A Story of the Orient
By H. Bedford-Jones
WE WERE in the lounge room or the club, at Tientsin, at the moment.
"Business has nothing to do with romance," observed Toptit sagely, "but the romance of business has a good deal to do with the business of romance, if you get my meaning."
"That," said Crayton, coarsely, "is because you're a poet and a fool, Tomtit!"
A stiff silence followed. The boys discreetly vanished. We all thought that Toptit had been goaded far enough by Crayton, and we secretly hoped there would be a knockdown and a scandal, so that we could kick Crayton out of the club.
Toptit only smiled, and patted his dress tie with an air of approval. He quite ignored the "Tomtit" which Crayton invariably flung at him.
"My good Crayton," he said pleasantly, "you don't like me. Why?"
Crayton glared savagely at him.
"I'll tell you why! Because you've come to China a green cub and are running wild up and down the coast, that's why! You and your poetry and your dashed nonsense—it'll ruin business for the rest of us!"
"Hope so," said Toptit sweetly. "It won't ruin my business, though! You can't make friends among Chinese gentlemen by eulogizing their treasures in verse; I can. You go around buying jewels and paintings and things with money! I buy 'em with money plus poetry, which means a lot more to an impoverished classical scholar."
"All bull!" growled Crayton. getting red. "You and your classical rot!"
Toptit regarded him with a maddening suavity.
"Ah!" he said, putting a singular meaning into the word. "Ah! Let me tell you something. I'm off for Fuchow in the morning, to get that screen from the old mandarin Wing.
AT this, Crayton came bouncing out of his chair. His hand slipped toward his armrest, and for an instant I thought he meant to shoot Toptit. Rank murder was in his eyes. Then he mastered himself, and stood there trembling with fury.
"Look here!" His voice was thick and hoarse. "I've been after that screen for a year. I mean to get it. I have an order for it. It's mine! If you butt into my affairs, I'll run you out of China! Understand that?"
Toptit, who was rather lanky, but singularly graceful and alert, bowed mockingly from his hips. That bow should have warned Crayton, for few men can manage it aright, and those few are dangerous.
"Thank you, my dear Crayton," he answered, his wide and homely mouth transfigured by a smile of genuine pleasure. "Ithe challenge gladly! I return your verbal gauntlet with one small warning: Don't forget that your wife lives in Chicago."
Crayton rocked on his feet as though beneath a blow. His heavy, brutally dominant face became mottled, then was overspread by a mortal pallor. What the words means,did not know; but he knew. With a single virulent oath, he turned on his heel and left the club.
I buttonholed Toptit in one corner, and I was careful not to call him Tomtit by mistake.
"Half a mo', old man! You don't realize Crayton's ability, I'm afraid. He's a brute to have for an enemy. What's that about his wife in Chicago?"
Toptit regarded me, and there was a peculiar shadow in his wide gray eyes.
"Nothing—for publication," he said curtly. "What'd you do in my place?"
"Leave China tomorrow," I answered with sober emphasis. "I mean it! Crayton is wealthy. He is agent for several big dealers back home, also for a number of millionaire Jap clients. He sends out more antiques and museum pieces than the rest of you chaps combined. He has influence."
"Ah!" said Toptit with an inane grin. "But don't forget that I'm a poet! Thanks, old man. Thanks and all that. Now I must be off."
I watched him go from the club and regretfully shook my head. He was rather new in China. I felt that if he interfered with Crayton's affairs he would be murdered. You may think that is stretching it a bit; but if you know anything about the scarcity of antiques in China, the jealousy and enmity and crime behind the securing of these pretty objects sold on Fifth avenue for small fortunes—if you know about this, you'll know that I am not exaggerating.
THE mandarin Wing, who lived in a charming old temple-suburb of Fukien, was a survival of the imperial regime. He clung to its traditions of art and concubines and ruthless ways; he was not old, but he was quite poor. All h« had left was his family collection of art, and once every two years or so he sold a piece of this. It was like pulling a tooth.
Wing had once been a diplomat in London, and was an educated gentleman. with cultivated appreciation of occidental things, combined with passionate love for the artistry of his own people. Every agent and dealer in China was on theto get something from Wing's treasures.
You must understand that there are various classes of dealers. Some ship imitation junk to interior decorators, who value only color; others supply wholesale bazaar dealers; the aristocrats of the profession seek really artistic things, museum pieces. Under this last head fell Crayton, who was a business man, and Toptit, who was a poet.
