A Mystery Aboard a China Smuggler-Ship
Men Make Mistakes
A Complete Novelette
“I'LL TAKE you out of here if you say the word,” said Howell, when the boy had set down our warm beer. “You're not much good, maybe, but you're a white man and you've got sense. You shouldn't be pounding the piano in this —— joint.”
“Thanks,” I said dryly. “How'll you take me?”
“Supercargo on that hooker of mine. I need some one I can trust.”
That struck me funny, and no wonder. I laughed at it. Trust! Trust a piano-pounder picked up in Hung Charley's place!
Port Balik was not like an American oil town, being on the Celebes coast, but there was a lot of flamdoodle to it just the same. It was a roaring place. Oil men from all over the world were there, and rigs steadily pushing up the valley and over the hills; the dredged harbor always had ships lying at anchor; Chinese and Arab traders had flocked in, and the place was wide open—clear beyond any Dutch authority—and run chiefly by the oil company, where any law and order were concerned.
How I was there, dead broke and on the beach, does not matter. I was there, pounding the old tinpan in Hung Charley's joint, for my bed and board. Oil men work hard and play hard, and there was no romantic illusion about Hung Charley's place, believe me! It was bad. Howell was bad, too. He was no angel.
His old Chinese-owned tinpot had been in harbor three days, and I had heard of him. I think he was Welsh, originally—small, dark, vibrant as a flame. A thin and bitter man with a kick in each fist and a reputation for brutality, but said to be on the square in most ways. Not where laws were concerned, but where squareness counted—man to man.
“What you thinking over, Browne?” he snapped, his cold gray eyes biting into me. “Afraid to ship with me, you big strapping piano-pounder?”
I smiled into his hard gaze and shook my head.
“Not particularly,” I said. “Why would you pick me to trust?”
“Because Hung says you're on the level.”
“Well,” I said. “Trust me, then.”
He laughed at that.
“Right!” he said briskly. “I'm one-third owner of this blasted Wung Chow of mine; the Toy Low Company in Canton, two-thirds. They've got a comprador aboard. I want one o' my own. I'm taking on some cargo before dawn tomorrow morning that will need checking. I'm not sure of my men by a long shot. My gang got about wiped out with the cholera down at Macassar and I had to ship a bad crew. We go out with the tide to-night. What say?”
“Well,” I said, “I'd say there was something queer in the wind, if you're sailing to-night and taking on cargo before morning.”
“Good for you!” he said, and chuckled. He had bright, sharp eyes, like those of a bird. “The lord hates a fool and so do I. When will you be aboard?”
“By five o'clock—in an hour,” I said.
“Good,” he nodded. “I'll have clearance by then and will meet you at the jetty.”
He drank his beer, made a face, flung down a coin and went swaggering off. Like many small men, he had a pronounced swagger, as if wearing a chip on his shoulder. It was no bluff with Howell, either.
Only after he was gone did I recall that we had not discussed wages, nor did I know whither the blessed Wung Chow was bound. Not that it mattered much to me! Any port in a storm for Jimmy Brown, strictly on his uppers and on the beach.
AT FIVE that afternoon I was on the jetty with my few possessions, looking down at the four men in the waiting boat. I thought I had seen some hard specimens in Port Balik, but these four slant-eyed devils loafing in the afternoon sunlight could have given cards and spades to the whole Port Balik crowd. Not in any definite fashion either; merely in their manner, their faces, their whole bearing.
Orientals are deceptive, of course, to western eyes; the sleek, smiling, gentlemanly little Malay gives no hint that he may run wild with a knife at any moment. With these four, however, there was no mistake. They were thoroughly bad. I began to appreciate what lay behind Howell's words regarding the crew he had been forced to ship down south; I might have known there was a joker in the business somewhere. Because I was husky and Hung Charley answered for me, Howell wanted me along as company.
“All set, Browne? Good lad. Look alive, down there!”
Howell had come—brisk, chipper, swaggering, but silent. One read his abounding personality and vigor in his very walk; he seemed to be on softly flowing steel springs. A boy followed with some bundles and tossed them down, took his pay and padded off. I got into the stern of the boat, Howell beside me, and we set off on the mile run down to the anchorage. Port Balik allows only the oil tankers up to the jetty, as you probably know, because of the lack of space. Other craft have to anchor below, off the river-mouth.
“How do you like my gentry?” said Howell, with a flirt of his hand toward the rowers.
“They handle their oars,” I said dryly. “I see why you wanted me along.”
He laughed at that.
“You're a sharp 'un, Browne!” he said. “Anything else you see?”
“One or two things—such as the lack of formality in signing me on.”
“Hung was right about you. We're off on a lark, savvy? After we leave here, anything goes. Anything may happen. Now's your last chance if you want to back out. I should have been a bit more plain, I expect.”
“I haven't any reverse gear,” I said, laughing. “—— man, I don't care what happens! I've been knocking about for six months, and I get a kick out of it all.”
He gave me a queer look, almost envious.
“Husky young beggar!” he said. “Well, when you get to be my age you'll sheer off all the privations possible. Get your fill of hardship before thirty—either go under or be able to enjoy your ease by contrast with the past—learn the lesson! Life's all a lesson anyhow. I'm to be learning one of my own in a day or two.”
“If you know that,” I said with intuitive shrewdness, “either you're a fool to go on with it, or you like lessons despite your talk of sheering off.”
His bird-like glance rested on me a moment. Then he threw back his head and laughed silently, and I saw the four slant-eyed men staring at him over their oars.
“You're a good 'un, Browne!” he exclaimed. “You've struck it. I like lessons; that is, I like to give 'em. I'm going to give a pretty stiff one this trip, if my suspicions work out right. They usually do. I'm not quite a fool. We may pay heavy, but that's part of the lesson I'll have to learn myself. You'll have to learn it, too—”
His words fogged out, and I wondered what was behind it all.
Not that I wasted much wonder on the cargo we were to take aboard that night. Howell had hinted at this plainly enough. In Dutch territorial waters, with British and French and Japanese territory scattered here and there, not to mention the Philippines, it was not so much a question of licit or illicit cargo, as of just what kind of contraband it might be. The laws against too free trading are pretty stiff out in those parts, and cover a multitude of sins; we might be going to take aboard anything from gold to girls, opium to hard camphor.
Our boat drew down upon the Wung Chow, who lay swinging to the flooding tide with a lazy curl of smoke from her single funnel. She was not pretty, and she was not large, but she was fairly clean—a little, old, well-decked ruin of a ship, with yellow faces looking down at us over the rail.
“No lascars?” I said to Howell. He shrugged.
“No chance, worse luck! The steward and the chief are my old ones—the rest all gone. We had a tough time with that cholera. Well, get along up.”
I wondered why he did not mention his other officers, but I saw soon enough.
The tide would not go out for a couple of hours, so there was no great rush about anything. Howell showed me to a small cabin—the disinfection had been thorough, of course—and in another half-hour I walked into the mess-cabin to find Howell there alone. The steward came in as we sat down, a round-faced, cheerful little man who grinned pleasantly at me. His name was Li.
“Where's that comprador, Sing?” demanded Howell. The steward grimaced.
“Sing, him velly sick,” he returned. “No talkee, velly hot.”
“Not cholera?” snapped Howell. The steward merely shook his head. He was obviously a privileged rascal. “Mr. Johnson broke into my locker this afternoon and took that brandy, didn't he? I suppose he's drunk now?”
“Velly dlunk, sir,” said Li calmly.
“You be ready to take Sing's place tonight, and check off that stuff when it comes aboard,” said Howell.
Another man came in and was introduced to me as the second officer. He was named McGregor, but was far from that; a sleek, timid, little, golden-skinned Eurasian. I must have looked my astonishment, for Howell laughed, in his silent, grim fashion, but vouchsafed no explanation. Then the atmosphere cleared like blowing weather as Stuart, the chief, came in with a cheerful bluster.
“Glad to meet you,” he said, giving me a hearty handshake, a grin on his wrinkled, bluff countenance. “I expect you know you're on a queer ship? Well, I'll say no more, but if those engines hold together to Canton, I'll be fair amazed! When I'm off watch, those fool Chinese assistants of mine are liable to fill the oil-cups with water. That's about what they know. How's everything, Cap'n?”
“Promising,” said Howell, and we settled down to our meal.
Promising as to what? I wondered. A mate who was “velly dlunk”, a second officer who looked like a sing-song girl, a crew of the vilest Chinese I ever laid eyes on and unlawful occasions ahead!
Later, Howell took me up to the bridge and gave me a cheroot.
“Ever kill a man, Browne?” he asked abruptly. I hesitated, but told the truth.
“Words!” I said, bitterly. “The great childish American fetish, having to do the 'right thing'—save the mark!”
He caught my meaning and laughed in the darkness.
