The Cat and the King (novelette)
(A Complete Novel)
IF I did not tell the true story of the abdication of Old Emperor Bugs, who ever would?
Not Bethell; poor chap, he died before he could free his soul of what was crying to be heard of all the world. Nor Stevens, even if he would; a Korean bullet fetched him in San Francisco, you remember, and neat Japanese vengeance groped blindly for a while before it found several to pay the price of his assassination. Who, then? Why, there’s only the Girl and myself, and when I met her by chance over at the Astor House in Shanghai only last winter, and suggested that she might put what she knew into a moving-picture film which would unreel to packed houses all over the circuit, she shuddered a bit and said with a queer little gasp: “Billy, it would be like opening the doors of a tomb. I can't.”
So now, that I am living in the drab security of an elevator apartment house in Brooklyn, and the Jamaican Mercury in the tapestried hallway does not in the least resemble one of Hasegawa’s cute little spies, why should I not put to paper the story of how three in Korea flirted with sudden death—walked blindfolded in the jungle of fine Oriental diplomacy—for the sake of that weird old rummy, the Emperor Bugs? Even though the maniac in the apartment below has been three hours at her “finger exercise,” and the old—clothes man is screeching in the street, it is not hard to open a shutter in my mind and live once more, right in the midst of the musty old wilderness of Seoul’s antiquities, those days of terror and of high adventure. Ha! When I, a flat dweller of staid Brooklyn, was a Lord of the Golden Umbrella, and the Girl was an emperor’s kidnaper!
I’ll have to begin by telling who Bethell was. A gadfly, that’s what this squatty, bull-headed little Britisher was—a gadfly whose sole aim in life was to puncture the Japanese hide in Korea during those sad years after the close of the war with Russia. I don’t know where Bethell came from; maybe it was Nagasaki, or Kobe; but there he was, in the City of Shadows, with his little four-page Korea Daily News, before ever the last Russian was driven across the Sha-ho, biting and stinging the Japanese usurpers with every stickful of type that his Korean compositors set up.
Little Hagiwara, Hasegawa’s Man Friday, used to drop spiteful hints about Bethell’s newspaper being subsidized by the Russians; I never believed him, knowing that Bethell, in his blind, bull-charging way, was convinced of the iniquity of Japan’s actions in the Land of the Morning Calm, and was quite sincere in tilting at the big windmill of Japanese diplomacy with his puny pen.
And how this slashing, cutting little Britisher did get under the skins of Hasegawa, and Megata, and all of the rest of the Japanese “advisers” to old Emperor Bugs! When he showed up the fine trade Japanese counterfeiters did in lead twenty-chon pieces—invoiced as “nails” from Osaka—Megata screamed protest. When he exposed the Japanese trick of appropriating Korean peasants’ property by the square mile “for military purposes,” General Hasegawa, military commander of Chosen, squirmed and fumed.
The empire of Japan, you see, triumphant over the Russians, was appropriating Korea, which it had promised to protect, as a legitimate spoil of war, but it was accomplishing its purpose of absorption in a characteristically Oriental method of indirection.
And there stood Bethell, almost the only champion of the Koreans, and of the Emperor Bugs, defying the Japanese, uncovering their neat little tricks, urging the Koreans to resistance at every turn. Wrong he was, often; intemperate at all times; but the epitaph that ought to be carved over poor Bethell’s clay, wherever it may lie in that grim land of ghosts and goblins, ought to be: “Whatsoever he did, he did with his might.”
And now the Girl.
One night in October—the year was 1905—she walked into the dining room of Looie’s Astor House outside the South Gate of Seoul,and very demurely she took her seat and began to give her order to Pak, the pussy-footed waiter. Bethell and I were at our table across the room; Bethell was right in the midst of a tirade against Hasegawa, but he stopped short, both eyes on the new-comer.
“Ripping!” said Bethell, with a little intake of his breath. And she was. Tall and willowy; her head sat on her shoulders with an air of quiet assurance that was good to see; she had a great coil of auburn hair piled high above her forehead. None of your soft and melting beauty in her face. No, sir! Her features were irregular-eyes very wide apart and mouth too large, maybe, to get a certificate from a beauty specialist. But there was a stamp of—how shall I put it?—independence; yes, and glorious self-reliance and fine reserve on that face. They combined to make it handsome—striking.
Bethell and I both itched to know who she was and what she could be doing in Seoul, where mighty few white women except missionaries and the wives of diplomats ever come. We raced through our meal and got Looie aside out in the bar to tell us all he knew. Looie shrugged his shoulders and cast his eyes to the ceiling.
“She ees alone! And for luggage—one leetle tronk an’ one suit case. Labels? Yes, yes—from ze Astor House, Shanghai; from ze Oriental Palace, Yokohama; aussi Pacific Mail from San Francisco.”
Pak, the waiter, came padding into the bar that minute and tapped Bethell on the arm.
“New missis like look-see you,” said Pak. “Like look-see Mis’ Bethell, she say.”
Bethell left the barroom with a queer crease of perplexity between his eyes, albeit he grinned in triumph over me. He was gone almost an hour, while Looie and I speculated wildly over glasses of Fernet Blanca as to the identity of the mysterious, red-headed girl and what her mission in Seoul might be.
Then Bethell came to the door. He beckoned me with a mysterious gesture, and I left Looie in a fine Gallic spirit of typhoon.
“Something big, Billy,” Bethell whispered hoarsely as the door closed behind us. “Whopping big; and she, the Girl, and I will need you. Come!”
Bethell was humming excitedly under his breath all the way up the rickety stairs that led to the room called by courtesy the “ladies’ parlor” on the second floor of the dilapidated Astor House. The Girl—for that’s what Bethell and I dubbed her from the first meeting—rose to meet us as we entered. I can see now the coppery glory that the light flung about her head, the level, confident gleam in her two violet eyes, the fine line of power that was drawn by her wide lips. We were introduced by Bethell—and I’m not going to give the name I heard, for the Girl still has work in her chosen line to do.
“Now you’d better tell Billy everything that you told me,” Bethell then said. “He's an American like yourself; he’s an American with nerve, furthermore; and I’d trust him like my own brother.” So did this big-hearted, fighting Britisher flatter me with the extravagance of his language.
The Girl took a swift look about, peeped into the hall, closed and locked the door, and then we three sat down in a close circle under the ridiculous old swinging lamp, and she began to speak. Her voice was low, vibrant; it had a thrilling quality that would make a man swim the Gulf of Pechili at its bidding. That voice, those eyes made the Girl what she was-and is—a ruler of men.
"I come to Seoul,” she said, “representing a certain powerful man at present in Shanghai, and his name is——” The Girl slipped a little gold pencil off her chatelaine, whipped a page from a notebook she had in her pocketbook, and wrote a proper name. I do not intend to reveal that name now; suffice it to say that it was that of one of the very clever men who clear the rocks from the path of Russia’s “glacial advance” through Asia; of one whose hand has done more to mold history in the Far East than any other. When I had looked at the writing on the slip of paper, the Girl tore the piece into very fine particles and dropped them back into her purse.