Toptit naturally suggested Tomtit, and "Little Tomtit" had been fastenedthe poet from the first. Calmly oblivious, he went his way and created chaos among his competitors. He had his own methods of doing business, and they were apt to be surprising at times. He came to Fukien with letters of introduction to Wing from an obscure Tientsin poet-painter, and the mandarin welcomed him with grave courtesy. There was no mention of business, though each man knew that the other man understood perfectly.
Immediately he came into the house Toptit perceived that something was terribly amiss. The servants were frightened. Wing himself, a stately man with wispy beard and mustaches, wore an air of preoccupation. The tea was inferior in quality. Host and guest, however, ignored all this and exchanged many compliments.
At dinner Toptit saw the screen for which he had come. It was the only object in the room, a screen of three panels. The center panel held a painting on brown silk, showing a groom or syce with his horse beneath a gnarled tree. The two side panels were of blank brown silk, bearing only the vermilion seals of mandarins who had owned the screen. Toptit expressed his admiration, and the mandarin discussed the screen with loving tenderness.
"You will observe that there are six ideographs." said Wing complacently. "The first four read 'Ku Mo San Mow'—Old Syce and Traveling Horse. The others give the name of the artist, Chang Mow or Jung Moh—a Manchu name, I think. The artist is not remembered. The entire value of the picture, Mr. Toptit, lies in——"
"In the red robe of the old syce," said Toptit. The mandarin beamed approval.
"Good, good! Yes, that red robe is painted with some precipitate of gold, and the secret of this dusky gold-red paint has been lost for two centuries."
"It's the most beautiful red I ever saw in my life," said Toptit sincerely. "That dusky gold running through it is magnificent! I suppose it is very valuable?"
"A Japanese millionaire has offered me ten thousand yen for it," said Wing.
"Ah! It is worth double that. Unfortunately, I don't suppose any ordinary dealer could offer more than a thousand dollars."
Wing understood this bid perfectly, and smiled his bland smile.
"I would not sell that screen to any Nippon man for a million yen," he said. For a brief instant his lips clenched into a thin, cruel smile. One gathered that he did not like the Japanese. "I have been informed that this screen was going to Japan in spite of me."
This sounded like Crayton, who acted for a number of millionaire clients in Japan, where almost any price will be paid for Chinese works of art that are rare and authentic.
"The Nagasaki Herald refused to publish some of my verses," said Toptit reflectively. "Ever since I have been prejudiced against Japan. Well, this screen is wonderful! I can imagine old Chang Mow sitting on a bridge and sketching this scene—the old syce propping one foot on a gnarled root and delivering his Samuel Weller philosophy, and the horse dozing nearby."
THE mandarin smiled, and presently the subject was changed to the bolshevism running rife in the northern provinces. Art was not again mentioned that evening.
Upon the following morning. Toptit went into the city. He had attended one of the great American universities to which had come also certain alert young Chinese under the Boxer indemnity provision, and one of these yellow men lived in Fuchow. He was a fraternity brother of Toptit. You will observe that Toptit exercised some sagacity in business affairs.
Directing his 'rikisha to the South Gate road, in the native city, Toptit alighted and entered a wholesale establishment where cottons and silks were sold. He inquired for the proprietor and was ushered to an upstairs office, where he was presently shaking hands with a spectacled and delighted young Chinaman.
"I got your letter," said Toptit, hauling out his pipe as he sat down, "and I came right along. I must thank you for the tip—that screen is a wonder!"
"Good! Old Wing will sell it to you?"
"Not yet" Toptit smiled wryly. "Crayton is after it. And there seems to be trouble in the home. Now, old man, I'm here for help."
"I'm darned glad!" exclaimed the yellow man beamingly. "The more help I can give, the gladder I'll be. Looks to me as though the Japs had old Wing in a bad mess—perhaps your friend Crayton is behind it. Regular bully, isn't he?"
"Rather," and Toptit smiled. "You mentioned the mandarin's daughter in your letter——"
The other nodded soberly. "She disappeared yesterday."
"What!" Toptit sat up. "Why, Wing never hinted at such a thing——"
"Politeness, my dear fellow—courtesy to a guest would not allow him to be troubled with the worries of his host. She's been attending the Women's Medical School here in the city; it's a Christian affair, you know. She disappeared yesterday; that's all."
Toptit stared at bis informant and frowned.
"What do you mean—disappeared? Kidnapped?"
"Call it that, for lack of proof. Do you know what will happen? Today or tomorrow old Wing will receive a polite note suggesting that he sell the Chang Mow screen to Crayton. What can he do? No Chinaman dares to infringe the sovereignty of the Japanese quarter. The mandarin might know exactly where Miss Tsing is held prisoner; he might know exactly where to find her, he might know exactly who carried her away—and what can he do? Just nothing. That's straight goods, Toptit! Japanese magistrates would simply laugh at him. A Jap can walk into our city and shoot me, for instance, then go back to his own quarter—and remain untouched!"