“Right. You've discovered one of the great truths about life,” he said after a silent moment. “The smaller, pettier, dirtier a man is, the more he resents any imputation on his honor, and the more important words appear to him. The less honor he has, the touchier he is about it. The bigger a man is, inside himself, the more he realizes that words are only wind after all; the viler they are, the more amusing. You can gage the bigness of a man by the importance he attaches to an epithet.”
“Supercargo's instructions?” I queried, amused.
“Aye. Feeling you out—better satisfied all the time. Here, take this, and two extra clips. All full.” He passed me an automatic pistol and the clips, and I pocketed them. We watched to see how I did it, and chuckled. “No hip-pocket ideas, eh? Right-o! Anything you'd like explained?”
“Mr. McGregor,” I said.
He really laughed at this.
“Don't blame you, Browne! That sleek cat is some relative of the firm. He's one of the few men alive who look exactly what they are. I fancy he's behind whatever's going on to-night. He and I arranged for the cargo at Macassar. Now, then, use your head! Why is Johnson drunk and laid out for the night? Why's the comprador sick?”
“Honest men,” I said. He took my arm.
“Right. Let's go have a look at Sing.”
We went, we had our look and found the man dying, senseless, beyond speech. It was no ordinary sickness.
“Obviously,” said Howell to me, “the steward poisoned him—eh? But the obvious is seldom true, except for fools. I'm no fool. Li's the best man aboard here, except Stuart. Well, we're swinging around. Tide's on the ebb. You'd best stay on the bridge.”
I intended to do just that.
Ten minutes later the winches were rattling and banging away, the hook was climbing up from the mud, and the Wung Chow was heading for sea.
THERE was no doubt that Howell had let me in for something, but not unwarned. The more I saw of the little skipper, the better I liked him. He had a steward, an engineer, and me—nobody else to trust, and the deuce to pay.
It seemed rather ridiculous about the paying, but the comprador died as we were puffing out to sea, and Howell had him buried quickly, without formalities. This brought the horns and hoofs home to us. I stood at the bridge-rail for a time, then found a deck-chair and took the darkness comfortably, and reflected. I did not know everything, but I could guess at some things. That comprador had been poisoned today, in such a way that he could not speak again. What had he found out, that he must be put out of the way before he could tell it to Howell?
A queer business all around.
The old hooker steamed steadily out and away, the riding-lights and harbor lights of Port Balik fell away and were swallowed up, and we were out at sea—cool, starlit, serene. Presently there was a little stir forward, and I saw two lanterns, both red, appear in the bows. Search as I would, however, there was no other light visible ahead. Only the sea and the dark uplift of the hills to port.
“Better turn in,” said Howell, coming toward me from the pilot house. “No telling when the other craft will turn up. Perhaps not until toward morning.”
“Doesn't your mate ever show up when the ship gets out to sea?” I asked.
“Hm!” he said. “Old Johnson would, yes—but he won't. That bottle he helped himself to must have had a dose out of the same flask that fixed poor Sing.”
A stiff jolt, this. I merely said good night and went to my own cabin, thinking a few thoughts as I went. No need to ask Howell if he and the chief were taking care of themselves. I could read, in every word and tone he had uttered, an unspoken, but grim, assurance and warning. Something doing—and that sleek second mate behind it!
I locked my door before turning in that night, and hid the pistol to boot.
Trampling of feet, shrill Chinese voices, the stoppage of thrumming engines—these things wakened me, sent me piling into my clothes. It was three o'clock, still all dark outside. I slipped into my jacket, pocketed the pistol again and went outside.
Starlight through a thin haze, no moon, a ship's lights fifty yards off to starb8ard. Two red lanterns in her bows, also, that flickered out a moment later. A Chinese voice was hailing us, and another made reply from the bridge. Then I heard Howell's crisp accents.
“Mr. McGregor! Ask if they've got the stuff aboard for me, as well as your lot.”
The second officer put the query in Chinese and received a spattering reply in the same tongue.
“Aye, sir,” he said to Howell in English. “All of it as contracted.”
“Blast your muddy eyes! What was that he said about a girl!” snapped. Howell. “You fool! Think I don't savvy Cantonese? Spit it out quick!”
The mate was too frightened to lie, as the swift shrillness of his answer tokened.
“A woman came in charge of the shipment, sir. That's all they know.”
“Tell them to send her over and be quick about it. Mr. Browne, be ready to check the cases that come aboard to the hatch aft! Never mind the stowage; Mr. McGregor will see to that. If any cases are broken, pitch 'em overboard and mark 'em off. I'll see to the No. 1 hold—you ready down there, Sing?”
“Aye, Cap'n,” came the steward's voice from the well-deck forward.
I stayed where I was. Howell had said to be ready, not to go below, and I was alert for such distinctions from him. Besides, there was no rush, for flares were being broken out and cargo would not come aboard soon. We had no searchlight, and no radio; I think the old hooker just came under the thousand-ton radio regulations. McGregor put out the ladder and then vanished aft, while Howell leaned over the rail and snapped orders at the men forward. I saw Stuart down there to handle the winches, as the lights broke out.
The two ships were drawing closer together; there was not even a groundswell, and they could come rail to rail without danger. It was a slow business, however, and a boat was coming over from the other craft. I was scarcely aware of it until she was under our ladder and an unfamiliar figure was mounting to the bridge—a woman.
“Captain Howell?” came her voice, as she came up to us in the darkness. It was a cool and self-contained voice, softly modulated and yet reaching. “I'm Miss Lui Tock. My father was taken suddenly ill and I came with the shipment at the last moment.”
“Humph! Glad to meet you,” said the skipper, tone belying words lustily enough. “Going back to S'pore with your craft, I suppose?”
“No, I'm going on to Kwangtung with you,” said Miss Lui.
“You'd better not. It's no joy trip!” said Howell. She laughed softly, a clear and whimsical little laugh.
“I'm forced to act as agent for my father and the company, Captain.” By her use of this word, I knew she had learned her English in America. An English-trained person would not have used the title alone. “There's too much at stake, you see. I have to do everything from paying you to making collection at the other end. I've brought along a small shipment of bullion, too, being sent north.”
“Oh!” said the skipper in a queer voice. “Oh! That explains it, then. Not a soul knew about your bullion, I suppose?”
“It's no secret, except from government,” she replied. “Of course, no one knew that your ship was involved.”
“Oh, not at all!” Howell was trying to be sarcastic. “My mate died half an hour ago, my supercargo died last night; cholera wiped out most of my crew and I had to replace 'em at Macassar. Fortunately or not, Mr. McGregor of the general offices was in Macassar, and he has a mate's ticket, so I pressed him into service. He's acting mate. You know him?”
“Yes,” said she.
It was a still, small word, if you get my meaning; the very restraint in it made it bulk large in the darkness. That woman spoke volumes in the one word. I think it startled Howell, tempted him toward explanations; but there was no time to waste. The other craft was alongside. Bumpers were out, lines passed, voices chattering. The skipper had to make up his mind quickly.
“You'd better not go with us,” he said. “You can leave things to me safely; for you, it's not safe at all.”
“We trust you perfectly,” she returned. “But I must go. There are things to do when we reach Kwangtung.”
“If, not when!” said Howell. “You're determined?”
“Certainly,” she returned. “Now, here are the papers. I've arranged everything, as you cabled. The shipment which Mr. McGregor took on will come aboard separately; that sent by your agent in Singapore is in our forward hold—separate invoices. I have the bullion in two suitcases. It's in my boat now.”
“Order it up,” said Howell.
He turned to me, and listened a moment as the woman went to the rail and called down. His hand fell on my arm.
“Sing's cabin has been thoroughly cleaned out,” he said quietly. “It's number five. You'll find it in shape for her. Tell her I'll send bedding as soon as we're off. Old Li's pretty busy just now. Then get aft to your job. Here's the invoice.”
It was, of course, not sheer chance alone which gave her the cabin of the late comprador. Those things are never sheer chance; they reach out and back and around in ever-widening circles. There's nothing so vast and terrible in the world as the causes of things, the tiny trifling causes reaching back to greater causes, reaching out ahead with effect after effect. Moses and Luther Burbank alike knew it, as their works show, but most of us disregard these things.
So with Miss Lui Tock's being given this cabin. If Mr. Johnson had died and been buried first, she would have taken his quarters, and all would have been changed. But she didn't; and there we were.
Howell introduced me to her, said he'd get her bullion in the safe first thing in the morning, and I went down with her and met the porters, and took her along to the cabin. When I switched on the light, I saw it was spick and span. The two grips were put in, and I had my first look at her. It was an eye-opener.