“And all that I have to do here in Seoul is to kidnap the emperor,” she added, with a rare smile.
Of course, I was flabbergasted, Bethell’s eyes were shining as he looked over at me and nodded his head enthusiastically.
“So that’s all?" I asked with a weak attempt at raillery.
“Maybe not,” she answered, just the shadow of rebuke in her voice. “Let me explain, as I have already explained to» Mr. Bethell. The—the gentleman whose name I have just shown you has definite information that within the next three weeks Japan is going to make her biggest stroke in Korea. Marquis Ito is to come over here and force the emperor to sign away the sovereignty of his country under a Japanese protectorate. Japan has sounded England and the United States on the move, and has been told that if she can twist affairs around so as to make it appear that the request for a protectorate comes from the emperor himself there will be no notice of the steal taken by London or Washington. But—and understand this point—Japan knows that Germany and especially Russia, whom she is trying her best to conciliate now the war is over, would not countenance a grab without some show of Korean willingness.”
Believe me, it was strange to sit there behind locked doors and listen to this clear-eyed young woman speak of chancellories and the shifting of secret balances as she might of Pomeranians in a dog show.
“You know,” she continued, “that the old emperor would rather cut off his topknot than agree to the signing away of his sovereignty. You know that he fears just such pressure as Marquis Ito is coming over here to apply. He has already rushed Hulbert to Washington to intercede with Roosevelt. But here is the point: if the emperor’s seal is not set on that protocol of a protectorate that Ito is coming here to obtain, Japan will not dare to steal Korea. Furthermore, poor old Bugs believes that if he does not sign away his rights the Japanese will assassinate him. “Well?” the Girl asked with an odd light in her eyes. “What’s the answer?”
I shook my head. I was bewildered; did not catch the drift of her design.
“Why, Russia will offer him through me an asylum in Shanghai. By flight the old emperor will show Japan’s hand down on the table. Ito cannot put his deal through. Germany and Russia will inquire what is happening in Korea to force its ruler to skip. Japan cannot dare to fly in the face of the world’s outraged sensibilities.”
The Girl threw back her gorgeous head and laughed a silent, whole-hearted laugh—all with those big violet eyes.
“Do I make a noise like a professor in secret history?” she asked. “But, anyway, you see it. You catch the spirit of this big game that my friend in Shanghai hopes to play through you gentlemen and me. ‘See Bethell,’ was the way he gave final instructions the night before I left Shanghai. ‘See Bethell, and if it is possible to do the trick, Bethell will do it.’
“And now I’ve seen Bethell, and Bethell allows me to see you, Mr. Billy, and—and the fat’s in the fire.” She made a winsome gesture of lifting a glass to her lips. “So here’s to Ito, Marquis of Japan, and may he take our dust.”
I will not go into all the details of that long, whispered talk we three had in the “ladies’ parlor” Bethell gave the Girl a clear picture of what the situation was at the palace; how the emperor and his imbecile crown prince were surrounded by spies and tale-bearers; what measures Hasegawa had taken to keep old Bugs practically a prisoner in his own imperial suite; who of his craven ministers had been bought by the Japanese, and who remained loyal, though in daily terror of their lives. When he raised the question of how the Girl was to gain audience with his majesty we had another glimpse of the remarkable resource of this friend of diplomats.
“Why, I have come to Seoul to paint his majesty’s portrait,” she answered, with a confident smile. “I have already painted the portrait of the old dowager empress in Peking, and the dear old lady gave me an autograph letter and hung me around with jade chains till I looked like a Christmas tree. And, besides, I have some other certificates of character.”
She went to her trunk and brought out a thin packet of papers. One was a letter from a Very Big Man in Washington; another bore the signature of the American minister to China; still a third was from the wife of the British ambassador at Tokyo.
“My tickets of admission to the emperor’s palace,” she laughed.
Bethell and I took our leave about ten o’clock and went down to the bar to talk things over further. Maybe it was midnight and we were still over Looie’s single battered pool table, when the silence was split by a pistol shot.
Looie came running into the bar from his little office, where he had been nodding away his regular nightly potations. There was a sound of pattering feet in the servants’ quarters behind the hotel. The watchman at the gate set up an infernal shaking of his iron staff, cluttered with tinkling rings.
A clear voice came down from the head of the stairs above just as we were moving from the bar out into the central hallway.
“Will somebody come up to my room?”—it was the Girl’s voice. Bethell and I exchanged glances of apprehension—“I have just had to shoot a burglar.”
We found her—Looie, and Bethell, and I—standing under the light of the little bracket lamp in the hall. A long figured-crape kimono covered her night-dress; two great ropes of shining burnt gold hung down over each shoulder, alive with light in the contrast with the pale green of the kimono. She held a short, heavy automatic concealed under the folds of the kimono, where she had gathered it about her breast.
She did not say a word as we came panting up to where she stood, but motioned that Looie bring the lamp. She preceded us into her room and nodded to a little alcove, jutting out into the broad balcony which girdled the second story of the hotel. There her trunk stood, opened. By it was a sprawling blotch of blue—the blue of the Japanese coolie’s surtout.
It was Bethell who turned the dead man over so that his coarse, simian face with its topping brush of black wire hair lay in the light. Bethell looked up at the Girl with a quizzical face.
“Yes,” she said in a fiat, emotionless voice. “Beginning right away, are they not?”
It was Stevens who arranged the audience with his majesty two days after the Girl’s arrival in Seoul. I believe that this was the only mistake Stevens ever made. He was, you see, adviser to the Japanese advisers of the Korean government—the shrewd, calculating wheel within a wheel, who earned all the Tokyo ministry paid him by directing the devious course of its diplomacy at that grand old mud heap of Seoul. I do not believe Stevens would have interested himself at all in the Girl’s case if she hadn’t turned the full battery of her eyes upon him and, incidentally, shown him that letter from the Very Big Man at Washington. At any rate, Stevens opened the way to the palace, and thither we went, the Girl and I, on a sparkling October morning. It was no trick for me to have audience with the emperor, because, as exalted deputy collector of the imperial customs and possessor of the Order of the Golden Umbrella, I always went armed with a double-barreled “open sesame.”
“My friend,” she said, turning a quiet smile into my eyes as I sat by her side in the state carriage which had been sent to fetch us, “this is the biggest game I’ve ever stalked, and—and I am supremely happy.”
“And not the least bit afraid?” I queried. "The other night, you know that Japanese who came in to look over your trunk; the littlest cog in the admirable spy machine here in Seoul. What he might have done———”
She interrupted me with a low laugh, thrilling with suppressed animal spirits.
“Clumsy—clumsy,” said the Girl. “These little brown brothers are very elemental, after all. Now, in Russia, or France, a polite agent of the secret service would have waited until one was away from one’s room—and then would not have disturbed so much as a pleat in one’s dinner gown when going through the trunk. But here they send a burglar—to be sacrificed.”
