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The Great Cardinal Seal


By Robert Welles Ritchie
Author of “The Sandlotter,” Etc.


A brand from the fire which the inscrutable Japanese brother kindled in Korea at the close of the war with Russia. The hitherto unwritten story of the search for the great cardinal seal of Korea, relic of three hundred kings, which played a mighty, and might have played a mightier part in the history of the ancient kingdom.


CHAPTER I.

Concerning A Gray, Stray Curl.


SOME old duffer of long ago, who prided himself on his neat and trenchant wisdom, witnessed a little domestic near-tragedy on his hearthstone one day, and straightway coined a very hefty saw, which has passed down through the ages as a brilliant truth. “A burned dog is afraid of the fire,” this ancient party said, and since then folks have blindly accepted this aphorism as one of life’s simple verities; it has place along with “Spare the rod” and “As the twig is bent” in the World's Institute of Pious Frauds.

At this late date I rise to object.

It depends upon the dog.

And in some measure upon the fire. There is a dog of my acquaintance named Happy, who sacrificed one eye and a leg to an automobile; let a gasoline wagon approach him on the side of his good eye, and he will give that machine the finest exhibition of three-legged and one-eyed defiance any dog could put up. It was the same way with Bethell and myself. We got badly burned by the fire the Japanese brother kindled in Korea at the close of the war with Russia; yet we went right back to it and risked a second singe.

We were such gay dogs, you see. And it was such a fascinating fire. In short, we proved the maker of that Ben Franklin model proverb a paretic.

Of course, tipping over the wisdom of the ages is a foolish business. Nobody but fools, and youthful fools at that, ever tries it. As I sit in my ten-by-twelve apartment-house library and wonder whether the lady in the apartment below is going to put “Too Much Mustard” or “The Rosary” on her canned-music machine next, I am convinced of the fact that when good old Bethell and I went to the shadows of that mournful Land of the Morning Calm to have our second little fling at the fire we were neither of us a good insurance risk. A pawnbroker prints on the back of his ticket disclaimer of responsibility for “acts of God, fire, flood, and the public enemy.” No ticket would be big enough to contain the jokers an insurance broker would insist upon in case the party of the first part planned to go to Korea and attempt to put a spoke in the wheel of Japanese diplomacy there.

How we tried to kidnap the Emperor Bugs and how “the Girl,” Bethell, and I miserably failed when we had the old simpleton well outside the walls of Seoul on the road to freedom: that was our first flirting with fire, and I published the chronicle of it about a year ago, as some may remember. Bethell, the slashing, bull—headed editor of the Korea Daily News the Japanese caught red-handed, and they contrived to have him sentenced by his own British consul to a year’s imprisonment in Shanghai. He served his term, came pluckily back to Seoul, revived his paper, and was ready for another go at the masters of the tottering empire. I piloted the girl to Shanghai on the yacht we had waiting down the Han River to convey his majesty to a Russian asylum, and there I left her, never expecting to see her again. Her mission, inspired by a very clever Russian politician, had come to naught; she was broken-hearted.

As for myself, I followed a foolhardy impulse to return to Seoul and face the music; I went and found no music—not even a lisping fife note. Either the Japanese governors had not full proof of my complicity in the daring coup or, what was far more likely, they knew everything and were willing to bide their time until they could accomplish my removal from this ball of dust quietly and practically with no pain—just a dagger stroke in the dark. I lived, therefore, in all the pleasurable excitement of a wild thing surrounded by pitfalls and spring guns, and on nights when I went out alone I wore a very light and strong shirt of steel mesh under my evening dress. You might call it a Chinese Ypsilanti, very cooling to the nerves.

In the summer of 1907, two years after our abortive attempt to smuggle old Bugs out of the country, Marquis Ito sat supreme over the dust heap of Seoul as resident general. Ten thousand bayonets spiked down the country for Japan. All sovereignty save the shadow of the old emperor on the throne was swept away, and he, poor duffer, was a prisoner in his own palace. He didn’t dare sneeze without license from Hagiwara, his keeper.