Why her voice had made me think of a honey blonde, I don't know, but it had. Nothing of the sort; she was short, dark, wore tailored tussore silk of light tan; her face was quite arresting, for it was scarcely Chinese at all. Under the dark, braided masses of hair her eyes were heavy-lidded, masterful, shrewd. She was pretty enough, and emanated that indefinable quality we call sex-appeal. Another word for character, I suppose. She was extremely feminine, but not annoyingly so. I put her down as perhaps two and twenty. She had been looking me over with the same curiosity, and now put out her hand, oddly.
“Thank you, Mr. Browne. I'm glad to find you aboard. If anything goes wrong, please have me called; but I think there's no need. Good night!”
“Good night!” I said, and departed.
Why the deuce, I wondered, was she glad to find me aboard? She spoke as if I had been an old friend, yet certainly she had never heard of me in her life, before tonight. It made me laugh to myself, the oddity of it all.
I got aft, descended to the well-deck, and found the work starting. The other craft, a good bit larger than the Wung Chow, was lined up alongside and her winches were beginning to rattle away merrily. So far as I could see, her crew was all Chinese. Probably Straits Chinese, like the girl—that name of Tock was a certainty.
A long cargo boom began swinging large, heavy cases the size of a piano box over to our deck; our tackle picked them up and lowered them into the hold. Stuart was up forward, and two of his Chinese were at the winches here, with McGregor commanding them somewhere in the darkness, behind the flare which was lighting our well-deck.
The invoice was made out both in English and Chinese. Every case had a number, also in both languages, painted front and back, and they had to be checked off on the invoice. It was simple enough. There were only thirty-two of them in all, and they could not be handled very quickly because of the care necessary in adjusting the slings. There was no occasion to obey the skipper's orders and heave any overboard; all were perfect.
Twenty-eight of the big cases had gone down. The next came over, and our men hooked the slings on our boom—that of the other craft would not reach—and it rose as our winch clanked away. Here again was accident or chance or destiny; I chose that instant to look up, for no particular reason, and actually saw the cable beginning to slack and run backward as the case was over me. I have no recollection to this day of the muscular action, but it must have been spasmodic, instinctive, due to every sense being alert. At all events I went over sidewise and rolled into the shadows.
It must have been frightfully close. Even before I struck the deck, I could hear the crash of the falling case.of the peril stunned me for an instant, then, as I came to my feet, something hurtled through the air and thudded on the deck in front of the yellow flare. It was the Chinese who had been at the winch. He crawled up, and as he did so, Howell was down alongside him in a flying leap, and cursing. He flayed McGregor and the yellow men with his tongue, and flayed them properly in everything from Dutch to Cantonese. Then he saw me coming along.
“Hurt, Browne?” he snapped.
“No, it isn't damaged a particle,” I said, looking at the packing case. He stared at me for a moment, then chuckled.
“Watch your step, you poor innocent!” he said, and was gone.
That was all. Not until the case was in the air again and heading for the hatchway did I actually comprehend that this was no accident. Then I lolled back against the deck-house and lighted a cigaret to hide my nervousness. I was nervous, all right, after it was over. Was it McGregor, up above at the winch, or was it that yellow —— dragging himself away with a split scalp? Or both of them?
No matter; it was over now, and I had learned my lesson. And how the skipper had showed up when least expected; how that Chinaman had been smashed down. All luck, of course, but luck's only a name for strange things, strange coordinations we don't rightly fathom.
Nothing else happened. The last case came over and went down. Booms and tackle were stowed; the men came up from below. McGregor passed me, catlike, and began getting the hatch-cover in place and the wedges knocked home. I went up to the bridge, and found the work forward was just completed also. There were no farewells. The lines were cast off, the engines rumbled, and the two ships headed away from each other over the glassy sea. The lights died.
Howell loomed up beside me with a sharp word. I handed him the invoice.
“All correct, sir. No damage.”
“Wasn't their fault,” he said. “—— you, watch yourself! I can't play nurse-maid all voyage. What'd I give you that gun for, you idiot? Shoot first and talk after. Better make a mistake than let the other chap make one. It's gone off well, very well; all stowed safe, the horizon clear, no suspicion—good! Get to sleep. See you today sometime.”
Dawn was coming into the sky, and we were heading north toward China.
IT WAS nearly noon when I turned out and found the old hooker wallowing along with no land in sight and a brisk windy sea tossing her through the sunlight, northward. Out on deck I encountered the yellow chap whose head was split, but he seemed to be quite oblivious of me. So did the rest of the crew, except the steward. They all knew, of course, that I had no actual standing as an officer. The mate, Mr. Johnson, I found, had been buried that morning.
Captain Howell, Stuart, Miss Lui Tock and I messed alone, which was pleasant enough. She was a bright one, that girl. Had been to college in America, too, and had twice the brains of most men you'd meet. She was from Singapore, it proved.
I was curious to know about this cargo of ours. It was easy to figure that she had brought it from Singapore in the other craft; and from her words with Howell when she came abroad, I knew we were taking it to Canton or parts adjacent. But why? Why should two ships do the work of one, in an extra third of the time involved.
Undoubtedly Howell scented my curiosity, and so perhaps did Stuart, who had a Scot's burr but no real accent, and was a bluff, likeable man. At all events, I was soon given more than an inkling of the whole business.
“I'll tell ye what,” Stuart led off solemnly, “I'll not be turning up my nose at a bit of silver, but there's one or two things I'd not do for any money.”
“What—piracy?” asked Miss Lui, with a laugh. Stuart inspected her stolidly.
“No, miss, there's worse than piracy, and that's running guns to the Bolshevik crowd in Kwangtung! I'd have no hand in such work. It's unchristian, it's going against nature.”
“Bosh!” said Howell. “You were filibustering in North China two years ago!”
“That's different,” said the chief. “I'm talking about running guns to the Canton Reds. Why, they've got Russians officering their army, I hear! Aye, red Bolsheviks from Moscow.”
Miss Lui leaned forward. Behind her glinting dark eyes was a trace of earnestness.
“You're not a Bolshevik, Mr. Stuart?”
“Heaven forbid!” he asserted. Yet I saw Howell's eyes twinkle.
“And you're not a Chinaman either,” said the girl, looking at him steadily. “But you have sense, Mr. Stuart. You know the situation in China today. Why have the Cantonese absorbed all of southern China until they're reaching out for Shanghai and Pekin? Not because they have Russian officers! The northern armies have as many or more, even have whole Russian legions of old Tsarist veterans. Not because they can get arms overland from Siberia—the northern armies can get them from Japan, and do get them by sea from Sweden, who isn't a party to the convention.”
“Well?” said Stuart dryly. “Why, then?”
“Because they've got something to fight for,” said the girl briskly. “I'm no Bolshevik, but I'm Chinese, and there are millions like me. For thousands of years we've had a symbol to fight for, an emperor. We got a republic, and lost all cohesion, because liberty is only a name; under liberty, we've had tyranny. All the war lords set up for themselves, or were puppets worked by strings. Then came the Red movement in Canton, and it can't be beaten! Not because it's red—that's mostly propaganda, mind—but because it's simply a cause to fight for. A symbol!”
Stuart opened his mouth to protest, but Howell broke in with a laugh.
“Right! Let's cut politics out. You're dead right, Miss Lui. The chief here has been drinking in all the pap that was fed him. Whew! Regular old war stuff, isn't it? Going all over the world, too. Well, the old world will wake up some day. Meantime, what's going on behind the arms convention? Rankest sort of rot. Everybody's running arms to their friends, and trying to stop any being run elsewhere, and that's the truth.”
“Who'd stop us?” I queried. Howell gave me a grin.
“Anybody, my son, anybody—we're not protected! We're not running 'em for the Japs, the British, or the French. Merely for ourselves and for the Chinese. And that's the worst sort of crime! Ethics be hanged. Miss Lui, or rather her father, is paying to have one lot of stuff shipped; I've bought the other lot, chiefly machine guns, and am shipping it on my own, and my chief interest lies in getting paid.”
“Aye,” said Stuart, giving him a shrewd look. “To let Chinese use them against white folks, aye!”
“Bosh!” I said. “Bosh, and you know it, chief! The only crowd who have any possible ethics are the Chinese. After all, it's their country.”
“Ye're a fool,” said Stuart dourly, and rose and went out.
“Yes, I'm afraid you're a fool, Browne,” said the skipper cheerfully, with a wink at Miss Lui. “There's the only logical standpoint in the China affair. Everybody who doesn't agree is a fool.”
She laughed, and it was a nice laugh to hear, ringing and musical.
“Quite correct, Captain! Do you think we'll be searched?”
Howell shook his head.
“Safe as a church, Miss Lui. All the available warships are up at Hankow, Canton, or other points that way, or else in a hurry to get there. If you made arrangements as I had cabled your father—”
“Exactly as you cabled,” she broke in. “Two days before I left Singapore we had a radio from our friends in Canton. You'll be met at the point desired.”