So the Girl rode to meet Adventure with a laugh on her lips. Through the twisted streets of this ancient heap of ruins—the city of a thousand years’ sleep—passed a bronze-haired Semiramis, bound on a mission to steal an emperor. And there was I, chained by her eyes, her voice, her superb spirit of daring, deliberately following into a labyrinth of Oriental guile from which there well might be no return. Yet I went fatuously. I felt like D’Artagnan, riding into Paris to snatch a prize from fate at the end of a long sword.
In the anteroom of the audience chamber we found little Hagiwara, the ubiquitous eyes and ears of General Hasegawa—Hagiwara, the suave and smiling master of the emperor’s court, under whose scowl the craven Korean palace fixtures cringed, and at whose bidding convenient “suicides” were arranged. A dapper little jackal was Hagiwara, whose teeth were very sharp, and whose bark was more terrifying to the old Emperor Bugs than the gibbering of all his ancestors’ ghosts. Hagiwara had, of course, been apprised of our coming. He advanced over the outlandish purple and blue carpet of the anteroom with dainty, catlike tread. I introduced him.
“Ah, Mr. Hagiwara, your friend Mitono of the consulate in Shanghai commended you to me before I left for Seoul.” The Girl’s velvety voice was purring and soft. “He told me that you were a man of influence in the court here, but that you were so impervious to feminine appeal that I must be an unusual woman to win your favor.”
“Yiss—ah—yiss.” Hagiwara ducked his close-cropped head and smiled with every angle of his face. He came up standing under the full fire of those two big eyes. The Girl was still holding the tips of his fingers.
“But I am sure, Mr. Hagiwara, that you are not so terrible a monster as you have been painted. Surely, you will not growl at a poor portrait painter who comes to seek your protection in this terribly barbarous court.”
“No—ah—no,” babbled Hagiwara, his face flushing scarlet.
The Girl had him hooked. She drew him confidentially aside as if she would give him some secret too precious for my ears. I watched them out of the corner of one eye. There stood the Girl, radiant, wonderful in the softly clinging silk and voile of her Paris gown, and the sweeping white plumes that drooped to brush her burnished hair; her head was bent slightly so that she might bring her lips closer to Hagiwara’s ear—a delicately personal and confiding gesture—and her hands were clasped before her in a pantomime of mock appeal.
I heard a trickle of silvery laughter. “Yiss—yiss,” said Hagiwara eagerly, and he turned to lead us into the audience chamber. As the Girl passed me there was just the slightest lift of her eyebrows, and mischief flashed from her eyes.
Poor old Bugs; he had so many things to worry him in those dark days of the decay of his state and the weaving of snares about his feet, it was hardly fair that the old codger should be put to the shock of the Girl’s galvanic presence. I remember how he sat, in his outlandish, stuffed, plum-colored silk robes, and the aureole of horsehair crown about his head, all huddled together on his teak and marble throne. About him were clustered all of the goat-eyed ministers, and soothsayers, and geomancers, the leeches sticking to the tottering throne, each decked out in the outlandish purples and whites of the official court costume and bonneted with the inevitable horsehair flytraps. The wonderful old Chinese screen, representing the mountains of the moon and a ramping dragon trailing his scaly length across them, which stood behind the throne, furnished appropriate background for this shadow court of a dead nation.
I can see now the look of wonder that flashed into the tired eyes of old Bugs as the Vision of gently undulating gossamer and silk, topped with the red-gold coils and the trailing white plumes, flowed-that's the word—down the long room and paused with a deep curtsy before the steps of the throne.
The Girl lifted her eyes, filled with awe and deference, to the wrinkled face of the monarch, and remained in the difficult pose of obeisance until, with a surprised grunt, old Bugs scrambled to his padded feet and extended his hand in a gracious gesture. She made a tremendous sensation. Courtiers waggled their beards in excited whispers behind the emperor’s back. Witch doctors and sign readers buzzed the news of the Girl's coming out through side doors and alleyways. Hagiwara, who stood boldly in front of the throne, fussed with the tips of his collar and seemed on the point of choking.
It was Prince Min Yung, a right decent sort, and unswerving in his loyalty to the emperor during all the whirlwind of intrigue, who acted as interpreter. The emperor extended himself in pretty phrases. He wanted to know by what kindness of the gods his poor court had been honored by the presence of so fair a stranger. He heard, right away, that the Girl, who was a humble painter person from America, and who had enjoyed the honor of putting on canvas the sacred features of the dowager of China, could not feel that life was complete until she had done similarly by his augustness, of whose greatness and glory she had heard wondrous tales in far—away America.
The palaver was rich in metaphor and dripping with courtesy. Old Bugs was plainly tickled. Casting an apprehensive eye upon Hagiwara, his majesty answered that he would have to take the Gir1’s request under advisement. It was an unusual favor that she asked; he was not at all sure that he would not sicken and die if his features were transferred to canvas; he would have to get the advice of his spook doctors. However, since the empress dowager of China had not died as the result of her experience, he was prone to look with favor upon the American lady’s petition. He would beg that she return to the palace on the morrow and receive his decision.
The emperor was eager as a child to find excuse for keeping the Girl longer in his presence. I did not blame him, poor old beggar, for trying to keep a sunbeam in that musty old audience chamber, whose very walls whispered plots. But his visitor knew the value of a pleasure deferred, and she made a graceful excuse for withdrawing from the presence of the Little Nephew of Heaven. She was not allowed to go, however, until his majesty had instructed one of his chamberlains to show the radiant American stranger the beauties of his deer park and summer pavilion.
We went out of the palace to the wildwood behind; but the chapfallen chamberlain did not have a chance to show any of the quaint beauties of tilted gable and carven lions. Hagiwara did that. The little Japanese strutted by the Girl’s side as if he were stepping on rose leaves. I, who kept at a distance behind with the chamberlain, could hear the patter of his syncopated English, broken by occasional gusts of the Girl’s full-throated laughter. Hagiwara was completely by the ears. When he handed the Girl into the carriage after our tour of the deer park, he insisted that she must accept his invitation to the garden party that was to be given the following week at the Japanese legation. It was in celebration of the birthday of the emperor of Japan.
“A very cute little mouse—Hagiwara,” was the only comment my companion made during the drive down to the South Gate and the hotel.
“Yes, and the cruelest little mouse in this whole worm-eaten house,” I added.
“He did not beg my pardon for setting his unfortunate spy to work on me,” the Girl mused. “But he will—oh, yes, he will—before I am through with him.”
The wife of the American minister was waiting when we arrived at the Astor House, and she took the Girl over to the legation quarters for tiffin and the afternoon. I went immediately to Bethell’s little printing shop over back of Furniture Street, and there, in his dowdy office, we had our heads together for the better part of the afternoon. Bethell, who knew the underground channels of palace approaches as well as any Korean, dispatched an oral message to Prince Min Yung—that we must see the prince at his home over by the West Gate that night at all hazards was the tenor of the message.