Toptit sucked at his pipe for a moment, regarding his informant narrowly.
"Look here!" he exclaimed suddenly. "How d'you know so much, anyhow?"
The young Chinaman made a weary gesture. "Because I was hoping to marry Miss Tsing in two months."
TOPTIT stared. As though a scroll were unfolded before him, he saw why this astute young man had told him of the wonderful screen, why he had been brought here to Fuchow, and why——
"Your friend Crayton is in town," said the yellow man abruptly.
"The devil! See here, do you know where the girl—Miss Tsing—is held prisoner?"
The other nodded slowly.
"Then," exploded Toptit angrily, "why don't you go get her? What kind of a lover are you?"
His friend smiled sadly
"Don't you see, old man? If I did that the Japanese would say that we were rioting in their quarter, would assess tremendous damages against the province, would make our country give them new concessions! Oh, you ought to know how the game is played, Toptit! You're no fool. I am a Chinaman, and if I raise my hand against a Jap to defend my life or my honor—there's hell to pay for my country. I am a son of Han—that's all."
There was a frightful despondency in his words.
"Damn it!" said Toptit, and rose to his feet. His pipe was shoved into his pocket. "Where is that girl held prisoner?"
The other smiled bitterly. "Don't try it. If you were an Englishman, you might get away with anything, but you're an American. Everybody knows that Americans can be killed with impunity. Everybody knows that nothing would be done except perhaps a presidential note or two——"
"You be darned!" said Toptit calmly. "Where's that girl, I say!"
The other told him.
The river Min Kiang divides old Fuchow from the foreign settlement. Toptit sent his 'rikisha down the long fishmongers' street that leads to the bridge, then alighted and dismissed it. His long-legged figure strode leisurely across the great stone bridge, and before him was the foreign settlement.
Toptit did not go on the club on the hill, nor did he turn to the right toward the consulates. Instead, he turned to the left and entered the crowded business quarter. Though there are no distinct groupings of foreigners in Fuchow, the Japanese largely predominate south of the custom house. With them, too, congregate many natives who are Japanese subjects—and hence immune to Chinese law. In China it is very handy to be a Japanese subject.
Toptit walked along with a note-book in one hand and a pencil in the other. He was quite oblivious to the sneering laughter that greeted the sight of a white man actually walking. He appeared to be in no hurry. He would scribble a word or two, glance at the street around, and continue his course. He appeared dreamy, absorbed.
As a matter of fact, he was much pleased with what he was writing.
"It's not a bad conceit," he murmured. "Old Chang Mow Sitting with his paint pots and scroll of silk, and the syce standing chewing a straw, with one foot propped up on a tree root, and the artist listening to a lecture on how he ought to paint. Hell! This must be the place, eh? Confound that Crayton!"
He abruptly closed his notebook and shoved it into his pocket.
He had left the Yamato Kwan behind. Just ahead of him was a fairly respectable house—respectable on the outside, at least—with its door sign in Japanese characters announcing it to be a mere rooming house. Toptit gave it one sharp glance, then looked at something else.
He was quite aware that an instant of hesitation would prove fatal. He knew that eyes were unobtrusively upon him. A look, a gesture, would spoil everything
So Toptit strode alone as though to pass the rooming house. Opposite the entrance he suddenly turned, and in two strides had his hand on the door knob. He opened it, stepped inside, and closed the door behind him.
AN instant later he would not have obtained entrance. Two slant-eyed men were already in the hallway, hands under their robes. His entry had halted their advance. Toptit regarded them with a keen scrutiny and shoved his right hand into his pocket. The menace of this gesture was significant.
"What you want?" demanded one of them roughly.
"Crayton," said Toptit. "Where is he?"
The two Japanese uttered exclamations of relief. One vanished. The other beckoned. "You come," he said.
Toptit followed his guide to a stair way, and upstairs to a long corridor. The yellow man knocked at a door, and the voice of Crayton came in a bellow from the room.
"Well, come on in! That you, Tokima Hase?"
"No," said Toptit, standing in the doorway. "It's I."
The door softly closed behind him.
Crayton was caught abruptly and off his guard. He had been reclining in a long chair, sucking a cheroot and reading a French magazine. Beside him on a bamboo stand was a whisky bottle and a syphon. His fleshy figure was clad in dirty white silk pajamas.