“Then forget any danger from that source,” said Howell decisively. Miss Lui leaned her head to one side and looked at him.
“Hm! Are there other sources?”
“Look at this crew of mine and you'd think so,” said Howell. “My mate gone; good old Sing gone, new men from stoke-hold to quartermasters—huh! If they've got wind of your bullion, then stand by for trouble. You've never seen piracy, have you?”
“Yes. I was aboard the Jade last year. I was brought in as translator.”
“We're not French,” said Howell grimly, then excused himself and left.
There was food for thought in all this. The Jade piracy was a famous matter. It took place in February of 1926, when the French steamer was calmly seized, run into Bias Bay and frisked. No one was hurt; the thing was done with absolute precision and good humor, and a bullion shipment removed intact. The pirate chief even told the French skipper that this was their sixth job, that they operated one a year, and it paid. But, as Howell had said, we were not French. If our precious outfit started trouble, it would not be bloodless.
Nothing occurred to justify all these piratical forebodings, however. With perfect weather backing her, the Wung Chow slithered and pounded along all that day and half the next, without incident, except that one of the Chinese forward was sick. It proved nothing bad, however.
Howell had things running like clockwork from the start, despite his short officer list. I found that we had thirteen natives aboard, including the steward Li, but this caused nobody any worry. We might have included McGregor to make fourteen, at a pinch.
“Odd how things work out, isn't it?” said Howell to me, the next evening, as we smoked on the bridge and watched the empty sea. I think he was keeping out of any steamer lane for his own reasons.
“Depends,” I said. “What things?”
“Coincidences. Here Miss Lui was aboard that craft last year—the Jade. Well, our late comprador Sing was aboard her, too. He was a bank shroff then. There's an odd point of contact established. They turn up all the time. If we knew everything about every one aboard here, I'd wager we could establish a dozen points of contact.”
“Especially in our ancestry—McGregor, for instance! By the way, I've been wondering why he should be suspected of anything, skipper. He arranged this shipment, didn't he? And he's in the company.”
Howell only shrugged and muttered something about blasted Eurasians, then went to look at the compass. Evidently he had no definite basis for his suspicion or he would have come straight out with it before this; McGregor was too sly for him, perhaps.
THE NEXT morning was working along toward noon when I met Miss Lui out on deck, walking, and I knew right off something had happened, merely by the look of her. We passed the time of day.
“Well,” I said, “what is it?”
“What is what?” she demanded, her eyes widening on me.
“That's what I want to know,” I said, laughing. “You look as though you'd just seen a ghost. What's up?”
“I had a fright,” she confessed, and said no more.
“Maybe,” I said. “You're not the frightening kind, I should say. A rat in your cabin?”
She only dimpled up in a smile, and then turned to Captain Howell, who was coming up.
“Good morning,” she responded to his greeting. “Captain, you remember we spoke about the Jade piracy? I told you I was the translator between the pirate chief and the French captain.”
“Yes,” said. Howell, with a nod. “Everybody's heard about that rascal, too the cold nerve of him! What was his name—Wen something?”
“Wang Shui,” she corrected. “Of the Kwangsi Wang family. By the way, the steward says that I have the cabin of your former supercargo, Sing and that he was on the Jade last year, too.”
“Yes,” said Howell.
His birdlike gaze probed hard at her. Both he and I sensed something extraordinary in her manner, something running about and leaping excitedly beneath her cool and calm exterior.
“Have you time to come down to my cabin for a moment?” she asked, and seemed to hang on his reply.
“Why, certainly!” said Howell. “Come along, Browne. What's up, Miss Lui?”
“Perhaps my imagination—you'll see,” she returned, with that queer elusive smile.
We accompanied her to the cabins beneath the bridge, and to Number Five. When she threw open the door and we entered, it showed little signs of her occupancy. She turned to Howell.
“Will you lie down on the bunk, please? The lower one.”
There were two berths against the steel wall to the left. There was another sign of her American training, the fact that she took the lower berth, and not the upper one, as an Englishwoman would have done. It made me smile, at the moment.
“Lie down?” said Howell. “Why—I suppose so.”
He got on the bunk, put his feet on the iron rail, and winked at me.
“All right, I'm down!” he said cheerfully. “What's next on the program? Anesthetic?”
“No, grease marks, apparently,” said Miss Lui. “Look along the wall at your left and see if you can make out anything.”
I looked at the white wall, and it was blank. Howell turned his head and looked. His cap fell off and he groped for it. Then his arm froze. His eyes fastened on something I could not see, and he frowned slightly. The slanting light from the port must have showed up something otherwise invisible.
“Hello! That is queer,” he said. “Looks as though some beggar had made marks with his finger—Chinese writing, what? Ideographs?”
“Naturally,” she returned. “Your late comprador, Sing, was Chinese—”
Her words trailed off, she gestured slightly, and waited. Howell whistled softly.
I stared at the wall, thrilling to the realization of it. Here was that man I had never seen except when at the point of death, that comprador, Sing, poisoned, probably knowing himself done for, unable to speak. He had lain in this bunk and had written words there on the wall with a greasy finger, invisible writing. Why? If he could have done that, then surely he could have left a visible message. It looked preposterous.
Howell turned his head, swung around and put his feet to the floor. His eyes were as if lighted by flashes of inner light.
“By the gods!” he said. “You know, it looks silly, dashed silly—eh? More behind it. Old Sing couldn't talk, but he could mark on the wall, with his finger. He did it two or three times by the looks of things there. Why no marks? He was trying to show somebody—ah! It was Johnson! That beggar could read Chinese and speak it. He and Sing were good pals. So that's why Johnson was knocked off too? Hi there, Li! Come in here!”
The steward had just passed the open door. He came inside and grinned.
“Did Sing give you any message or try to?” demanded Howell. Li grimaced, bobbed his head, and spattered out some Cantonese. Miss Lui translated for my benefit.
“He can't read or write, and Sing couldn't talk. So Johnson came and Sing wrote words on the wall. Johnson looked excited and started to shout—he had been drinking already. Then he tried to talk with Sing. Li says he went away and left them. Johnson came forward and spoke to some of the men and then went back to his cabin.”
It was rather incoherent and aimless and led us nowhere. The mate had been drinking, and that clapped a stopper on the whole business, ruined the comprador's dying effort, probably caused Johnson's death, too.
Howell lighted a cigaret.
“Alcohol costs a lot,” he observed. “Well never know what that message was now— Oh! So that's it, eh? You can read that invisible writing?”
Miss Lui was smiling, and now she nodded.
“Yes. You see how things work out, fit together—how the scattered pieces dovetail? Sing was aboard the Jade and undoubtedly remembered those pirates. He wrote a name here on the wall. Johnson was excited and shouted it out, then questioned some of the men; they all heard him, all knew Sing had told him that name. By the time he went back to his cabin and his liquor, the poison had been slipped into it. You see?”
“Aye, miss,” said Howell. “I see—all except the nubbin. What's the name?”
“Wang Shui. The leader of the Jade piracy. He's probably aboard here with his men and Sing had recognized him.”
IF MISS LUI was playing for dramatic effect, she sure got it.
Unless you had been out in those waters, you might miss the point. For a year or so, every one in the east had been talking of Wang Shui. After taking the Jade, Wang Shui and his men had talked coolly enough about their past exploits, even naming two of their former prizes, the Ling Chow and the Fung Wah. Then, although fully known, they had dropped clear out of sight with their loot.
Their program of one ship a year, their entire precision about the job, their cool nerve and assurance, all combined to lend Wang Shui's outfit a halo of romance, and strictly business-like romance, too. They were efficient rascals, and efficiency is so rare as to usually bring a halo of some kind. The many Chinese-owned ships, which carried only enough British officers to get Hong Kong registration, were so worked up about it that they had nearly come to comply with the Piracy Regulations—almost, but not quite. Every one in the Far East was conjecturing about where and when Wang Shui would fall on his next victim.
Naturally, the notion that he was aboard us with his gang was like a bombshell. We had an illicit cargo which would preclude our going into any port or getting aid from any other ship, short of extreme distress. Further, that cargo was as good as ready money when landed in any Chinese port; item, Miss Lui had brought along a lot of bullion, probably contributions to the Cantonese cause, collected in Singapore. It had to be gold, for the mad wars and rumors of wars in China had knocked out banking systems. All in all, the Wung Chow was made to order for Wang Shui and his gang. And if it was his gang which had come aboard at Macassar, we were just naturally out of luck.
I could see all this fitting through Howell's brain as he sat there and stared up at us. He was thinking ahead, though.
