A Tiger Hilt
A TIGER HILT—Another Fascinating Story—By
TOPTIT stood on the deck of a red-and-gold, silk-curtained river boat lent him for the trip and gazed out over the most fertile and thickly-crowded-plain in the world—that of the Min river below Chengtu. He was a Yankee, a palpable Yankee, long and loose-jointed and earnest, with a twinkle lurking in his eye which bespoke many unguessed possibilities in that fertile brain of his.
Toptit was on a dangerous errand. He was undoubtedly being trailed by yellow-skinned hands, and he had a half-healed knife wound under his left arm. But all he thought of as he gazed over this historic plain, over the sweet tree-lined river, with its gorgeous pleasure craft and its crowded trading junks, was of a suitable rhyme for "Chengtu." Needless to add, he found none.
Toptit was a poet. You shall not be bored with examples of his art. Suffice it to say that he made known everywhere that he was a poet. This was good for business, and he was in China on business only, and was conducting it along original lines. Chinese gentlemen have no particular regard for dealers and agents who seek antiques, old rugs, or fake Han bronzes, but they have an unqualified respect for poets, whose nature they understand thoroughly. Toptit was in the enviable position of making poetry pay.
At the present moment Toptit was traveling down-river in search of a certain object taken from the grave of Ling Ti, an emperor of the Eastern Han dynasty. Toptit had left his partner, Jim Hanecy, back in Chengtu, and was wandering forth on his own.
"Wandering" is the correct word. He was seeking the floating home of a river pawnbroker and pirate by the name of Kang Ho, who was in possession of a tiger hilt. Toptit had no idea what this tiger hilt was: he was operating on purely verbal information. Whatever it was, he wanted it. As an authentic possession of the Emperor Ling Ti it was worth a fortune to any collector.
HIS boatmen, who were quite reliable, would locate the craft of Kang Ho and put him on board. After that his fate was in his own hands.
"At the best my fate is none too good. Business isn't what it used to be." reflectedwith a sigh, after failing to find any rhyme for Chengtu. "The interior decorators back home have educated the public up to relish being faked. The real stuff is going out of fashion. Fortunately, we always have markets with museums and collectors. I hope this Kang Ho chap will appreciate poetry. I must have an ode to the river all ready to paralyze him with."
He set to work translating his verses into the local dialect, which, luckily, required no rhymes at all. Toptit ignored the fact that agents of a rival dealer were after the tiger hilt: he also ignored the fact that the mandarin of the province was after it for himself, and after Toptit as well. Little things like these did not worry Toptit at all.
About fifteen miles down the river from Chengtu his boatmen located Kang Ho.
The trading junks, after the usual river custom, were all huddled together, irrespective of the fact that the river was wide. Pleasure craft darted about here and there. Gentry of uncertain business, like Kang Ho, went anywhere their houseboats could find enough water.
It was not hard to locate Kang Ho; it would have been hard not to locate him. His craft was a huge house boat, almost a floating fortress. It lay by itself near a little promontory. Alongside it lay the official revenue cutter of the mandarin. Above the two craft hung a haze of black powder smoke, and muskets were banging gayly. As Toptit's little barge drew near two revenue men were flung from the deck of the houseboat and the official cutter withdrew.
Toptit gazed curiously at the gigantic figure of Kang Ho, firing a musket after his late assailants. The riverman was a huge ruffian, nearly seven feet tall, and built in proportion. What his face lacked in refinement it made up in force. Observing the approaching barge, Kang Ho bellowed to his men—a choice lot of scoundrels—and prepared to repel boarders anew. Toptit's head boatman hesitated and came to him for orders.
"Go ahead," said Toptit with a smile.
Kang Ho regarded the foreign devil with a scowling suspicion. Ten feet from the floating fortress Toptit ordered his rowers to back water. He stood in the bow of his craft and started to paralyze Kang Ho with his river ode, which he recited fluently.
YOU must not think Toptit crazy. Quite the contrary! Kang Ho learned a great deal from that ode, which Toptit had composed with cunning skill.
He learned that his foreign devil was a poet, spoke the dialect fairly well, and was under the ban of the law besides. A powerful appeal in this last.
