to rise from our knees that he came out in his tru_olours. Then, just as I was half on to my feet, he stumbled against me wit_uch violence that I fell back again and rolled over on to the floor. The_ike lightning he sprang forward, seized me by the arm, and tearing back m_leeve looked at the scar upon my wrist. As he did so he allowed a little cr_f triumph to escape him. For a moment I lay where I had fallen, too confuse_nd horror-stricken at what had happened to say or do anything, and yet I kne_hat unless I acted promptly we were ruined indeed.
By this time the hall was more than half empty. I could see Nikola standing a_he further end talking earnestly to the High Priest. To interrupt him woul_e akin to sacrilege; so after I had risen, and when the man had left me an_urried out after the others, I stood at a little distance and waited for hi_o notice me. As soon as he looked my way I placed three fingers of my righ_and upon my forehead, a sign we had agreed to use whenever danger threatene_s and it was necessary to act quickly. He saw my meaning, and a moment later, making some excuse, bade the High Priest good-night, and signing to me t_ollow him, retired to his dormitory.
As soon as we had reached it he turned sharply upon me, his eyes, in hi_xcitement, blazing in his head like live coals.
"What further news have you to tell me?" he asked. "Only that I a_iscovered," I answered. "While we were at prayers downstairs the man whom _uspected this evening pushed himself in next to me. I took the precaution t_eep my hands covered with my sleeves lest he should see the scar he ha_nflicted. I could not move away from him for obvious reasons, and when th_ervice was over I flattered myself that I had outwitted him. But he was a_harp as I, and just as I was rising from my knees he lurched against me an_ushed me down upon the floor. Naturally I put up my hands to save myself, an_s I did so he seized upon my wrist."
For some minutes Nikola did not speak. He walked up and down the room like _aged tiger.
"This will put us in a nasty fix," he said at last; "and one mistake at thi_uncture will ruin everything. He will, of course, go direct to the Hig_riest in order to reveal his discovery, then that worthy will come to me, an_ shall be compelled to produce you. You will be found to be an Englishman, disguised, and as soon as that is discovered we'll see the gleaming of th_nives. This has come at a most unfortunate time, for by to-morrow morning, i_ll had gone well, I should have got the information I wanted, have been tol_he word that would admit us to the monastery in the mountains, and we coul_ave left this place in safety. However, there is no time to waste talking o_hat might have been. I must work out some scheme that will save us, and a_nce. You had better go into the inner apartment and leave me alone."
As he spoke I detected the sound of footsteps on the stairs. I ran into th_nner room and drew the heavy curtain across the door. A moment later the Hig_riest, accompanied by two or three of the principal monks and the man who ha_iscovered me, entered the room. Looking through a hole in the curtain I sa_hat Nikola had dropped upon his knees and was occupied with his devotions. O_bserving this the High Priest and his satellites came to a dead stop. Nikol_as in no hurry, but kept them waiting for at least ten minutes. Then he ros_nd turned towards them.
"What does this mean?" he asked sternly; "and how is it that this rabbl_ntrudes upon my privacy? Begone all of you!"
He waved his arm, and the men departed, but none too pleasantly;
"Now, my father," he said to the High Priest, who had watched thes_roceedings with no small amount of surprise, "what is it that you require o_e?"
"Nay, my lord," said the man he addressed, "be not angry with thy servants.
There is without doubt some mistake, which will soon be made clear. I hav_ome to thee because it has been asserted by a young priest that he, whom yo_all your secretary, is not a Chinaman at all, but a certain barbaria_nglishman, called by the heathen name of 'Bruce.' I cannot believe that thi_s so. How long has my lord known the man?"
"It is unseemly that I should be questioned in this fashion," began Nikol_ngrily. "If the man were what thou sayest, what matter is it to thee or t_ny one? Yet, lest it breed mischief, I will answer. What thy servant says i_alse. The man is as true a countryman of thine as the Emperor himself. Ther_s malice in this accusation, and it shall be sifted to the dregs. Let u_ecide the matter in this way. If it should be as thou sayest, then to-morro_orning I will have the dog out, and he shall answer for his duplicity wit_is barbarian life. If not, then, I will tear the tongue of that lying knave, thy priest, out of his mouth. To-night I have to offer many prayers, and I a_eary, so let it be decided between us in the great hall to-morrow morning."
"It shall be as you say," said the old man. "Do not let there be hard word_etween us, my lord. Have no fear; if the man be all thou sayest my servan_hall surely pay the penalty."
Having said this he bowed himself before Nikola, and then departed from th_oom. As soon as the sound of his footsteps had ceased upon the stone stair_ikola came in to me.
"They have gone," he said. "And now we have got to find a way out of thi_ifficulty."
"It would seem impossible," I answered doubtfully.
"Nothing is impossible," Nikola answered. "I hate the word. We've got at leas_ix hours before us in which to do something, and if we want to save our live_e had better look sharp and decide what that something is to be."