“It's conjecture,” he said, shooting out the words crisply. “Belshazzar had nothing on us when it came to writing on the wall, but he had a lot more to go on. Supposing our conjecture is true and Wang Shui is aboard—eh? Supposing these grease marks mean just that. Easy enough to prove! You say you've seen him and talked with him, Miss Lui?”
“Yes. A man one wouldn't forget,” she said. None the less, she was smiling a little as if she knew just what the skipper was driving at. And she did.
“Well, it's simple;” said Howell. “We'll call all hands for medical inspection. You take a look at every man aboard. If Wang is one of them, I'll put a bullet into him then and there, and end the trouble.”
“Very simple, yes, but life's never simple as it looks,” she said, with her odd little touch of Chinese philosophy or whatever you like to call it. “I've seen all your seamen, and he's not one of them.”
“Then he's in the black gang,” said Howell with conviction.
“I was down looking at the engines when watches were changed at eight o'clock this morning,” she said quietly. “He wasn't there.”
Howell grimaced. “——! Excuse me, miss. I didn't mean to say that. By George, when did you pick up this handwriting on the wall?”
“Early this morning.” She dimpled up, enjoying his aggressively startled air. “I went right to work, saw the men forward before the watch was changed, saw them afterward, and saw the engine-room gang at the change.”
“There's a sick man forward,” said Howell. “He's a thin, wispy chap, looks about sixty or more, has a gray pigtail, for a wonder. Looks very delicate. See him?”
She shook her head, still smiling.
“No need, after that description. Wang Shui was large, heavily built, young rather than old, and had nothing delicate about him. He may be stowed away somewhere.”
Howell came to his feet, caught his cap, and was gone through the doorway, all in one steel-spring movement, it seemed. I looked at Miss Lui, she looked at me, and we both broke into a laugh.
“Nothing to laugh about!” I said. “Just the same—well, what do you think about it?”
“I think Wang Shui's too clever for us,” she said, sobering.
“You really believe he's aboard?”
“Certainly. And now I've learned about this crew, I believe they're his men.”
“Clever, but how?” I said, puzzled. “A little tinpot ship like this one, especially, has no secrets. Cleverness wouldn't work, unless the man were in the crew. And he isn't.”
She shrugged, slightly, an odd gesture on her slight-shouldered Chinese body.
“You think of cleverness as something deep and subtle; I think of it as something very simple,” she said. “Simplicity is far more baffling than anything else, Mr. Browne. Now, if you go around carrying that gun in your pocket, when the time comes you'll doubtless find the loads all gone or the gun jammed. That's simplicity itself.”
“Oh!” I said, feeling foolish. “Thank you. I suppose you've got a gun hidden?”
“No,” she said, and laughed at me. “Not hidden.”
I went away. She might or might not be simplicity, but she was baffling as the deuce so far as I was concerned.
Howell and two of the men were going over the ship from truck to keelson, so I went up to the bridge. McGregor was there, having the deck. Everything had been very pleasant with the half-caste. That is, he was always purring and pleasant. He said, “Good-morning,” looked down and saw Miss Lui walking into the bows, and grinned.
“She has seen more than most men,” he said to me.
“What d'you mean?” I asked, not sure how to take his words. McGregor waved a sleek paw.
“Adventure! She was an agent for Dr. Sun before he died. She had seen all the wars in the north, going errands among the armies; she is a famous woman, Mr. Browne.”
“Hm!” I said. “She's an odd duck, all right.”
That tickled him, for some reason. He chuckled all over.
“You are right,” he said. “They say men have no secrets from her. The French have put a good price on her head, because she nearly got them turned out of Yunnan. She is a patriot, and patriots are very dangerous.”
“Less dangerous than plotters,” I said.
McGregor looked at me for a moment, silently, and I got a wholly new impression of that man for one swift instant. Timid, sleek, effeminate—all gone! A man looking out at me there, sharply suspicious of my words; the claws were bared for that flashing second, and in place of the cat was a tiger. Then the mask was back in place and McGregor laughed.
“Patriots are plotters, always,” he said sleekly.
I went away from there, too, with a cold feeling at the back of my neck. When you get an insight into a man it brings a certain revulsion—that is, such a man as McGregor. I no longer wondered about him.
At the foot of the ladder I ran into Howell, mounting with his instruments for the noon sight. He halted and gave me a look.
“Nothing doing. False alarm. What's happened to you?”
“Nothing much,” I said. “McGregor doesn't need any more explaining, that's all.”
“Oh!” He laughed silently, amusedly. “All right, m'lad, keep your eye peeled!”
That wound up everything. Wang Shui was not aboard and we had gone off on a false scent; nothing more to be done about it. There was no trouble with the men, the work got done and well done, and the old Wung Chow rolled along to the north and west without anything to worry over, outwardly or inwardly.
We knew, however, that the comprador had not indicated the pirate's name to Johnson for nothing, and the knowledge slowly festered in all of us, working uneasiness. We said no more on the subject, but I knew Howell was fully alive to what sort of man lay beneath the sleek, golden hide of McGregor.
I did have a lingering suspicion that the sick man forward, who remained sick, might be Wang Shui; certainly none of the other men aboard answered Miss Lui's description of the pirate. So, just to satisfy myself, I went forward one afternoon and descended to the forecastle, in the bows.
It was mid-watch. The place was obscure, and such of the men as were awake eyed me with stolid suspicion. The sick man was there; he was obviously not malingering, and was as obviously not Wang Shui the Great. He was a mere shadow, all skin and bones, uncommonly like a mummy in appearance. His age was made evident by the old-fashioned pigtail coiled about his head, for it was extremely gray, almost white; his face, too, had the peculiar cavernous hollows of old age. He lay with his eyes closed. His hands, on his blanket, were very large, shrunken of skin, transparent—the hands of a sick old man. No chance of this being Wang Shui, evidently.
So I was checkmated very neatly in my suspicions. Afterward, I told Miss Lui about it, described the sick man, and she laughed in her gentle, dimpling way.
“We have all been very foolish, perhaps,” she said quietly. “It is so easy to grow nervous, under the circumstances.”
So that was that. I asked Howell the same night how on earth he had taken on an old man who was so obviously, unable to do a tap of work. He laughed.
“The beggars slipped one over on me, Browne,” he said. “They carted him aboard, said he was drunk with opium, and would be all right in the morning, so I signed him on. Also, they refused to sign themselves if I didn't take him. When I found how they'd fooled me, I felt sorry for the old blighter. By the way, we'll raise the China coast tomorrow afternoon.”
“And nothing's happened,” I said.
“Nothing would happen—yet,” he answered with a shrug.
The weather had held perfect, and next day came out fine and warm. Miss Lui and I were together a good deal, for Howell had no time to waste on us; he was working hard over charts and calculations, and I understood that he was trying to fetch a certain point on the coast. Miss Lui said it was a little Chinese port named Hilong Bay, where arrangements had been made for taking care of our illicit cargo—a point well away from any treaty port, I judged.
At noon mess, Howell said he should raise the coast about four o'clock, but when we went on deck he was changing course to avoid a steamer's smoke to the eastward. Old Feng, as the sick man was named, was helped out on deck for the first time by two of the other men, and he sat on a mat near the forecastle hood, smoking a sleeve pipe and basking in the warm sunlight.
It was three o'clock, instead of four, when the blue line of coast became distinct on the horizon, and all of us thrilled to sight of China. The yellow men thrilled more than we did, naturally; they all came out and clumped around old Feng and stood staring at the coast-line, but I noticed they did not do much talking. McGregor showed up and sent them to work getting the hatches off, and it seemed to me that they looked to him narrowly, as if hanging on some word from him. Howell noticed it, and jerked his head to me. I left Miss Lui at the break of the bridge and went into the pilot-house.
“If all goes well we'll get rid of our stuff tonight,” he said. “Now's the time to watch your step.”
I nodded and went below, having my gun hidden in my cabin. It was there, and so were the spare clips of cartridges; but both they and the gun were empty.
How come? The obvious thing was to suspect Li, for the steward was the only Chinese who had access to the cabins. I knew better, and went back to the bridge and joined Howell.
“If I were you,” I said to him, “I'd go look up a stock of cartridges and hand some around to your supercargo and so forth. Those you gave me were of the vanishing variety.”
“Humph?' he said. “So were mine, as I found this morning. Go down to McGregor's cabin and take a look-see—a good one. I'll keep the yellow dog busy.”
“Mean to say you haven't any more?” I said. He gave me a grin.
“Think I'm a blinking arsenal, son? Move.”
I moved. McGregor's cabin was locked, as it proved. Li showed up, but looked blank when I asked for a key, and shrugged his shoulders. I put my shoulders to the door and opened it at the third try, and the chubby steward grinned all over when it smashed down. He came along and looked on calmly while I pawed through the room and everything in it. McGregor, if any one, had sneaked away our cartridges, for he had access to all the cabin passages, naturally.