We made our devious way after dark, separately and each by a different route, to the prince’s house. Caution and not a little back—fence climbing were necessary, because the prince, on account of his known loyalty to the emperor and his constant scheming to block the Japanese game, was honored by the constant surveillance of Hagiwara’s spies.
I can never forget the dramatic quality of that meeting in the darkened guest room of this real Korean patriot. We—Bethell and I—had come like thieves in the night, and like thieves we sat about the single rushlight, which stood on an inlaid teak stand amid the tobacco jars and the dull-gleaming amber seals of the prince’s office, and spoke in whispers.
Bethell told the prince of the means by which the old emperor might be delivered from all the menace and the bullying of his enemies; explained how, by flight to a Russian asylum in Shanghai, the harried monarch could call the attention of the whole world to his plight and prevent the absorption of his empire by the Japanese. The fighting British editor urged the merits of the great scheme with the enthusiasm of a crusader.
Prince Min Yung listened to the end. His hand was trembling as he reached out to tamp the bowl of his long pipe.
“It is wonderful—wonderful,” he whispered at last. “If only we can persuade his majesty. Not since the beginning of time has a king of Korea fled beyond his borders. His soothsayers and wise men will all persuade against it.”
“But they must not know,” Bethell broke in impetuously. “They are all secretly in Japanese pay, and if a word, a whisper, of this should get to their ears, Hasegawa would have the palace surrounded by troops within an hour. You—you alone—must have the secret. You must find a way to-morrow to get a word to his majesty’s ear; to tell him why the Girl comes to paint his portrait. There will be private sittings; you must be on hand to act as interpreter. Then you and she, alone with the emperor, can convince him of the wisdom of this course. Every detail of the flight can be arranged between you during the hours his majesty gives up to the sittings.”
“It shall be so,” Prince Min Yung said, and Bethell and I took our leave—through the stable yard and over the walls into the compound of the Methodist Mission.
Before noon the next day an imperial secretary arrived at the Astor House with a message for the Girl from the Emperor Bugs. His majesty would be graciously pleased to have the distinguished American artist paint his portrait, and his majesty awaited her immediate visit to the palace with pleasurable anticipation.
Not until after the Girl had rolled through the South Gate in the imperial carriage, her easel, frames, and paint box following in great state on the backs of two palace porters, did Bethell draw me aside in the deserted bar of Looie’s.
“The lightning’s striking closer every minute,” he said, in a low, serious voice. “I got it straight from the palace this morning that two of the emperor’s mutang (sorcerers) died last night. They ate a venison pie which the old boy refused to touch.”
After that first sitting of doddering majesty, the Girl moved from the old Astor House over to the home of the American minister. She jumped at the invitation which came from the minister’s wife, who, like all of us there in Seoul, had been completely captivated by the dazzling personality of this remarkable woman, and had been avid, also, to seize the advantage which possession of this much talked-about young painter would give in the jealous circle of legation society.
The Girl, for her part, was doubly eager to make the change. To be officially adopted into the legation family was to remove the last possible suspicion as to the object of her mission from the cunning mind of Hagiwara and his crew.
The American minister’s compound abutted on the rear of the palace grounds, and it was but a step from there to the rear of the building wherein old Bugs was practically a prisoner. Moreover, she could not afford to continue living in the neighborhood of Bethell, who was pariah in the minds of the Japanese, and was always watched.
I am frank to say that I would have preferred, for purely personal reasons, that the Girl remain at the hotel. Besides, the exalted glamour of the adventure upon which I had embarked with her, there was—yes, there was—— But, pshaw! This is not to be a love story; no room here for that sort of stuff.
She gave me a few minutes while she was putting her effects together in the hotel room, preparatory to moving.
“Mr, Billy,” she said, “we’ve got to play the game apart for the next few days. I cannot afford to see Bethell or be seen with him. I am not so sure that you are on the list of the ‘unco guid’ with little Hagiwara, either. But Prince Min Yung will provide a way for me to pass messages to both of you without being detected.”
I assured her that I would obliterate myself utterly rather than risk being ain the path of her great scheme.
“Oh, no, my friend,” she said, laughing up at me, her eyes dancing with the surge and rush of the big hazard we were playing. “I will not allow you to say, ‘The carriage waits,’ in this little melodrama. When your cue comes you will have the spotlight all to yourself; but in the meantime——”
She brought out of a pocket in the lining of her trunk a cable form, already filled, and handed it to me. I looked at it curiously. It was addressed to one of her name at Shanghai, and read: “Portrait successful. Hurrah!” Her name was attached.
“No, not to my father,” she said, reading the query in my eyes. “But to the man who is behind all this plan of ours—the one whose name I gave you the night I arrived here. Innocent enough, isn’t it? Just a happy girl, telling the good news of her success to her daddy. Well, you keep this, my friend. When you get word from me file it yourself; not here, but down at Chemulpo, where Hagiwara’s eye is weak. Don’t fail to get it off immediately, for when I give the word for its filing, hours will count.”
“Do you mind telling me——” I began.
“Certainly not. This is it: The instant that our good friend in Shanghai receives this message, he will send another to Chefoo, on the Pechili coast, and just ninety miles away from Chemulpo, you know. That wire will start a swift little steam yacht away from her moorings, and within twenty-four hours that yacht will be tied up on the river just ten miles from Seoul. That neat little boat will have accommodations aboard for one emperor, one portrait painter, and”—here she slowly lowered an eyelid at me in mock seriousness—“and two wicked conspirators who might not like to make the acquaintance of the lord high executioner.”
I chortled exultingly as she unfolded this detail of the carefully designed plot. As a matter of fact, it had not occurred to me how we were going to bundle a fussy old emperor out of his realm, even if he did consent to skip.
“And how did you make it to-day with his nobs?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“I am not going to tell you,” she laughed back; and then, all of a sudden, the mirth fled from her eyes and they deepened into seriousness. The Girl came up to me and laid a hand upon mine in a frank, comradely way.
“Listen, my dear friend.” Her voice was low, and there was a certain rough huskiness in it as of emotion, scarce restrained. “We must not forget—Bethell, and you, and I—that the loser in this game will pay, yes, heavily. Only since I have been here have I realized how desperate are the forces against which we are matched. All three of us might drop out of sight in this ghostly whirlpool of intrigue, and there wouldn’t be a ripple to mark our disappearance.”
I closed my fingers over the hand and tried to read something besides the impersonal earnestness in her eyes.
“I am not going to let you become involved any more than I have to,” she continued. “Should you ever have to defend yourself before a secret court—and with death waiting behind the judge’s chair—you will know only this and that; but not all. You are satisfied that it should be thus, are you not, my friend?”
I lifted her hand and kissed it. That seemed at the time the fitting thing—the only answer.
Then she went away to the American minister’s home.