His imbecile son, the crown prince, squatted among his favorites in the women’s quarter of the palace and played go days on end; he didn’t have the intellectual equipment of a turnip. The Korean ministry, a craven lot who licked the hand that fed them, gave the semblance of authority to whatever measures the resident proposed. The imperial Korean army, barracked in Seoul, performed dreary evolutions with rifles whose ammunition did not fit and artillery with the breech blocks missing. A farce, the whole sordid business, at which the Japanese usurpers smiled indulgently. When they were ready they would ring down the curtain and stage a new play—made in Japan.

Aye, it was a shadow land, wherein the shadows clotted, drew closer in strangling grip, netted themselves like serpents of poisonous mist over crumbling pagoda tower and tottering throne of three hundred kings.

A day in June I rode from Chemulpo, the port, to the capital. When the train drew into the station at South Gate only one white person beside myself, a woman, stepped from the carriage. Because she was a white woman and appeared to be traveling alone—an unusual circumstance, particularly in the disturbed condition of the country—my attention was attracted to her, and I suppose it was some vague sense of service that kept me lagging on the platform to see how she was going to fare with the hurly-burly of porters and rickisha men. I soon saw she was not faring well. What with the shawl rolls, the umbrella straps, accordion baskets, and what-not of impedimenta that mark the English traveler and the clamorous bids of Jap and native porters who surrounded her, snatching at each bit of luggage she could not actually tuck under her arms, the stranger appeared quite at her wit’s end. I hurried across the platform, gave two of the nearest coolies a whack with my stick, and offered my services as interpreter and cicerone.

She turned her head and her eyes, as they met mine, suddenly opened wide in surprise. The lady actually jumped, so startled was she. At the time I set her start down to the twittering of harassed nerves; perhaps she did not expect to encounter one of her color there in that welter of Orientalism. She was such a queer old bird, anyway. Gray-headed; no, her hair was a streaky gray—rusty like the collar mark on a white horse; pinched face regularly plastered with kalsomine bleach so that when she attempted a smile it cracked; wide mouth with lips frankly rouged; and eyes—— Well, the eyes didn’t fit the rest of that picturesque ruin. They were violet and sparkling and strangely youthful against the painted mask of cheek and hair. One would have said the old girl had dropped her youth overnight through some tragic decay of her charms, but the ghost of what had been still sat in her eyes. The last withered stalk of wild aster in November with two purple stars of blossoms looking bravely into the face of winter; that was she. And she was dressed to the part, with flouncy skirt, a rather mannish traveling coat built like the fatigue jacket of a grenadier, and Scotch bonnet of some roughish material which sported a great auk’s wing feather. I have seen pictures of English “militants” who greatly resembled her. A genteel English maiden on the reticent side of forty, I set her down; one of those self-reliant members of the Restless Sisterhood who, failing to bag a man in youth, devote their spinsterhood to shooting big game in Uganda, or measuring the heads of Solomon Islanders, or carrying the light of feminism to the oppressed females of Nepal. The type is commoner in the Far East than in our own country.

“Ah, thank you; thank you, kind friend!" she piped, in that peculiarly shrill voice the fogs of England breed.

“This is quite too strange—and—ah—confusing a welcome to Seoul. The coolies, you know, they tear a body to little bits unless some one intervenes.”

She laid the tips of her fingers on the back of the hand I had extended to relieve her of her bundles. I would have said the lingering touch was a bit bold had she not been so adequately protected against misunderstanding by her crackleware style of beauty. As it was, I was constrained to a quick look into her eyes, and I thought I caught just the fleeting of an impish spirit of mirth there.

“You live in this city, I take it,” the rare old dodo hastily put in. “You can therefore direct me to the best hotel. I neglected to inquire about the hostelries before I left Shanghai.”

“There’s no choice, madam,” I answered promptly. “One goes to Looie’s Astor House, or sleeps on a futong at a Jap hotel, which isn’t comfortable. I am on my way to Looie’s, and if I can be of any service——

“Very good; very good!” She accepted my offer as a matter of course, and I summoned three rickshas.

The strangers multiform luggage was piled to the canopy top of one, I handed her into another, gave direction to the leading coolie, and off-we started, skirting the great wall of the city. I was mildly amused at the adventure; speculated on what the men at the club would say when the news that I had piloted such a rare bird of passage to Looie’s nest should come to them. Of course, it would not be three hours before word of the strange lady’s arrival would be all over town, so searching and so busy is the wireless of gossip in Seoul.