His jaw dropped as he stared incredulously at Toptit. Then:
"The devil! You!"
"I'm not," said Toptit gently. "At least, I hope I'm not any devil. No, don't get up, I beg of you!"
His hand clutched the pipe in his pocket and pointed it. To Crayton it looked terribly like a revolver protruding from the white jacket. Crayton relaxed in his chair.
"You cursed fool! I s'pose you came asking for me and the boys thought you were a friend of mine."
"I suppose so," assented Toptit. "I couldn't very well ask for Miss Tsing, so I asked for you."
The heavy face of Crayton mottled with rage.
"If I were you, Crayton, I'd be afraid of apoplexy. Take it quietly, now. I really ought to shoot you—I've considered doing it for a long while."
Crayton turned a shade whiter at this. The deliberate voice of Toptit must have frightened him. The next words of his visitor sent his eyes wide in alarm.
"You know, Crayton," went on Toptit in his horribly gentle way. "Toptit isn't my real name at all—any more than yours is Crayton." His gray eyes rested speculatively upon the large man. Their absence of all enmity lent a fearful emphasis to his next words.
"You married a girl in Chicago two years ago—and deserted her. She was my cousin. My real name is——"
Crayton came out of his chair in a blind spasm of fear and rage, a bellow on his lips. Toptit moved slightly under the attack. Crayton was absolutely beside himself, frantic with the comprehension that Toptit's words had brought him. He launched himself at Toptit and his big fist shot out.
But Toptit calmly kicked him on the shin. Crayton uttered a howl and lost his balance. At that instant Toptit drew back and delivered another kick with the utmost deliberation. His leather toe caught Crayton behind the ear, and the bulk of the big man shivered on the floor.
"I've just written a very decent verse," observed Toptit, "and I really hate to use my hands on you just now. Besides, you never understand my methods. I ought to kill you, but that wouldn't do my poor cousin any particular good, nor me either."
Crayton, who was half-conscious, uttered a moan.
"Oh, you criticize the grammar there?" said Toptit reflectively. "Well, perhaps. that is true. I should have said 'or,' but I did not stop to think. I always stumble over that negative proposition. But the point is that killing you would give me no satisfaction. You are a rotten coward at heart, anyway. Where's Miss Tslng——"
Crayton jerked one hand. "Next room," he mumbled. He made an effort to rise. Toptit came forward and kicked him again, this time in the side.
"Stay put until I'm done with you! Hello! Your friends heard the row."
A PATTER of feet in the hall, a knocking at the door, a chattering of sibilant voices outside broke in upon Toptit. He glanced around quickly. A cheap dresser stood in the corner, beside it a chair bearing Crayton's clothes.
Toptit went to the clothes, caught at them, and uttered an exclamation of satisfaction. A large automatic pistol fell into his hand. He glanced at it, removed the lock, lifted it, and fired at the door.
The deafening explosion was echoed by a shrill scream from the corridor outside. Toptit looked at Crayton's shaking figure, and his wide lips parted in a smile.
"They'll blame you for that, Crayton!" he said calmly. "They'll probably murder you for it, too. If I were you, I'd get away in a hurry—but not by the door. If you come out that door, I'll shoot you. Understand. Don't forget. I'll be outside with Miss Tsing."
Toptit opened the door and stepped out into the corridor. It was empty, except for a dead man who lay huddled outside. He closed the door again and ignored the dead man. He also ignored the hubbub from below and the shouts from the street.
Turning to the right, he knocked at the adjoining door. There was no reply and he entered. He found a bare room containing only a cot and a chair. In the chair was tied a Chinese girl, whose eyes rounded largely upon him. She was gagged.
"Ah, Miss Tsing, I believe!" said Toptit. He put away his automatic and opened a pocketknife as he advanced to her side. "Don't worry, Miss Tsing. I come from your father and your fiance to bring you home. You won't get there, however, if you faint or indulge in other feminine hysterics. Just keep cool and follow me."
He began removing her bonds, talking fluently as he did so.
"all bosh about orientals being deep and crafty. They're just as firmly convinced that white men are deep and crafty, only we don't realize it. And the Japs aren't all bad men, either—not by a long shot! It's all in knowing how to handle them. I sent a note to the Jap consul about half an hour ago. If my coolie delivered it, which I think he did, the consul will be along here at any moment now. Able to stand up, are you? For heaven's sake, don't faint!"
Miss Tsing stood up, a bit weakly.
"I shan't faint," she said, and smiled at Toptit.
"Now, If you'll take my arm, we'll go downstairs——"
"But we can't do that!" she exclaimed, with a sudden pallor. "Don't you hear the shouts and——"
"Nonsense! Just leave it to me," said Toptit confidently.