The humor of it struck Kang Ho. The Chinese, and particularly the lower classes, have a strong and rather Rabelaisian sense of humor. Perceiving there was nothing to fear from this foreign devil, feeling quite satisfied with his own recent exploit, and entertaining that fatal sense of curiosity which rules the primitive mind, Kang Ho laid aside his weapons and invited Toptit aboard.
Toptit clambered over the rail of the houseboat and then told his boatmen to go home. They did so without delay.
"I am honored," said Kang Ho, inspecting his visitor. "I am unworthy to entertain so distinguished a guest."
Toptit, who believed in politeness for a time, replied with the customary phrases. About him were clustered the grinning rivermen, exchanging pleasantries and obviously looking forward to his speedy decease.
Toptit, however, remarked to Kang Ho, with his most innocent manner, that so powerful a man deserved to have a real rifle instead of an ancient musket. At this Kang Ho threw two snarling words at his men and they vanished. Kang Ho could take a hint.
"If it will please you to occupy my humble quarters," he told Toptit, "I shall be happy. I must change the location of this poor boat without delay. Presently I shall join you. If you would care to pass the time with a singsong girl, or——"
Toptit blushed and said he preferred to be alone. Accordingly, Kang Ho led him to a cabin amidships, plainly that of the pirate himself. Here he left Toptit—and locked the door when he went out.
So far everything looked perfectly open and clear-cut. Toptit found the room arranged in barbaric splendor with looted goods. On a table, beside an opium outfit, lay an object of bronze, elegantly chased, in the shape of a tiger, and bearing a magnificently incrusted aerugo—a sheened coat laid on by two thousand years of earth action. Toptit picked it up, saw that it was a sword hilt, and realized that he held in his hand the tiger hilt of Ling Ti.
He gazed at it in silent admiration. It resembled malachite rather than bronze, so richly had its long burial enhanced its beauty. Here were red and pearl where the original bronze was exposed; elsewhere a sheen of baffling hues—turquoise blue, rich greens, yellow and white mottlings.
Sighing, Toptit laid down the tiger hilt. Another man might have thought the affair concluded, finished, save for the bargaining, the end in sight. Toptit knew better.
The boat was massively built on the exterior, but the interior was a flimsy shell. As he lighted a cigarette and reclined on a corner divan, the American could hear a musical instrument tinkling somewhere, with a woman's reedy voice rising thinly. From the character of the song, which would, have done much credit to the palmiest composer of Gomorrah, he judged that the ladies aboard the craft were not exactly Sunday school teachers on vacation. The opium layout was richly made, and probably belonged, like the ladies, to Kang Ho.
"All this is very illuminating if not precisely elevating," thought Toptit "If there is nothing better to do, I'd better make myself solid with the tall gentleman."
A table held some fine mandarin's paper, with brushes, water and ink slabs. Toptit sat down and inscribed his ode in flourished ideographs. He was not too sure of his writing and he certainly was no remarkable calligrapher with anything above six-stroke characters. But he turned out a product that could be read. With a larger brush and blacker ink he made a prominent inscription to his friend and patron the heroic Kang Ho.
This done, Toptit pinned the paper to a brocade on the wall. He was still admiring the effect when the door opened and Kang Ho entered.
The brawny pirate saw the paper and read the inscription. His face expanded in a grin of flattered egotism.
"Even as a great mandarin, I am honored by the memorial of a poet," he exclaimed. "Be seated, my friend! This is a lucky day. I believe that you have brought the luck of the five bats with you. Hai, offspring of turtles—hasten!"
IN response to his bellow, two of the crew entered, bearing hot wine, cakes, tea and other light refresh- [missing words] cups of hot wine, then he took from the table the tiger hilt, and leered at Toptit.
"I know about you," he said. "You are one of those foreign devils who go about looking for strange things of ancient times. Well, here is one of those things! I lent a man ten silver liang upon it, but he is dead and cannot claim it again. You have honored me with a great poem. Be pleased to accept this slight gift from me."
Toptit pocketed the bronze with fitting thanks.