Three nerve-racking days followed, with not a word from the Girl. Bethell and I forgathered each night in Looie’s bar and made weak efforts to pass the hours over the ancient pool table, but to no purpose. The sense of our impotency weighed heavily upon us; we felt that we were in chains, while one woman, with magnificent courage, was digging a mine under the Japanese trenches. Bethell, into whose heart much of the fatalism of the land had bitten, was prone to believe that no human agency could avail to check the swift-moving avalanche that was sweeping down upon the country from the eruptive islands to the east. For my part, I believed that nothing could check the fruition of the great scheme, but I was burning with eagerness to play some part in it.
Then, on the third night, came the message from the palace. How Prince Min Yung had contrived the circuitous channel of its delivery passed my comprehension, for it was one of Bethell’s printers who tiptoed in the bar from a rear entrance and whispered something in the vernacular into the editor’s ears. Bethell’s eyes snapped.
“She says to fire that message over the cable,” he breathed. “And quickly.”
The dash that I made through the sleeping streets of that dead old town to catch the last night train to Chemulpo, sixty miles away, was a record-breaker. I know that my ricksha boy must have laid off from work for three days thereafter. But I got the train, reached Chemulpo at midnight, and filed the cable. The fact that the cable office was in the same building with the customs, where I made my headquarters two days in each week, and that I was a figure of importance in both offices, disarmed any suspicion that might have grown out of my midnight visit and the filing of a seemingly unimportant message. As luck would have it, the Japanese cable inspector was off duty, and the Korean operator did not have intelligence beyond the keys of his instrument.
The rest of the dark hours of that night I spent on the balcony of Chou Hong’s “foreign hotel,” outside of the room assigned to me. There I sat and smoked, with my eyes traveling over the lights in the harbor, out and out to the Yellow Sea and beyond. I strove to pierce the dark and bridge the miles between myself and Shanghai; to watch the sudden springs of action which those three silly words of the Girl’s cablegram would release. There, in his office, that master craftsman of Russian diplomacy would receive the spark which meant that the trap in this moldy old land of the past was ready to be sprung. He would send another spark rushing under the waters to Chefoo, off there in the dim north, and then—then out of the mists of the Pechili Gulf would come swiftly, furtively, the yacht which was to carry away an emperor.
The spell of the whole cunning machinery, the well—oiled cogs and pistons of this daring engine of diplomacy, had me in its grip as I sat there under chill stars; but always my thoughts fled back to that dingy-walled city sixty miles behind me, where a woman with burnt gold hair and eyes of violet, wide apart, was matching her wits, single-handed, against the craft and guile of a predatory nation.
I saw her the next morning. Strange chance dictated the meeting, and a stranger fortune put me in the way of a delicious comedy.
Upon my return from Chemulpo to Seoul, I went directly to the palace, for it was necessary that I should have a conference with the Japanese adviser of the treasury upon matters concerning the customs.
Megata, for he was the adviser, was closeted with old Bugs, engaged, doubtless, in tightening the screws somewhere. I strolled into the old palace yard of Kweng-Pok, a favorite musing place for me, what with the hint of mystery and the whisper of lost glory in the gray gables of its deserted pavilions and audience halls.
I was sitting on the jutting balcony of the old royal library, shadowed by great Siberian firs, when I heard a voice. It was the Girl’s.
The clear, lilting notes of her speech, and the heavy, blurred accents of a voice I knew instantly to be Hagiwara’s, drew steadily nearer, until finally I judged by the sound that they had paused directly below the library balcony whereon I was standing. I was placed in the very willing position of an eavesdropper.
“No, Mr. Hagiwara,” I heard the Girl say, “I do not flatter myself in the least that I receive such close attention from you. I have heard what your business is here in Seoul.”
“Excoos me, madam,” Hagiwara hastened to interpose, and there was a strange, strangling timbre in his voice. “Excoos me, I do not understand. I——”
“Oh, yes, you do,” the Girl interrupted. “Any girl but myself might have believed—might have convinced herself that somehow you found her charming. Any girl likes to be flattered that way, you know, and one might—yes, one might almost learn to be pleased if she thought that.” There was a shadow of something soft and sweet in the Girl's voice here, calculated to make little Hagiwara’s heart skip a beat. “But you, Mr. Hagiwara, have been following me, keeping your eyes on me for just one reason. You cannot deny it.”
“And that reason iss—that reason is that you are beau-tiful; that I——”
“Stop!” What a ring of command there was in that short word; I could picture the quick fires that burned in the Girl’s eyes as she uttered it! “That reason is, Mr. Hagiwara, that you think me a spy. Confess it!”
The Japanese bubbled and gurgled in his effort at denial. Never, never had he entertained such a thought. It was impossible. Beyond belief.
The Girl shut him off imperiously.
“Why did you send a spy to search my trunk the first night I was in Seoul?” There was a pitiful catch and quaver in the putting of that question; outraged dignity called for reparation.
“I did not think—I did not know,” Hagiwara stammered.
“But you sent him. Tell the truth, Mr. Hagiwara.”
“It was a mistake. Excoos! I was blind. I was a-fraid of plot, beau-tiful madam. You were speaking with Bethell immediately upon your arrivals. Bethell is dangerous person. I sent a man to inves-tigate. Ver’ clumsy, excoos! And you shot him, for which I am ver’ happy.” Hagiwara was floundering hopelessly. I could hardly restrain a chuckle.
“And I understand that you sincerely apologize?” Her voice was all silk and tenderness again.
“On my knees, beau-tiful madam.”
“Then let us have an understanding, Mr. Hagiwara. During my minutes with his majesty in these past few days, when I am very, very busy trying to catch the spirit of his portrait, you have insisted on remaining in the room with us. Your presence disturbs his majesty, who greatly fears you, and it disturbs me; I had thought you were there because you wanted to keep an eye on me, lest I was plotting with the poor old dear. Now I know that you had no such purpose. But, Mr. Hagiwara”—melting sweetness was in her voice now, and her words dropped hesitatingly and with maidenly modesty—“you must promise to give me my sittings with his majesty alone hereafter, and then maybe—maybe——"
“Maybe I will find more minutes to give to Mr. Hagiwara, of Japan—alone,” said the Girl with a quick little laugh, altogether alluring.
I heard the swish of her skirts and dared to peep over the edge of the balcony. I saw the glory of her head, splashed with light that sifted through the far-flung bows of the pines, and I watched the supple rhythm of her shoulders, shadow-spotted, as, with little Hagiwara hurrying by her side, she crossed the old arched bridge with a free stride and swung into the path leading to the palace.
The jackal’s jaws were muzzled!
A Japanese messenger, one of Hagiwara’s men, was waiting for me when I returned to the Astor House for tiffin. He had a note addressed to me in the Girl’s hand. It read:
Dear Mr. Billy: Would it be troubling you too much to run down to Chemulpo some time this evening so that you may expedite through all the horrid port regulations a party of friends of mine—hunters after tigers or some other dreadful animals—who are coming from Chefoo on their yacht? I received word that they were coming some time to-night or early to-morrow morning; but they seemed in doubt whether in the disturbed condition of the country they and their guns would be mistaken for a filibustering expedition. I know that as a customs officer you will be able to render them some very much appreciated Service.