With a gesture of despair, she took his arm.
They went into the corridor, passed the dead man, and came to the head of the stairs. From here they had a view of the entrance below. Two Japanese were standing there, shouting something to the outside air. They saw Toptit and Miss Tsing and hurriedly decamped. An instant later the door was burst in, and two Japanese soldiers appeared, a frock-coated man behind them.
"Good afternoon," said Toptit, as he descended the stairs; "I am very glad you got here in time, Mr. Consul——"
"What's this?" ejaculated the consul. "You——you accuse my country man of kidnaping a young lady——"
Toptit waved his hand. "My dear consul, that was all a mistake. The note I sent you was written in error. Your countrymen are blameless, I'm glad to say. The culprit was one of my own countrymen—a fellow named Crayton. I suggest that you investigate fully, and you'll find this to be the case. I'd suggest also that you have this young lady and myself escorted back to the native city. Your co-operation in this matter will reflect great credit upon you and will remove all charges against your countrymen, who are, of course, entirely innocent."
As Toptit said, it was all in knowing how to handle them.
TOPTIT escorted Miss Tsing to the Women's Medical School and left her. Then he went to a curio shop near the south gate and bought several small but worthy objects which attracted him. Later in the day he returned to the suburban home of the mandarin, Wing, and found a new atmosphere about the place.
Wing made no reference to his guest's activities, and Toptit did not mention them. Each man knew that the other man knew, however.
At dinner that evening discussion again fell upon the screen in the dining room.
"I was thinking about that screen today," observed Toptit, drawing forth his notebook. "In fact, it suggested a poem to me—or perhaps I should say a verse."
The mandarin chuckled. "I appreciate the distinction, Mr. Toptit," he answered. "I have heard that you are a poet, however."
"Well," resumed Toptit. "I was thinking about that old syce over there, and it suggested something to me. If I might bore you with the fragment——"
"My dear sir, the pleasure will be tremendous," averred the mandarin with sincerity. "By all means."
"Very well," said Toptit, opening the notebook. "We must imagine Chang Mow at work, you know.
"By the roadside sat Chang Mow,
And with cunning fingers laid
His ink and paint to the silk-strip quaint,
While the dapple-gray dozed in the shade.
Then the old syce, mopping his brow.
The critic's art essayed,
As he propped his foot on a gnarled brown root
And discoursed on the painter's trade:
'I've always had an idea,' quoth he.
That I had the soul of an artist in me;
Now, if I were you, I'd change that tree.
By the roadside sat Chang Mow.
Craftsman of paint and ink;
He limned a bough as he best knew how,
And his left eye closed in a wink."
Toptit cleared his throat.
"You understand," he said apologetically, "the allusion is to the common quality of human nature which——"
The mandarin smiled and lifted his hand protestingly.
"My dear sir, I understand perfectly. The verse is a gem of words, an exquisite fancy! If I might suggest a slight change in the final line——"
"By all means," hastened Toptit eagerly.
"Instead of saying 'his left eye,' why not make it 'his slant eye'? Don't you think this would be a little more general, a trifle less exact and prosaic?"
"Certainly. But you said that Chang Mow was a Manchu. Therefore, he would scarcely have almond eyes——"
"Of course," agreed the mandarin, stroking his wispy gray beard. "Still, the art of poesy has a very catholic latitude, don't you think?"
Toptit regarded his host with some suspicion, but the mandarin remained gravely dignified. Suddenly Wing turned to him.
"You must accept a small and unworthy gift, my friend," he said earnestly. "I have discovered a very fine bit of real Ming cloisonne in a nearby temple, and have sent for it. It is a hsiang yi, anurn, and it is rather remarkable. It will give me great pleasure if you will accept it."
"I shall be indeed honored," said Toptit in delight. "Why——"
"And if you know of any one who cares to buy this humble screen," the mandarin waved his taper fingers toward the screen. "I shall gladly sell it for a thousand dollars—Mexican."
TOPTIT started. His bid had been a thousand gold, or had been so intended. However, if the mandarin wanted silver, all right!
"I'll write a check immediately," he responded.
That night in his own room Toptit frowned portentously to himself. He was distinctly worried, troubled, uneasy over some hidden matter. At length he drew out his notebook and once more read over the verse to himself. Then he threw down the little book with an exclamation of annoyance.
"Darn it!" he said. "I don't believe he thought this poem was worth a hang! He didn't even ask to have a copy of it. I wonder if he was making fun about it after I read it?"
He sadly shook his head as he climbed into bed.