"This is an auspicious day, said Kang Ho. "But there was some mention of a rifle."
"Exactly," returned Toptit. I shall give you an excellent rifle if you will send a man to Chengtu when I return. The poem is less than nothing. The rifle is a fitting gift."
"The poem is to the rifle as jade to bass stone," said Kang Ho politely. "None the less, I shall be pleased to have it."
Toptit reflected that with a poem and a rifle he had accomplished what all the power of the mandarin could not have done. None the less, he had an uneasy conviction that the end of this matter was going to be otherwise than the beginning. And he was right. Toptit had an unfortunate knack of getting his business done in remarkably short order—and there were usually complications. It does not always pay to hurry in China. People take things for granted.
Kang Ho was just now taking something very much for granted. There was no way of changing his mind, either, without provoking unpleasant possibilities.
"There is a man with whom I have a feud," said Kang Ho, after his twenty-fourth cup of wine. "He is Ngig Po Tui, from the Yellow river, and he has no business on this river at all. So I shall make him eat gold, and you shall help me."
"To eat gold" does not obtain literally, although many white men think it does. Toptit knew better. He perceived that he was in for some throat-slitting.
"I would suggest," he said calmly, "that you remember I have enemies."
"Ah!" Kang Hoanother cup and grinned. "Enemies are sent to make life interesting for such men as us, my friend. Come, let us go."
He rose. Toptit sighed and followed suit. After all, there was something engaging about this giant ruffian of the river. Besides Toptit could not go back to Chengtu until Kang Ho sent him. He had burned his bridges, and must take the penalty.
"I am a terrible coward," he said, plaintively.
"So am I," and Kang Ho poked him in the ribs with a jovial elbow.
They left the cabin together.
There was a sampan trailing the stern of the craft, and into this Kang Ho dropped. He indicated that Toptit was to follow.
Toptit followed. He guessed that behind the seeming simplicity and ease of the this affair was a good deal he did not yet understand. Also, he had his own method of doing way things, and he had a surprising way of appearing most innocent when he was not.
So he climbed into the the stern of the sampan. Kang Ho waved adieu to the genial pirates at the rail above, and then took a pair of oars amidships. An ordinary sampan is not managed thus but this was no ordinary sampan—it was a boat stolen from some river steamer, cleverly disguised with straw—and Kang Ho was no ordinary pirate.
TOPTIT could see nothing of any enemy. Kang Ho's floating fortress had been moored to the bank beneath some willows, and there was midstream no other craft in the vicinity. Out in midstream a group of salt-junks were crowding each other like a string of silly sheep in a wide meadow.
Kang Ho bent his over his was oars now and grinned. On his head was now perched a coolie's wide hat, and his huge figure was covered by a coat of roughly plaited straw. Now he paused and vouchsafed his guest some enlightenment.
"Ngig Po Tui is smuggling salt and opium from Chungking," he stated "He pays the mandarin at Cheung-tu to protect his industry. Further he sometimes takes commissions to do certain business for the mandarin."
Toptit looked interested. Obviously, this good-humored giant of a pirate was nobody's fool! Ngig, whoever the fellow was, had undoubtedly ingratiated himself with the mandarin who was enjoying a bit of easy graft.
Kang Ho rowed steadily up the river for a space. Then, passing again, he completed his tardy information.
"Ngig Po Tui is a son of many devils," he announced. "It is understood that if you are given passage to your ancestors somebody at the yamen will pay a thousand dollars. So Ngig Po Tui came to me and we agreed to divide the reward. Another five hundred dollars was offered for the bronze object now in your pocket. You will understand that I am taking you and the bronze object to Ngig Po Tui, who offered immediate payment on my half of the reward on delivery.
"What the devil!" ejaculated Toptit. Kang Ho grinned at him with familiar assurance. He returned to the local dialect. "Then you and Ngig Po Tui are not enemies?
"He has not yet awaked to the fact," said Kang Ho complacently.
"Is he near here?"
"Within a mile. Seeing us coming alone, he will suspect nothing. Leave it to me."