P. S.—They might bring you up the river a way on the boat. It would be a delightful little jaunt.
The impudence of it! To send me specific directions thus by the hand of Hagiwara’s own man! I smiled inwardly when I considered this second tally which the Girl was scoring against the jackal. Down to Chemulpo I went, and at the high tide came the yacht—a long, low, trim little thing, whose every line spelled speed. Consider the shock I received when I discovered that the fatuous Hagiwara had already telegraphed orders to smooth the official way for the yacht’s passage into and through the harbor of Chemulpo. More of the Girl’s delicate work!
I boarded the yacht at the quay, presented the Girl’s letter to Monsieur Reynard, a trim, blond young Frenchman, who was in command, and who had with him two companions, Frenchmen both, and a crew of five. My letter was my introduction, but both Monsieur Reynard and myself were scrupulous not to go behind the bald statement of facts concerning the hunting trip therein contained. Neither knew the extent of the other’s orders or knowledge, and the next day I served as ex-officio pilot up the Han River, whose every flat and bar I knew through years of snipe hunting on its waters. We dropped anchor midway between the village of Angjou and the walls of Seoul itself, in a sequestered bend of the river,very close to the main-traveled road out of the North Gate, and not more than six miles from the city. The Frenchmen said that this very place looked the likeliest for snipe. I agreed with them, and left them, promising to return in a few days and have some sport.
I thought I detected a flicker of mirth in Reynard’s eyes when I gave that promise, but he made no comment.
I was back in Seoul by noon, and that night I went with Bethell to the home of Prince Min Yung. The prince was trembling with excitement, and could scarce wait until we were secure from listening ears before he began to pour out the story of the past few days at the palace.
The emperor seemed ready for the flight, he said in the first breath, but we must make haste while he was in a favorable mood. The old codger had at first been terrified out of his stuffed boots at the thought of attempting to escape the all—seeing eye of the Japanese; had sworn that they would catch him and cut his heart out. But the Girl had played on his fears as on a stringed instrument, Prince Min Yung declared. She had painted for him with words, even as she wielded her brush on canvas, the picture of the impending rape of the empire by Ito; he, the emperor, in chains and transferred to some Japanese prison; the country drenched in blood, and his subjects enslaved.
All this almost under the nose of Hagiwara, who was dodging in and out of the retiring room, where his majesty sat for his portrait, until that very day, when he was strangely absent. The poisoning of the two mutang by meat meant for the emperor’s mouth had driven the poor old monarch into a spasm of fear, the prince said, and he had decided that it was better to be killed in flight than to sit supinely on a a tottering throne.
“That wonderful woman,” the prince murmured over and over again. “She has held the heart of the emperor in her hand since first she came to the palace. The minutes that we have been alone, his majesty, and the artist, and I, have been hundreds of golden years for the hope of Korea. Now the emperor is hot—now he is cold. Once he says that he will fly, and the light in that woman’s eyes is beautiful to see; then he shivers on his seat of state and says that he cannot go.”
Prince Min Yung, in his excitement, acted for us the craven old monarch, eyes roving and palsied hands trembling in alternate gusts of hope and of despair.
“Once he says that he will have to consult the soothsayers and get a favorable time set for his departure; he cannot take such an important step without the consent of the gods and devils.
Template:“ ‘What, your majesty!’ says this woman of the burning hair. ‘Are you not emperor, lord of all in earth? Will you be fooled to your destruction by these traitorous witch doctors? See, I am painting the face of a monarch—not of a fool.’ And at that his majesty falls to weeping and calling himself an idiot. Oh, gentlemen! Tragedy and comedy were there, too strong to bear.”
Bethell and I managed to gain from the excited patriot some idea of the plans for the kidnaping of the emperor which he and the Girl had formulated between them. No one, not even old Bugs’ ministers, who were believed to be loyal, was to be in the secret. His majesty had been persuaded without much argument to leave his half-witted son behind. He was to disguise himself as one of the palace mutang when the time came for the secret departure, leave the palace in the company of the prince by one of the devious rear passages through the women’s quarter, and find horses waiting in a corner of the deserted deer park. Bethell and I were to be waiting outside of the little-used North Gate in the city's walls, to convey the old gentleman to the yacht.
As for the Girl, she was not to take any part in the actual flight through the city, but she would be on hand at the North Gate to accompany us to the yacht, whose position in the river she had not yet learned.
“I will arrange for the horses,” the prince assured us; “you cannot do that yourselves without danger. All that we depend upon you to do is to form a fitting escort for his majesty on the ride from the city walls to the yacht. He will be in terror of the Japanese every foot of the way. Your presence will reassure him. Now, keep yourself in readiness for the word from the masterful woman who holds the destinies of all of us in her hand.”
So Bethell and I went back to the Astor House to await the striking of the appointed hour.
The next day Marquis Ito came!
Can I picture the thunderclap of that event? How the cloud which had been hanging as a dread menace over Korea for so many months suddenly split and dropped to earth this man of blood and steel—the nation builder of Japan? With sinister skill the Japanese had concealed his approach to Korea’s capital; no one knew until he saw, that morning, file after file of troops with fixed bayonets marching away from the station with the Bismarck of the Orient in their midst. The day was the national holiday of Japan—the emperor’s birthday. That this should be the day chosen for the arrival of Ito in Seoul was in itself sufficient presage of what was to follow. In supreme confidence the mikado’s government had selected this day, when sun flags flew over every Japanese hut in Korea, to send to the Emperor Bugs the high priest of his nation’s immolation.
Bethell and I were talking over the day’s stupendous event on the piazza of the hotel at noontime, wondering whether the arrival of Ito would drive poor old Bugs yammering into our arms for instant flight, or so stun the old ruler with terror as to wipe utterly from his mind all hope pf escape, when a sergeant of the American legation guard came up with a note for us. It was from the Girl:
To-night or never. Very recent events have served to put the Sick Man in a fearful state of mind, and he is wavering again; unless the medicine is administered at once he will be beyond cure. See me at the garden party at the Japanese legation this afternoon, if possible. If not—to-night at the place appointed.
I had completely forgotten the garden party in the swirl of events, though, as an official of the Korean government, I had been formally invited several days before. A simple celebration of the Japanese emperor’s birthday we had supposed it would be—the Girl and I; now it was plain that in honor of Japan’s greatest statesman the event had been planned.
I went to the garden party.
Not in years had decayed old Seoul witnessed such a spectacle of brilliance. The Japanese, those masters at touching up the high lights of nature, had converted the spacious grounds in the legation compound into a second Nikko. Not a square yard that was not clogged with exquisite greenery—little pine trees, dwarf forests of bamboo, and the flaming sprays of the Japanese maple. Here a miniature pagoda, its nine gables hung with tinkling bells; there a rustic bridge spanning some lotus-filled pond; above all, a spider web of fluttering tissue flags of the nations, and the hundreds of golden-glowing lanterns.