A few odds and ends turned up that McGregor would not have wanted others to see, but no cartridges, and I was stumped. Then Li put in his bar, with a bland and cherubic smile.
“Maybe you walk him shoe bottomside,” he suggested.
I sniffed scornfully. Two pairs of high shoes were in sight, both shore-going patent leathers, carefully filled out with trees. I picked up a shoe and made it walk bottomside, and nothing happened. I looked up, and Li had silently departed. Either he had been making fun of me, or else was quite sure of his ground.
So I took the tree out, and found it merely a shell of aluminum on a metal spring-strap, such as may be had in any French port. Oddly enough, the boot remained very heavy, so I turned it upside down again. Still nothing happened. I explored, and my fingers came upon thick padding of cotton; this jerked out and something plopped to the floor. It was a neat little automatic pistol of small caliber.
Those four innocent boots yielded two nice little pistols, loaded, with extra clips and half a box of cartridges, and a good sixty rounds of larger cartridges, which fitted the Browning given me by Howell. I must admit that McGregor had pursued the very policy of simplicity laid down by Miss Lui, in concealing this stuff.
The door was smashed, there was no time to waste, so I pocketed my loot and went back to the bridge. There, I told Howell what I had found, but he only squinted out at the coast and nodded.
“Good,” he said. “Put the stuff on the table in my cabin and cover it over with an old copy of the China Herald—you'll find it under my pillow. I'll be right along.”
So I went back and obeyed orders, and waited. Howell came, lifted the newspaper, looked at the stuff, and covered it up again. Next moment McGregor came in.
“You sent for me, sir?” he purred.
“Aye,” said the skipper. “We may have a bit o' trouble tonight. Have you any guns?”
“No, I haven't, sir,” and the mate put on an anxious look. “If you could spare one—”
Howell looked at him, chuckled, and then struck out unexpectedly.
He must have hit that half-breed six times in three seconds. When he paused, McGregor was groggily hanging on to the table and gasping for air. Howell jerked aside the newspaper and showed him the pistols and cartridges.
“You're under arrest,” he snapped. “Browne, put him in your cabin and lock him in. Take out anything you don't want damaged by personal contact with the swine.”
I took McGregor's collar and ran him into my cabin, and left him there, all but knocked out, and went back to Howell. He gave me a cheroot and some cartridges.
“All over,” he said. “If anything was planned, he was behind it. Keep him safe. The job is yours. Leave the key in the lock so he can't pick it.”
I had already done just that, and Howell chuckled when I said so.
HOWELL gave me no other instructions. I needed none. Common sense and putting McGregor in my cabin showed the way, for the port of my cabin opened slap on the 'tween-decks, and at some distant time had been covered over with vitrophane, probably by some woman occupant. It was the only one so covered, and nobody could look in or see a face at that port.
It was a question, then, of keeping McGregor from communicating with the crew, for with him bottled up they would probably start no play. I figured out what I would do were I in the mate's shoes, and accordingly went right around to the 'tween-decks, empty at the moment. I waited alongside the port, and sure enough, presently heard it being unscrewed.
McGregor got a surprize. When he stuck his face out, I put my fist into it and knocked him sprawling.
“Now,” I said, “you get up and screw that port down and leave it screwed down. If you don't screw it tight—and I'll count the turns—I'll be back inside there with more of the same medicine. If you don't leave it tight, you know what you'll get.”
He was too frightened and hurt to call my bluff about counting the turns, and slammed the port shut and screwed it down promptly enough. I stamped away, then tiptoed back and sat down on the deck and lighted a cigaret, and watched.
Sure enough, in perhaps ten minutes, that port began to open without a sound. I got out my gun. None of the men were in sight. When McGregor swung open the port, I fired up into it. The bullet must have gone jumping and screaming around the steel walls of his room, for he let out a frightful howl and slammed the port shut again, shut for good, this time.
Miss Lui came along, looking rather hurried.
“Captain Howell wants to know if you fired a shot,” she said.
“Tell him, 'yes,' if you please,” and I laughed. “It was merely to make sure the cartridges had powder in them.”
“Oh!” She gave me an odd look and went away. So did I. It was certain now that McGregor would make no more attempts.
The skipper, Miss Lui, Stuart and I met at the dinner table. Li brought in a fine big dish of the most appetizing curry I ever smelt. The last two fowls had gone to make it. He beamingly told us that the cook had prepared it specially, and I saw Howell exchange a look with him.
“In that case, Li,” said the skipper, “take it to Mr. McGregor with my compliments, and let him enjoy it. I happen to know he loves curry.”
Li chuckled all over. Miss Lui dimpled up too, and Stuart kicked my ankle when I uttered a protest against sending McGregor the whole dish.
“Let be,” said the chief to me. “There's doings the night.”
When Li replaced the curry with a tin of beef which he opened himself, I saw the point. We were taking no chances on the cook, this last night.
None the less, I wondered. The meal over, I slipped quietly away and took a look in my old cabin. McGregor was there, all right, dead to the world, apparently sound asleep in the very act of eating, the curry a third gone. He must have hogged it fast.
I switched out the light and stepped into the passage, thinking hard. The curry had been drugged, right enough, yet why should McGregor have been caught by it, if he were the head and brains of the supposed piracy? The thought grew and grew, and somewhere, somehow, I sensed that we had made a horrible mistake.
? No doubt, yet impulse and sudden blind fear—if you ever felt around in an empty dark room and put your hand on a living thing, that's it. That's what this thought gave me! A regular panic. In the midst of it I saw Stuart coming to his cabin, pipe in mouth.
“Going below?” I asked dully.
“Not the night. The engines'll run, and I'm safer above. What's got ye?”
“Come in here and lend me a hand,” I said, hastily, waking into that queer blind panic again. “For the love o' Mike, hurry! Hurry! Hurry, chief!”
We worked with McGregor for perhaps ten minutes—a long time it was, and no nice work. We emptied his stomach and pummeled him and splashed him, and could not wake him. Stuart did not know why, and I was not sure, but we worked. I remembered now how Li had told me about those shoes. Honest, cherubic, plump Li! Fear grew and swelled within me.
“He won't come out of it,” I gasped, desisting at length. Stuart shook his head dourly.
“He won't. What of it?”
“Got to reach Howell—”
I turned and broke away.
“Losh, man, are ye crazy?” cried Stuart after me, but I did not stop. Things suddenly bulked large. Crisis, unexplainable, was about me.
Perhaps, after all, it was only our animal sixth sense, the warning of intuition that peril hovered close. I had reached no conclusion, had gained no clear reasoning process. I sensed the truth, vaguely and dimly, through the glass of something gone wrong, the glass of error, of a horrible mistake. Unfortunately for us all, I had not put my finger upon the one real and fearful mistake we made.
It must be made clear that, then and there, my brain was living hours in bare seconds. Such is always the case, I presume, in deadly instants. Out in the passage between the cabins I was fumbling with one hand for my pistol, running, and I was aware of bland little Li standing in the doorway of the skipper's cabin, staring round-eyed at me. My thought was all on reaching Howell and getting him here at once, and I tore past the steward without a pause.
And, as I passed him, the little —— struck.
I sensed the attack, rather than felt it, too late. And then I felt it; a flaring flame of helpless agony, a violent shock, an exquisite stab of pain as the knife was wrenched out of me. The deck came up at me, and I felt the cold plates as my face slid over them. I had a revolving, confused glimpse of Li with a knife in his hand, hurling himself upon Stuart, and then everything was chaotic and dark.
What a fool, not to have plumped a bullet into the steward and called Howell afterward! Yet the appalling realization had not been clear-cut, had left me panic-struck and without initiative. And I paid for the folly.
Some little time must have elapsed. When I came to myself, I was lying out beyond the end of the passage, at the low railing just above the forward well-deck, in darkness. How I got there was problematical. Momentum of the fall, or perhaps I had dragged myself there before collapsing. There I was, at any rate, without pain, without any power to act or speak, my returning consciousness feeble and flickering.
Queerly enough, what had taken place was now perfectly clear to me, though I was slow to absorb the scene just below my eyes, where a flare had been lighted, bringing every detail of the well-deck into high relief. What ridiculous folly in all our suspicions, all our wise and philosophical discussions! What fools we mortals are!
Because Li was a trusted servant, suspicion fled him afar. Because McGregor was personally disliked and detestable, perhaps because he was a half-caste, suspicion had gripped hard and fast upon him. Beyond doubt, the mate was fully aware of the general contempt and distaste for him, and resented it, repaid it with silent hatred. Well, we had committed a huge blunder there, and had paid for it. That we had committed an even greater blunder was now revealing itself before my eyes.