Toptit reflected. He had plainly chanced upon a tide in the affairs of men which bade fair to run to his liking—more or less. Springing that poem with the inscription upon Kang Ho had been a lucky stroke. A river pirate, however, even in China, does not throw up a chance at seven hundred and fifty dollars unless there is a prospect of much better pay ahead.
It was not unlikely that Kang Ho intended to obliterate his river enemy, then to destroy Toptit and kill several birds with one stone.
"The big rascal is letting me in for something sweet!" meditated the American, not altogether happily. "He thinks I'll be so grateful for the bronze that I'll be unsuspicious. Well, I won't!"
He watched Kang Ho, but failed to detect anything but good-natured ease in the broad yellow countenance. There had been no question of weapons. This was a queer sort of raiding party, thought Toptit. At all events, he had the bronze in one pocket and an automatic pistol in another pocket—and the shore was not far away.
Kang Ho sent the sampan swirling upstream, keeping close to the bank. Several times he paused to observe the drift, throwing in small bits of straw. Toptit noticed there was a strong backwash along this bank, eddying upstream.
AHEAD there showed a small promontory, heavily bushed with willows. Kang Ho edged along the bank toward this point, making a gesture which enjoined caution on his companion. Toptit watched the proceedings curiously, and just before the sampan came to the end of the promontory Kang Ho laid aside his oars.
From the bow of the sampan the brawny yellow man lifted a small keg. This he placed in the water; it floated, nearly submerged. Kang Ho took a match from his pocket, struck it and held it to the top of the keg. There was a spluttering as a fuse caught., with a gentle shove. Kang Ho sent the keg away and took up his oars. A moment later the sampan was shooting out beyond the promontory.
There broke into view, just around the bend of the willows, a small junk moored out from the bank—a junk with half-furled matting sail, eyes and devil-chasers on the bow and a coolie lazily fishing in the stern. The latter sent up a shrill yell at sight of the sampan, and the junk instantly erupted yellow figures.
Kang Ho laid on his oars, thirty feet distant, and surveyed the junk of Ngig Po Tui with an insolent grin. Toptit was uneasy, for weapons were much in evidence. Besides, Toptit had one eye on that floating keg, which was slowly drifting down past the sampan. He was gripping the edge of the boat nervously, and praying that Kang Ho had made some trials with that fuse before cutting it.
"Hei, Ngig Po Tui!" The bellow of Kang Ho lifted across the water. "I have brought the foreign devil, as I promised, and with him the bronze object. He does not understand our speech."
One of those at the junk's rail made answer. The first alarm was rapidly quieting.
"That is good, Kang Ho. Come aboard."
"Well said, but ill done," responded Kang Ho, chuckling. "I do not come aboard. Meet me on the bank with the money and the foreign devil is yours. But bring only one man with you. Shoot the foreign devil as soon as you like—after the money is in my hands!"
"Very well," came the response.
Two sampans lay alongside the small junk. Into one of them dropped a man. Presently Ngig Po Tui followed him, bearing a bundle—which was evidently "silver-shoe" money. Kang Ho, in the meantime, was lustily rowing past the junk toward the bank ahead. Toptit glanced around for the floating keg, but could perceive nothing of it.
"Now," said Kang Ho to him. "if you have a weapon, be ready! And if you are not a fool you have not come on such an errand unarmed."
Toptit merely nodded assent. The boat slid into the shore, which was gently sloping, lined with bushes and small trees, and from its general lack of cultivation seemed to belong to some temple.
The sampan from the junk bearing Ngig Po Tui and sculled by his single follower was rapidly nearing the shore. Kang Ho stood erect, flung off his wide hat and his straw coat, and lifted one arm in a magnificent gesture.
"Kang Ho strikes!" he bellowed, and the roar was drowned in a blast that rocked him on his feet.
Toptit, though warned, was not prepared. The concussion of the explosion caught him as he was half rising and knocked him flat in the boat. Dazed, half-stunned, he lay against the thwart.
A pall of black powder smoke from the floating keg mine overspread the river bank. Through this fog Toptit saw the other sampan drifting in upon them, Ngig and his companion struggling up from the bottom of the craft into which they had been flung. Then Toptit was aware of the towering figure of Kang Ho, its arm moving swiftly. Two flashes of light sped from the hand of the giant. Knives!