All of the legation staffs of the various nations represented in Seoul, with their ladies, were there—a brilliant and changing throng, gold-laced and silk-frocked. And there, by the side of the Japanese minister, Hasegawa in full war panoply flanking him on the left, stood the man who was to take Korea in his fingers and snap its national life of a thousand years.
A striking figure! Above the average height of the Japanese, massive head firmly set on broad shoulders, there was the subtle hint of strength and tremendous vital force in the poise of his body. But the face of the man; it had been chipped from primordial granite with rough flint tools. The straggling white beard scarcely concealed the blunt, outthrust chin of the fighter. The mouth was a thin slit, all force and obstinacy. But it was in the eyes and brows that the latent strength most lay. His eyes were those of a bronze mask, shadowed by overhanging flesh which curtained all flicker of emotion, allowed no flash of thought to escape undisguised. They saw everything; revealed nothing. Above was the heavy forehead of the thinker, massy, suggestive of a will which dominated the imperious nature of the man, and gave it restrained force. That was Ito, eldest of the elder statesmen, real sire of the giant of the Far East.
I was presented to the great man in my turn, and then I began a furtive search for the Girl. I found her the center of a group of Japanese notables, with Hagiwara hovering slavishly at her elbow. I cannot hope to reproduce here the sallies of wit, the ready pleasantries, all of the verbal ammunition of a past mistress in the art of social generalship by which this dazzling woman kept ever under her power a devoted circle of slant-eyed gallants. Indeed, her Japanese admirers had to share her attentions with several men from the legations, who occasionally managed to break through the embargo; but I noticed that the Girl carefully played her cards so as to keep by her always the sedulous Higawara. She seemed to be using Hagiwara’s countrymen as a sort of screen to protect her assault in force, which was upon that selfsame unsuspecting little dandy. Not for near half an hour did I manage to get within safe earshot of her, and that was for the few minutes that Hagiwara was absent on a mission of forage for delicacies.
“Oh, Billy,” she said with a little gasp and dropping the playful formality of the mister, “pray for me that I may keep Hagiwara here for another hour. The crisis is on at the palace. Hagiwara possesses a dreadful sixth sense of premonition, and he has been trying to make a break for the old emperor’s audience chamber ever since I arrived. He must not; he——”
The Girl interrupted herself to turn a neat epigram against the bold advance of a German secretary of legation; the blundering squire dropped back.
“What is the crisis?” I whispered.
“Oh, poor old Bugs is beside himself with fear—says he won’t budge unless he gets some sign from heaven or the earth beneath. Prince Min Yung is with him, and Bethell dared to slip into the palace in the absence of Hagiwara. They are arguing with the old boy—they tell him that if not to-night, it will be never, for Ito will visit the palace to-morrow, and then—the end. I must—I must keep Hagiwara away until they have persuaded the emperor finally. I believe—I hope that we will win to-night. Bethell can tell you definitely at the Astor House at six o’clock.”
Hagiwara, his hands crammed with dishes, appeared down the aisle of shrubbery.
“Run along now, Billy,” she urged, “and be prepared to jump out of Korea itself if worse comes to worst. They’ll strike in the dark, you know, if they get desperate, and—and nobody wants to be a ‘damp, demnition body’!”
Bravely she laughed, though there were dark shadows of doubt in the limpid depths of her eyes for the first time since she had engaged on this high adventure. I left her side with the tell-tale message of those eyes a cold weight on my heart.
Never have I lived six swifter hours than those which followed, nor ones which so nearly whirled me off my feet.
Bethell, scarce able to restrain his excitement, met me at the hotel. He dragged me into the deserted bar, helped himself to a hooker of rum, tossed it down, and spoke.
“It’s a go—a ripping, roaring go!” he chuckled. “The old rooster at last has caved, you know, and now he says the fourteen devils of Mokpu cannot stop him from flying to-night.
“Yes—yes, old fellow. Not a word. All arranged. The prince will take him out of the palace down to Queen Min’s summerhouse. There horses will be; the prince looked after that. You and I to the North Gate at ten o’clock by ricksha. There horses for us both, and one for the Girl. Right-o! We wait outside the gate in a little clump of deserted houses there until along comes his nibs, all wrapped around in a coat like a stuffed mummy.
“Out we go and join him and the prince. Then away to the yacht, and the devil take old Ito, the rotter!”
So sanguine was Bethell that I could not get him to admit that the Girl’s seeming fears of failure were well grounded. I asked him what he and I were to do if everything went well and the emperor actually got away to China; suspicion surely would fall upon us.
“Oh, drat it, man; we’1l face the music,” said the fighting editor. “They can't do more than deport us, you know, unless they hire some rough to stick a knife between our ribs. But you see, dear fellow, they’ve tried that jolly trick on me so many times, and my inward parts are still capable of holding good liquor without dripping.”
Ten o’clock, and Bethell and I riding through the ghostly streets of Seoul in our curtained rickshas. Never did that old charnel house of dead grandeur appear so unworldly as on that night. Black gables of temples, the great bronze belly of the old bell, the mushroom growth of thatched housetops everywhere like fungus in a witches’ fen: all melting and blending into shadows—shadows! Not a soul stirring on the streets. Hardly a streak of light slipping through the clink of some unbarred door to make the streets seem real. Seoul at night is mournful enough; but that night—ugh!
We dismissed our rickshas at the North Gate, and walked through the wide portal, two Korean soldier guards hardly rousing from their sleep to notice us. Beyond a hundred yards, and behind the ruins of a house which had been burned, we found our horses. There we waited, not speaking a word. Minutes passed—ten, fifteen, twenty. Then a step on the gravel near the roadway. I peeked around the corner of a blank wall, and saw a hooded figure approaching alone. I stepped from the shadow.
“Billy,” came the whisper. The Girl ran up to me and laid a cold hand on mine.
“All right—all right,” she breathed before ever I could put a question. “And Bethell, yes; I knew you’d be here, too. Ah, what’s that?”
I felt her hand tremble on mine, and a quick catch came in her breath. The rapid notes of a bugle call, high and thin, sounded from beyond the serrated black mass of the city's walls. Instantly it was answered by another. Just those two quavering voices in the night, but what were they saying for us? The pitiful Korean army knew no bugles, but the Japanese troops camped on Namsan Hill—they had bugles.
“Do you know, dear friends”—the Girl was trying to make her voice sound brave and confident—“I believe our Japanese brothers are calling to us over there. I believe they want to see us, very badly.”
As if in answer to the Girl’s Words came suddenly the clickety-click of horses’ hoofs on gravel, nearer and nearer. Then the hoofbeats stopped, and the low voice of Min Yung called a hail from the road. Each to his horse, and we three were out in the road by the side of the prince and another grotesquely hooded and swathed figure, which rocked unsteadily on a pony’s back. A whimpering and a moaning sounded from the muffling bandages of linen dust coat which crowned the head of this scarecrow.