The tarpaulin had been taken from the forward hatch and the wedges knocked out, but the hatch cover was still in place. Seated on it was old Feng, the sick one from forward. He sat bowed over, hands folded in his lap, distinct in the light from the flare. Howell was just beyond him, watching two red lights being run up into the forward rigging.
Abruptly, old Feng lifted his head and called out something. His voice came with amazing volume, so that Howell turned and gave him a glance of astonishment. A reply came to him from the bridge. At that, Howell whipped about, one hand going to his pocket and, as he did so, Feng shot him in the back.
Hard to realize? Almost impossible. Feng sat there immovable, pistol across his knees. Howell spun around twice with his arms flinging out for support, then pitched to one side and lay face down. Two of the crew, near-by, flashed out knives and started for him, but Feng's voice cracked out and they stopped short.
And now occurred a curious thing—the explanation, in fact, of everything.
Feng stood up, looked toward the bridge, and called out again. The answer came, and he laughed. He put one hand to that gray pigtail coiled about his head, and tore it away with a swing that sent it hurtling out over the rail. A wriggling motion and he was out of his shirt, bare to the waist; he spat on his shirt, rubbed it over his face, flung it away, and then looked at his men and laughed. A howl of answering mirth went up from them—Chinese laughter, dark with cruelty.
A new man stood there. Thin and fragile, certainly, the shadow of a strong bodyand brought low by sickness, yet a new man from the fragile old wisp we had known. In place of the gray pigtail appeared close-cropped black hair; the painted shadows and hollows were smeared away from the face, so that its look of had vanished; and a shrill, exultant yell from the staring chinks apprised me of the truth.
“Wang! Wang Shui!”
This woke me up and no mistake. I seemed to have been lying there, looking on, for an eternity, yet it could scarcely have been a moment since Howell went down. The paralysis which had seized upon me was a bewildering thing—my brain was active, but I had no sense of feeling in my body. At the moment, I thought I was dying and done for.
At all events, I was helpless, my hand still jammed into my jacket pocket where my pistol was. I could do nothing but look on. When the yell died down, Wang Shui snapped a command, and got instant action. The yellow men vanished and there was a pattering of feet. Two of them came up the ladder and found me there. I shut my eyes, heard them sing out something, smelt their rank rancid bodies above me; then they were gone. Dimly enough, it came to me that they took me for dead.
They were back at the rail a moment later, shouting down at Wang Shui in shrill excitement, then disappeared once more. Since there was no sign of Li; I conceived that he had got Stuart, but had probably paid the price of his treachery, and I was right about it. A burst of laughter came from above, and I looked down at the well-deck once more.
Wang Shui stood as I had last seen him. The two red lights, evidently Howell's signal to some craft he expected to meet, were jerked down and stood on the deck. Two men were coming down the ladder, bringing Miss Lui with them. She was quite unhurt, and on gaining the deck walked up to Wang Shui with her arms held on either side. Her back was toward me, so I could not see her face in this moment.
Wang Shui grinned at her and spoke, evidently relishing the situation mightily. The two men let her free, and she talked back to him; all their speech was Greek to me, naturally. I saw Wang Shui jerk up his pistol and shove it into her breast, but she did not move, and if I were not mistaken, a flicker of admiration came into the pirate's face. He drew back a step and gave an order; the two men gripped her arms and led her back into the shadows.
Here came an interval, blank to me, probably a fainting spell of short duration. When I looked up again and lifted my head, the steward Li was down on the deck before Wang Shui, lying there; two men had just brought him. He came to one elbow, and I could see blood all over one side of his head. Poor Stuart must have battered him savagely against the plates. Wang Shui stooped down and took his hand for a moment, and Li dropped in a huddle, dead.
There was something of affection in this action, something strangely out of place, incongruous and amazing to me. Whether any relation existed between the two men, I never knew; but there it was, a human and natural thing against a background of cold horror. Wang drew himself up, gave an order, and a man went to the petrol flare. There came a sharp cry of protest.
It was Miss Lui. I saw her now, bending over Howell and speaking rapidly to Wang. He made a gesture of assent, shot a look around the dark horizon, and seated himself on the hatch cover. As nearly as I could make out, Miss Lui was bandaging the skipper—evidence that he was not dead.
A man whom I knew to be the assistant engineer showed in the light, spoke to Wang Shui and was given curt instructions. All were in it, then—all of them! Miss Lui stood up over Howell and called two of the men. They came, but waited before Wang Shui until he made a gesture of assent. Then they lifted Howell and carried him up, not by the port ladder where I lay, but by the starboard ladder on the other side, presumably to his cabin.
Wang Shui looked at the woman before him. I could not see that he gestured or spoke, but, swift as cats, two men stepped out and caught her by the arms. They brought her over to Wang, and I saw her smiling, as he spoke to her. There was something he wanted to know, obviously. She shook her head. Wang Shui reached back to his hip and produced a seaman's knife. The two men held out her arms. He reached forward with his knife and slit open the silk blouse at her throat.
All this took place literally beneath my eyes, perhaps twenty feet from me.
WHILE these things have taken much time in the recounting, I believe they really happened very swiftly, in rapid sequence of events. The Wung Chow was still driving ahead full speed under a starry but moonless sky. I was supposed to be dead, evidently, or Wang Shui would never have assumed such a pose of magnificent assurance and careless disregard of everything around.
Still smiling, as if deeply amused, Wang spoke again to Miss Lui. She had lost her smile now, but shook her head once more. The parted silk of her blouse hung over either breast, showing her throat and bosom. Wang Shui reached out and laid his knife-point against her flesh, and spoke again, as if giving her a last chance.
Just then some one came wheezing above me, went past, and padded down the ladder to the well-deck in the darkness—a dim shape, silent, meaning nothing to me except peril. The ship's engines stopped abruptly, too, probably by reason of Wang's orders. We floated quietly, star-clad, the well-deck a flaming pit of white light below me.
Wang Shui pressed with his knife, and I saw red drops come out on the girl's breast. Then, with this blood, the pirate began to draw a Chinese character on her skin. His gestures made his purpose quite clear—he meant to carve this character in her flesh, when he had drawn its outline.
At that instant, with the stoppage of the engines, I realized that my muscular control had returned. I could move. Perhaps the mere cessation of that steady pounding thrum below jerked my brain back to normal; an abrupt silence can do queer things to the human brain. My hand completed the motion it had begun when I was passing Li, and brought the pistol out of my pocket.
Then I felt pain, with the motion. The steward's knife had slipped from a rib, most luckily, and instead of piercing me had butchered my back, very likely taking in some of the nerve ganglia on its way. And it hurt, —— how it did hurt at this moment! Pain I needed to wake me up, however, and I deliberately moved, caught the lower bar of the rail-piping, pulled myself half-erect. Then I clung there in a blinding swirl-of sparks for an instant, as my head cleared.
And ere it cleared, a better man was ahead of me.
That petrol flare, below, was placed against the bulkhead on the starboard side to illuminate the hatchway, which it did very efficiently. Through this well of light I saw a figure dart and leap. It was upon Wang Shui even before his men could yell. With one hand it caught his knife-wrist and jerked it sharply back; with the other it held a knife under his armpit, pressed to the skin of his side.
It was McGregor.
After one sharp, panted command in Chinese, he stood motionless, master of the scene. Wang Shui could not move lest the knife drive into him; his men dared not interfere. One or two of them cried out and then fell silent. McGregor repeated his command. The two men holding Miss Lui let go her arms. McGregor motioned with his head and she walked away to the starboard ladder and I did not see her again for the moment.
What a man that half-caste was! He had not a ghost of a chance, in the end, and knew it well enough. The tiger in him was all to the front now, the sleek cat was gone. He stood gripping Wang Shui's arm, his eyes glinting and glaring around, teeth showing as his lips drew back. Abruptly, a stream of Chinese burst from him; I think he was making a lone-handed play for control, by virtue of the hostage under his knife-point.
Then occurred an incident typically Chinese in its cold-blooded disregard for human suffering. The two men who had released Miss Lui stood to the right of the hatch, a bit abaft it. One turned to the other and seized him by the throat. I did not know what it meant, certainly no one else did, until he forced the other man backward deliberately. Then a frightful scream, and the well-deck was plunged into darkness. The man had extinguished the flare with his comrade's body.
What happened then was difficult to say, impossible to see. Figures swirled back and forth. I heard McGregor's voice lifted in shrill, panted curses, and they were choked midway. The deep, piercing voice of Wang Shui drove out amid the pound of naked feet on the plates, and following the sound of it, I saw his indistinct figure below me.
My head was all too clear now. I rested the pistol on the rail, aimed, and pressed the trigger. I got my man.
Too late to save poor McGregor, but not to late to avenge him. Wang Shui went down. Next instant, figures were on the ladder below me. A pistol spurted fire. I shot again and again, until the hammer clicked and the ladder was clear. Some one came up along the rail, and I heard Miss Lui's voice.