NGIG PO TUI and his oarsman never knew what struck them. They collapsed together, and their sampan gradually drifted out from shore. Through the smoke pall Toptit saw the dim shape of Ngig's junk slowly settling at the bows.
This entire affair passed with lightning rapidity. The explosion was followed by an instant of dead silence. It was in this instant that Kang Ho flung his deadly knives. With the next second the sinking junk emitted a pandemonium of yells and oaths.
"My men will be upon them in a moment!" exclaimed Kang Ho, proudly. Admiration of the man's scheme flashed upon Toptit, who was rising.
Before he could speak, something dropped about his neck and dragged at him. A wild and furious shout from Kang Ho showed that a second noose had fallen. Through the thinning smoke a horde of figures dashed from the bushes and crowded upon the boat.
They were the soldiers of the mandarin. Ngig Po Tui had arranged a clever trap for the river pirate and also for the foreign devil in order to get the whole reward himself.
Toptit perceived that he would be murdered very nicely, and the blame would be laid upon river pirates—probably upon Kang Ho, who would be executed for the crime.
These provincial soldiers from the mandarin's yamen were not the excellent national army men, but they knew their business. Toptit saw the great figure of Kang Ho totter and go down, overturning the boat, and sending the whole crowd of assailants in a pile. As he himself went into the mud Toptit felt the knotted silk cord tighten about his throat, but he did not resist. He was already freeing himself.
Standing knee-deep in the ooze, he calmly held the muzzle of his automatic against the taut cord and fired. If you think this an easy feat under the best of circumstances, try it. Toptit's bullet cut the cord. His second and third bullets dropped two of the men above Kang Ho. The giant river pirate came erect with a bellow.
At this point the yamen soldiers opened fire. If they could not capture they could kill.
Toptit did not wait to see what happened next. He shoved the automatic into his pocket, gently dropped into the water, and went away from there as long as breath would hold him under the surface.
When he came up bullets splashed his face. He gasped new air into his lungs and went down again. He emerged to find himself a goodly distance from shore, where the powder smoke still clung thickly, cloaking the scene.
"This is very pleasant," he reflected, turning on his back and letting himself float. "I seem to have dropped into a private war in which torpedoes, pirates and soldier-bandits all take large shares. The only consolation is that I have the tiger hilt in my pocket. This proves that I am not dreaming. I think Kang Ho would be an excellent subject for an epic poem, or at least an ode in the epic style."
For ten minutes he swam hurriedly, then a heartfelt curse broke from him. He perceived a small, swift craft bearing down to pick him up, and from the flags at the stern saw that it was one of the patrol cutters under jurisdiction of the Chang-tu mandarin.
"A thousand dollars reward—strictly sub rosa—for the foreign devil!" murmured Toptit, philosophically. "That means they'll knock me on the head, take me in and collect the reward—and the newspapers will tell how a promising young American was a victim of river pirates! Damn! This is my finish, all right!
THE American consul at Chungking was on his way up the river to Chengtu to investigate the beet-sugar industry. There was no beet-sugar industry there, so it would make an excellent subject for a special report which would fill many pages and keep the government printing office busy for a while.
The consul sat beneath the awning of his steam launch and watched the river. Something was always happening here—that was one beauty of the Chinese river life. There was no monotony. Since leaving Hsu-chow and starting up the Min to Chengtu on the final two-hundred-mile lap, the consul had witnessed one murder, two free-for-all fights and several other episodes of like interest.
Now, as he lighted his midafternoon cheroot, he descried an unusual incident ahead, and ordered his engineer to slow speed. The consul was not one of your careful sort who fear to make mistakes and allow the line of least resistance. He was a pugnacious Georgian, and had made his official district one place in the world where Americans had no need to call themselves British in order to get consular protection.
He gazed with growing interest at the boat which was slowly floating down the river toward his own craft, and with a word to his helmsman steered toward her. The boat, he saw, was one of the government river patrol maintained to prevent salt smuggling from the mines near Chung-king, and she was in some manifest confusion. Most of her crew were congregated in the bow, where they were engaged in striking at some object just underneath the curving prow and out of their reach.