What could this elderly female person be doing alone in such a backwater of the tides as the Korean capital? Surely she was not a new missionary, else she would have gone directly to the Mission Compound on the hill. Nor a tourist; tourists come to Seoul only rarely, and then in batches of ten or a dozen piloted by a Japanese Cook’s man. A plain, unattached freak, then. Undoubtedly. But—and I admit most of the ride to the Astor House was devoted to a consideration of the subject—those eyes; those youthful, strangely misplaced eyes in the kalsomined face of faded freshness! They did not go with the part. And somewhere—yes, somewhere, some time—I had encountered eyes like those—deep and untroubled amethyst intaglios possessed of a power to glow with a light all their own like a jewel cut with a “buff top.” But that crazy Scotch bonnet with its spike feather, the rakish fatigue jacket, and the flouncy skirt! Ah, perish the hazy vision of amethystine eyes in some forgotten face.

Looie, the excitable Gaul, who presided over the blighted destiny of the Astor House, gave me a reproachful look, heavy with meaning, when I escorted my discovery into the office and up to the register. She told him in blunt English that she wanted his best rate by the week; she didn’t know how long she would remain in Seoul, but the length of her sojourn would greatly depend upon the comforts he gave her and the price he charged.

“And, mind you, my good man, I have traveled a great deal, and I jolly well know when I am not receiving proper worth for my money,” she shrilled, as she put her fist to the register.

Looie made his most voluble guarantees, and the lady was led to her room by one of the pussy-footed native chambermen. Looie was no less alert than I in pouncing upon the register to see what she had written there.

“Theodosia Tooling, Dorsetmount, England.”

The scrawl, bold and masculine, of a part with that furry Scotch bonnet and fatigue jacket, told us nothing. Not even a “miss” preceded the signature to give it the softness of sex. Looie groaned when he read it.

“Ah zees man-oomans! Better I should an elephant receive in my hotel. Magnificent troobles now attend!”

For perhaps a half hour we sat in the deserted office listening to the banging and bumping of Theodosia unlimbering her luggage. She called for hot water. She called again to protest against the cake of geological soap on her wash-stand. She summoned Looie to her room to inquire if the site of his hotel was altogether sanitary—which it wasn’t; nothing being sanitary in Seoul. I found unholy delight in goading the Frenchman’s volcanic anger to the exploding point. After the third response to Theodosia’s summons Looie called upon the twelve little Buddhas of Mokpu to witness that he, Louis l’Hommedieu Levanner, would on the morrow expel this sottish Englander into the ditch. But the crowning comedy bit came when Miss Tooling was descending the stairs to enter the dining room. The Japanese intelligence officer, who in those days was one of the busiest adjuncts to the resident general’s secret police, intercepted the lady at the foot of the stairs, notebook in hand and pencil poised. Through the open door of the office we could catch the whole conversation that ensued.

“Ex-coos, kind madam—your name, plees?"

A very audible snort—a snort of high dudgeon.

“Ex-coos, kind madam; it is—necessity.”

“And why, my good man, should I tell you my name?” icily replied Theodosia. “Furthermore, do not address me as ‘madam.’ It is impertinent.”

There was a sound of a sucking in of breath—the idiotic Japanese mark of politeness. The intelligence officer began all over again with his “Ex-coos, dear madam.”

“Well, my name is Theodosia Tooling. I am a native of Dorsetmount, Somersetshire, and my maternal grandmother's name was——

“If so,kind, plees to spell—slowly.” The purring Japanese was unperturbed.

“A very uncommon name, I grant you!” Falling barometer and signs of storm. “T-o-o-l-i-n-g, and the family coat of arms is a griffin rampant with a——

“And, kind madam, you have—come from where?” Looie and I had our arms about each other by this time; his tears splashed on my bald spot.

“Do you wish my whole itinerary?” Theodosia snapped, “or shall I confine myself to the Eastern Hemisphere?”

“From—where, kind madam?” Oh, the sublime patience of the East!