“The Japanese—the Japanese!” Prince Min Yung whispered in a shrill voice, straining with the pulse of excitement. “They have discovered his majesty’s flight—they are after us—after us!”
A gagging, querulous plaint issued then from the wrapped mummy by the prince’s side—from his majesty Bugs in proper person. Min Yung answered deferentially in the Korean.
“Ah, the emperor is beside himself,” the prince said, addressing us hurriedly. “Terror is turning his mind. Hurry!”
Off we galloped, pell-mell down the thin ribbon of roadway for the yacht, six miles away—Bethell on the left side of his majesty, the prince on the right. The latter was hampered by a great chest, wrapped in silk, which he carried under his arm. Nothing else, was that, than a treasure box; therein fleeing royalty was taking with him all of his crown jewels that were not already in pawn.
On and on in silence, the Girl and I riding together behind. We heard the wailing and the muffled, pleading accents of the emperor’s voice, punctuated as the jolting of his mount jerked the words from him. The senile old man was crying like a child who is being dragged to bed against his will.
We must have covered three miles in the dark when something happened. It was all so sudden, so outré, that not until many hours afterward could I frame in my mind an ordered procession of the swift flux of incidents. We were passing a peasant’s hut. I heard a dog's sudden growl, and the rush of paws on the hard ground. Then something sinuous and black shot up from the side of the roadway plump into the arms of Emperor Bugs. I remember a cat screamed horribly at that second.
But the scream of the cat was nothing to the curdling yell which followed on the instant. It was the voice of the emperor.
I crowded my horse over to where he rode; Bethell and the prince closed in simultaneously. We saw a great black cat clawing madly at his majesty’s robes, twining and twisting in the saddle before him as it growled and spit. The Emperor Bugs, his hands stretched high above his head, gasped, gurgled, made insane cluckings in his throat. The cloak had fallen from his face. I could see his eyes, protruding like the eyes of an idol.
It was Bethell who shot out a hand, grasped the cat by the neck, and hurled it aside into the darkness. Even as he did so the emperor of Korea half fell, half slid from his saddle, and, once on the ground, began legging it back on the road in the direction of Seoul. The prince was pursuing him in an instant. Then the rest of us whirled about and galloped up the road after the two flying figures. We came upon the prince, gripping his majesty in a close grapple, and trying to interrupt a torrent of high-pitched words which rattled and clattered from the imperial lips. His majesty Bugs was quite mad; I am sure of that. He spluttered, and chattered, and flailed his arms wildly about in an effort to throw off the grip of the prince. The three of us—the Girl, Bethell, and I—sat our horses in impotent amazement.
“The cat—the cat,” Min Yung finally managed to stammer. “His majesty says the black cat leaping at him is an omen. He will return to Seoul.”
I heard a little stifled moan from the Girl.
“What bloody rot!” Bethell put in. “He cannot now. He must go on to the yacht.”
The prince essayed to interrupt the yammering old idiot in his arms. We could hear his voice, pleading, expostulating. But ever the emperor raised his almost to a shriek, crying him down. He actually fought and kicked at his devoted captor. Five minutes passed—five minutes, while the empire of Korea was being blotted from the nations of the world by one black cat. We sat helpless.
“We'll put the old beggar on his horse, whether he likes it or not,” Bethell finally growled. “Then off with him to the boat.”
“I would have to kill you where you stand, Bethell,” Prince Min Yung said quietly, “if you laid a violent hand on the person of my ruler.”
More minutes passed, while the prince argued fruitlessly. I felt the Girl move her horse over near mine, and I reached out in the dark. My arm fell around her shoulder. She leaned weakly toward me; my arm closed tighter; I felt her head on my shoulder. There it lay, shaking under the rack of sobs which would not be uttered.
“It is the end of all,” Prince Min Yung said at last. “I ride back to Seoul and the palace with his majesty.”
Silence for one long minute.
“Then we all do,” Bethell said. “Sink or swim, you know.”
The Girl lifted her head from my shoulder and spoke brokenly:
“No—I go to Shanghai. It is not—that I am afraid. But—but that I have failed, and that-I would—yes, I would die rather than face the humiliation! Hagiwaras na-nasty grin and—and—oh, you understand, my friends!”
“But you do not know where the yacht is anchored,” I babbled. “It is three miles and more from here, and, anyway, alone on this road at night—impossible!”
“I will find it—alone.”
My head was in a whirl; my heart pounded so that I could hardly draw breath. Suddenly resolution came to me. I dismounted and drew Bethell aside.
“You will understand,” I stuttered in his ear, “you will not think it cowardice on my part if I—if I see this thing through. The Girl—Shanghai—you?”
“Old chap—dear old chap”—Bethell was wringing my hand—“a gentleman, particularly a young gentleman who would like a wife, could do nothing else. Not for a minute—no, not a minute—would I think you were running away from the music. And now, God bless you, and be off!”
The Girl took the hand of Bethell and of Prince Min Yung in turn, and nodded the good-by which she could not speak. His majesty, who was sniveling quietly, she ignored.
Then we sat our horses for a minute and watched three figures ride into black dark, back on the road to Seoul—to fate.
It was midnight. The Girl stood by my side on the yacht as it rushed full speed down the yellow Han on the way to the sea. We were by the rail. I had dared to cover her hand with mine, and to press her arm against my side in a little heartening, comradely grip. The Girl was weeping, and she made no show of concealing it. At last she raised her eyes, all wet, to mine, and looked at me a long time.
“To fail,” she said. “To be a man and fail is hard—but for a woman—ah——”
“Girl,” I murmured, “if a man can share your failure—could always be by to help if failure came again—would it be worth——”
Suddenly her sobs stopped; I felt her shoulders twitch. Then came a hysterical peal of laughter.
“But—to be—beaten by a cat—and a black one—at that!”
As to what befell the chief actors in this little melodrama of ours, history has it thus:
On the night of November I7, not two weeks after the events narrated in this closing chapter, General Hasegawa surrounded the palace with troops, then Ito went in to the cowering emperor, and forced him to sign away Korean sovereignty under a Japanese protectorate. In July, two years later, old Emperor Bugs was deposed and made a prisoner in his own palace, while the blood of his patriotic garrison was shed in the streets of Seoul. A prisoner he remains to-day.
The day after the emperor signed away Korean independence at the point of the bayonet it was reported that Prince Min Yung had “committed suicide” in his home. At least, that was the official report.
As for Bethell, poor devil, he was brought up for trial before a consular court, wherein the British consul sat as judge. The charge was inciting to disorder and treason in a country at peace with Great Britain. He was convicted and sentenced to serve a term in the British jail at Shanghai. He did his bit, came back to Seoul, revived his Korea Daily News, and started in to harry the Japanese again; but not for long. He sickened and died there, and there in that ghost land, for all I know to the contrary, was buried.
Prince Ito, as the world well remembers, fell a victim of a Korean assassin’s bullet in Harbin, Manchuria, on October 26, 1909. His work in Korea was ere that well and wisely finished.