“Who is it? Quick, quick—the cabins!”
She had gone to pieces; I could tell it in her voice. Small blame to her, either, but it was no time to go hiding in the cabins. I was on my feet now, and if I got off them I would not get on them again in a hurry. It was win or lose all at one crack, now.
“Stop babbling!” I said. “Shut up! There's a belt hanging over my berth—bring it here, and do it quick! Get a pistol off the captain's table, if one's there yet. —— it, will you move?”
She moved at that, and was gone in the darkness.
Shrill yells seemed to be going up from everywhere as I fumbled for an extra clip, shoved it in, then got fresh cartridges into the empty one. I was to my feet now, and the piping of the rail went on up past me to the bridge above, so I could pass an arm around it for support. Momentarily, I was safe, protected from above by the overhang of the bridge. No figures were moving about below, but the cheeping voices repeated the name of Wang Shui, and I knew I had settled him. It made me feel better.
The only light in the well-deck came from the two red lanterns, still slung and lighted, and it illumined nothing. A step behind me, and Miss Lui was at my side.
“Here's the belt,” she said.
“Good girl. Get it under my arms and around this piping. Don't touch my lower back, for ——! Under my arms—that's right—support me—”
I felt her warmly against my side for a moment, as she worked, and was thankful she had regained her poise. She adjusted the belt and drew it up, buckled it.
“You're hurt?” she said. “Let me—”
“Shut up!” I said, impolitely. “Your job is to go down into that —— and hoist those two red lights. They're still on the line. I'd do it, but I can't walk. I'll try to cover you.”
“Wang's dead, they say!” came her voice.
“Move, blast it!” I shrilled at her. “I know he's dead. Now or never is your time!”
She was brave enough. Without another word she slipped down the ladder and was gone.
I waited what seemed an eternity. There was a bare chance she might make it and live. Yet the gamble was a good one. Wang Shui was undoubtedly the only one of the gang to have had a pistol—coolies don't have much chance to hang on to such weapons ashore, and even less to bring any aboard ship. Howell would have searched that gang to the hide. If Wang Shui were alive, those red lights would not stay up a moment, would not even get up; but Wang was dead, and with his death the others had become a demoralized gang of panicky rats, cornered and fighting, but with all guiding intelligence destroyed. Sooner or later the signal must bring the boat Howell expected.
Sooner or later—there was the rub! How long I could last was doubtful; though with the supporting belt I felt in fair shape. The expanse of the sea was quite dark, and my heart sank. Useless, perhaps, after all.
From somewhere, the sound of a scuffle, a yell. The two red lanterns were swinging up in the air. More yells. Two shapes moved below, to my right, and I fired at them. Then, midway of the narrow passage to my right, across the front of the cabins, came an astonishing patch of light, and it struck full upon a naked man from the black gang, darting at me with his knife out. I let him have it full. He whirled about, fell, and dragged himself back into the darkness, groaning and whimpering.
I stared at the patch of light, wondering—why, it came from the skipper's port! Howell must be alive, awake, must have swung aside the curtain! I swung about, looked down. The well-deck showed nothing at all. The red lights were up, steady, high.
“Mr. Browne!” Her voice came from the ladder's foot below. “I'm—ah! Look out above!”
I twisted about, just as a knife drove by my neck. A man was on the ladder there, leaning far over, thrusting at me. To my shot, he pitched off and thumped on the deck below. And now a pistol echoed my shot, from the forecastle. One of those yellow devils must have secured Wang Shui's pistol. He shot again, and the bullet spanged on the iron piping beside me. I answered with my last cartridge, worked in my fresh clip, and rattled bullets all around him. One of them got him, for he screeched horribly and did no more shooting.
“All right!” panted Miss Lui, springing up beside me. “Probably none of them will realize what the lights mean. The captain can walk a little.”
“Aye, he can that!” came the voice of Howell himself, faint and weak but with his old dry chuckle. “And what's more to the point, he's got a gun! Where's Browne, eh?”
“Here,” I said. “If we could get those deck lights turned on—”
“Turn 'em on, Miss Lui,” said Howell. His voice seemed far away. “You'll find the box with the switches—”
That was all I heard. Howell was here, the emergency passed. I must have sagged limply on the supporting strap.
The sharp, insistent reports of a pistol brought me back, and I blinked around as I straightened up on my feet. Silence. A hand to my back showed bandages around me. Good for Miss Lui! Where was Howell, then?
Lights. The deck passages were lighted now, no one in sight. My foot struck against something, and I looked down to see Howell there on the deck, senseless. Sharp realization waked me, then came Miss Lui's voice.
“He should not have come out—he fainted. Here's your pistol, reloaded. They just tried to rush us—”
She was leaning against the rail, almost beside me, shoving the pistol at me. They must have come close to pulling it off, too. Half her silk blouse was ripped away, and along her naked right arm was a wale of blood; her hair was down, and tears were streaming over her cheeks. She had gone to pieces now that it was over, temporarily.
The urgency spurred me to an effort of will, jerked me to myself, luckily, for Miss Lui all but collapsed against me, whimpering that she had killed two men. It made me laugh, even at such a moment. She, who had seen battle and the hideous track of Chinese armies, unnerved over killing two coolies! But there's no logic in a crisis, not to mention a woman. They must have tackled her at pretty close quarters, too.
I utilized fragments of her torn silk blouse to bind up the scratch along her arm, and presently she began to laugh at herself, shamedly, and pulled herself together. While we were in the light, so were the passages and ladders; the ship lay motionless, barely heaving to the swell. She must have switched on all the lights, for two were going below, lighting the well-deck. I could see McGregor lying on the hatch, two other shapes sprawled out near his body, and Wang Shui directly below where I had shot him. How many of his gang remained was a question. Probably Miss Lui had wounded two men instead of killing them as she thought.
The two red lights still swung high. We must have been close to the coast, for I could see a dark splotch against the water, not far away, perhaps an island. However, the imminence of this danger did not worry me in the least.
“Think they've had enough?” I asked. i Miss Lui listened to the chattering murmur of voices, then caught her breath. She turned a strained face toward me.
“They say they will rush us, get the money they know is in the safe, take a boat and make for the coast. They think I'm alone, because they knew you had fainted. They're coming now!”
I laughed, and sagged down in the belt again, my head hanging. There was no chance to go in for explanations. Probably the woman thought I had really fainted, for I heard her repress a startled cry; but I was not thinking of her just then. As my head hung, I could see the passage behind us and to our right, and moving figures were already there.
Miss Lui reached down, caught up the pistol that had fallen from Howell's hand, and fired twice. They were coming now, and coming fast, knives out, and as they came, I whipped around and my pistol opened on them. I could not trust myself to hit, except at close quarters; but these were close enough. A yell of dismay shrilled up from them as I came into action. Howell, wakened by the shots, rolled over, cried out sharply with pain, then began to struggle up.
An iron pin came for me through the air. I saw it, could not dodge it, shot the man who hurled it, and then it smashed fair into me. All the world went up in sparks, and that was the end so far as I was concerned.
I PUT a hand to my head, found an egg-sized lump over my ear, and pulled myself together by aid of the belt under my shoulders. The air seemed full of voices, all Chinese. They came from the water, from below, from above. Miss Lui was not in sight. I was there all alone except for a dead coolie on the deck.
Then Howell came in sight, pulling himself along the rail and grimacing. He halted and waved a hand at me.
“All over! That's our craft down there—they've got men aboard now.”
“Our craft?” I said, staring. “No ship—oh! That dark splotch on the water!”
“That's it,” said Howell. “Your red lanterns and the shooting did the business for us. It's all over but the paying. Twenty per cent. split for you, old chap.”
“To —— with your split!“ I said, staring at the water alongside, where the dark shape rose up. “Give it to McGregor's family, if he's got one.”
Howell broke into laughter—sharp, keen-edged, bitter laughter.
“Aye, I'll attend to all that besides,” said he. “And the twenty per cent. is yours all the same. We made some bad blunders, Browne. Miss Lui is looking up her bullion—”
“Oh, shut up!” I said, and looked down at the deck where McGregor lay. “I'd give it all and more if we had that chap back, if we hadn't made that blunder about him.”
Howell dragged himself over to me and put a hand on my arm.
“Would you now, son?” he said, and his voice was queerly soft. “If you feel that way about it, how d'you think I feel—eh? My blunder, not yours. There's things a man can't forget and never will, Browne—things that burn into him and bite into him until his soul turns over and writhes, and he's got to live with himself. Aye! Live with his blunders. That's hell, lad. All the hell I ever want.”
I looked at the burning gray eyes in his pallid face, and had no words to offer.
- See China Year Book, 1926-27, p. 839.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in 1927, before the cutoff of January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1949, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 73 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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