“You may put down Luang-Pharabang, Kyoukmyong, Bahawulpore. And in Tonkin—but I’ll wait for you to get this all very carefully down.” There was a pause; then the unruffled little intelligence officer began again:

“Your bus-i-ness, plees?"

“Landlord! Oh, landlord!” Imperativeness lay in that rasping shout. The Lady Theodosia had evidently reached the end of her patience. Looie wiped the tears from his eyes and bounded into the hall.

“Landlord, rid me of this impertinent man!” Ah, the fine British scorn on the rasp edge of her voice! I could see Looie’s hands go up in expostulation; his shoulders lift to his ears.

Mais non, madame! Eet ees ze law of zees con-try to make zose inquiries. I am responsible for you to make answer.”

“Mumpf! Then tell this wretched person my business is to lecture on theosophy—to spread the light of pure reason in a dark world.″ She said this with a startling emphasis of finality. I confess her statement caught me between wind and water. I had expected militant suffragism, Swedish massage, or even an encyclopedia canvass; but theosophy—in dead-and-buried Korea! Looie evidently was even more flabbergasted than I. I doubt if he had ever heard the word before; certainly he didn’t know its meaning. He thrust his head into the door, and made a frantic appeal for aid with eyes and twisted mouth. In my security of the office I smiled blandly back at him, and waved my confidence in his ability to rise to the situation.

just then I heard the front door bang, and Bethell’s roaring voice:

“What’s this; what’s this? Uh? Oh, at your service, madam. Name's Bethell—Bethell, of the Daily News. just out of jail and proud of it; but want to warn you of my character. What’s the row? Oh, I see. Little Question Mark here. jolly little beggar when you get acquainted with him—so intelligent and persevering. Knows what I had for tiffin to-day; ask him and see.”

Miss Theodosia and Looie clamored together, explaining to Bethell the international difficulty that had arisen. When finally he had grasped their meaning he turned to the Jap and began a wonderful translation. I, understanding the vernacular, was convulsed with mirth. Here is what he told little Question Mark:

“Mirror-of-life understanding before and after august-putting-away to do. Heaven-and-hell’s honorable side unpleasantness to put-in-the-head. England’s honorable side knowledge everywhere teaching wish-to-put—in—the-head honorable devil and honorable god go-making to do.”

If that is not a succinct Japanese definition of theosophy teaching the language is at fault; not Bethell. The intelligence officer, half the pages of his notebook covered with ideographs, made his exit, the Lady Theodosia trundled truculently into the dining room, and sniffed loudly from time to time during the course of her meal. As for Bethell, he joined me at the bar with a quizzical pucker about his eyes.

“I say, Billy, noble old ruin, isn’t she? Honor to Albion, she is; quite so. But did you see her eyes?" The little editor’s flushed face was all alight with boyish interest. “Ripping; that’s what! Girl’s eyes in an old woman’s face. ‘A stone bearing blossoms,’ as the Japs say.”

I did not confide in Bethell my foolish superstition concerning the power of Theodosia’s eyes to awaken half-formed memories; he would have laughed. But when we took our seats in the dining room some distance away from the table the English vixen occupied I noticed Bethell chose the seat which gave him a view of her face, and during the course of our discussion of her and her outlandish mission to Seoul he kept muttering, “Those eyes—deuced strange.” Once he used the word “haunting.” I chaffed him unmercifully, begging him to give me an opinion on the Scotch bonnet and the lady’s peachblow complexion; but Bethell’s unconscious affirmation of the strangely reminiscent effect of Theodosia Tooling’s eyes upon my own mind cloaked the gawkish figure at the near-by table with undoubted fascination.

The much-traveled theosophist did not invite closer acquaintance. Though we three were the only ones in the dining room, and she was the single woman guest in the establishment, she preserved a frigid aloofness when a bending to companionship, even without the rigid formalities of introduction, certainly would not have been forward of her under the circumstances. As soon as she had finished her meal she called for a lamp and retired to the mystery of echoing hallways upstairs. Bethell and I, hard ridden by the lonesomeness of Seoul at night—a jungle of shadows unrelieved by a single light—went listlessly about our billiards on Looie’s rickety table in the bar. We were alone in the room, and, after nine o’clock, the only persons stirring about the hotel. In the dark outside prowled the night watchman; the clinking of the little metal rings on his staff was like the shivering of crisp icicles. The night was hot, and the three windows in the bar were opened to the assorted odors of the city.