The consul picked up his binoculars and focused on this object. An instant later he was ordering full speed ahead, and his boys were jumping to load the little brass gun in the bow used for salutes. The little gun roared and the patrol boat leaped into even greater confusion upon observing the rapid approach of the launch flying the American flag. The consul called his No. 1 boy.
"There is a man in the water—a white man," he said. "Have him drawn aboard."
The officer in charge of the patrol boat leaped into the bow and waved his arms hastily, but the consul took no heed. Clinging to a carved projection beneath the painted eyes of the patrol launch was a senseless man whom the consul had recognized, and the Georgian watched as his helmsman laid the two boats alongside with nice precision. Then, seeing that his boys were attending to Toptit, the consul regarded the officer, who was dancing with rage.
"This is very fortunate," he observed suavely. "I perceive that you were about to rescue my countryman. I am the consul of America at Chungking."
"He is not your countryman, excellency," responded the officer angrily. "He is a man of France——"
"You are mistaken. I know him very well," said the consul smiling.
At this the officer changed countenance.
"Very well, excellency," he responded, bowing. "We saw him floating in the river and came to his assistance. Undoubtedly——"
"Undoubtedly that was well done," interrupted the consul, who could be just as bland as any yellow man going. "I shall report your zeal at the yamen. You will be rewarded."
"A man of your excellency's position should not be troubled with drowned bodies," said the officer. "If you will turn over the man to us, we will bring him to Chengtu with all due respect and——"
"He is not drowned, and he is a friend of mine," said the consul. "The matter shall be duly reported at the yamen, so say no more. My papers are at your disposal if you care to see them."
"That is not needed; I have seen your excellency before this."
The officer bowed and turned away with a shrug. The consul ordered full speed ahead, which the engineer made haste to obey. The launch had drifted in close to the east bank, where there were many shallows.
Toptit, whose position under the bow of the patrol boat had nearly drowned him, but had turned most of the blows aimed at him, opened his eyes to meet the consul's smile.
"Hello!" he observed, sitting up. "Say, I've had a devil of a nightmare! Where did you come from, old man?"
"FROM here to there." The consul produced a flask. "Sit steady now till I fix you up a snifter; you need it. What the deuce have you been doing, Toptit, to get the yamen after your hide? Those chaps would have finished you in another minute!"
Toptit felt for his pocket, patted it and then relaxed with an expression of complete bliss.
"Me? Nothing at all," he said in an aggrieved tone. "I've just been taking an excursion to see the river. Hello! If that isn't——"
A familiar voice, lifted in a bellow from the receding bank, drew Toptit hastily to his feet. He observed the figure of Kang Ho excitedly waving from the shore. He waved response and pointed in the direction of Chengtu. The pirate waved in understanding and vanished.
"Great Scott!" exclaimed the consul. "What's all this wigwagging, Toptit? Who was that chap?"
"A friend of mine—name is Kang Ho." Toptit took the drink that was proffered him, then paused before the consul's look or incredulous consternation.
"Kang Ho? Man, you're crazy! It can't be the river pirate of that name—the beggar with a reward of five thousand liang on his head——"
Toptit grinned suddenly. "See here, are you talking to me in an official capacity?" he demanded.
"You bet I am! If you're tied up with that pirate, there's going to be trouble all up and down the line, my son!"
Toptit swallowed his drink.
"Well," he said, "don't you worry about it! That isn't any pirate. That's just a big overgrown kid who got me into a hell of a mess. He'll probably be up at Chengtu in the morning to get a present I promised to give him. I'll introduce you."
"I think," observed the consul, regarding him gravely, "that you're lying, Toptit!"
Toptit chuckled. "Of course. I am. Everybody lies to a consul. Of course, if you weren't in an official capacity——"
"Oh I understand." The consul dropped into a chair and produced cigars. "Here—my boy is getting out some dry clothes now. Tell me while——"
Toptit told his story. He told the exact truth and produced the bronze tiger hilt to prove his words. And yet——
To this very day the consul affirms that Toptit is the most polished liar he ever met.