Perhaps it was eleven o’clock and we were still knocking the balls about the baize. Suddenly—“Bethell!” came a sharp whisper at my very elbow, I whirled in time to see a scrambling shape of white launch itself through the window; then there was darkness. Bethell had blown out the lamps. An instant of pregnant silence there in the dark. Bethell’s hoarse whisper broke it:

“You—Yong?”

“Yes, Bethell; I’ve come.”

“Hands here-join hands—Yong, Billy!” I felt Bethell’s hand fumbling for mine along the edge of the table.

“Now—quiet!” he whispered, and he led me and that other—that ghost shape out of the night—around the billiard table, through the door, and into the hall. I heard the first tread of the stairs creak under Bethell’s foot; then I was mounting; a padding foot kept pace and pace with mine. We crept down the long corridor on the bedroom floor and turned into a room I knew, by the distinguishing odor of rank tobacco, to be Bethell’s. A match scratched and flickered and a very tiny wick in a night lamp by the bed caught the flame. Bethell closed and locked the door, then took his metal match safe from his pocket, and delicately adjusted it to even balance on the upper face of the doorknob—an old trick of his; “putting the combination lock on eavesdroppers,” he called it. The lightest touch on the outside knob would cause the match safe to drop.

Do I catch a smile here? Do I hear some reader say, “Comic-opera stuff! Enter the villain, to shivery music?” Very well; I smile with you—and at you now. In my snug five rooms and bath, with dumb—waiter, janitor, and canned-music perquisites, perhaps I get your viewpoint. But back in those days when Bethell and I fooled with matches over the powder pit of Korea, recklessly throwing ourselves into the Koreans’ cause because of Anglo-Saxon sympathy for the under dog, we had to play opéra bouffe occasionally. Death was as handy as whisky and soda—and as bad.

In the feeble light of the night lamp I could take a survey of Bethell’s mysterious visitor. Even I, who knew him well, did not instantly recognize Yong Chi-sun—Baron Yong, he was called. In the dirty white rags of a coolie—a coolie of the night-soil class—the young fellow’s identity was almost completely hidden. Barelegged and with the ideograph denoting his degraded trade on the back of his linen shirt, his top-knot rising from his head without the covering of hat or band, this tall, rangy young fellow would hardly pass as the scion of a house ancient as the stones of Kyeng-pok Palace.

Baron Yong Chi-sun, eldest son of a former prime minister under the Regent Tai-Wun, held his bachelor’s degree from one of the largest universities in the American Southern States, had lived in Paris and Petersburg, was, in short, a cosmopolite. Also he was one of the few real Korean patriots. In the black days of the Japanese occupation Baron Yong had first thrown his enthusiasm with Il Chin Hoi, a patriotic society whose purpose was to fire Korean resentment against the swift encroachment of the little men from the neighbor islands. But when, through the liberal use of Japanese gold, Il Chin Hoi suddenly shifted its mask and came out as strong supporters of the invaders, Baron Yong went to America in disgust.

He had but recently returned, via Europe and the Trans-Siberian. In ten days since his arrival in Seoul the baron had made several ineffectual attempts to see Bethell and myself alone, but the vigilant espionage the Japanese kept upon the fighting British editor as well as himself had frustrated his plans. We only knew, Bethell and I, that Baron Yong had something of greatest importance to tell us; that much We got through the “wireless” of servants’ quarters.

For all his rags, Baron Yong was every inch the patrician as he stood, smiling, his hands outstretched to grasp ours. None of the doltish impassivity of the typical Korean yangban in his features. The high forehead of the man bespoke intellect, and even though his face was cast in the oval mold distinguishing the high born in the peninsula, the breadth between his fine, sharp eyes and the firm lines of nostril and mouth negatived the effeminacy of the type countenance. If there were more like Baron Yong in” dour Cho-sen, history would be written differently to-day.

“Dear friends,” he said, his eyes kindling with a great enthusiasm, “I bring you good news for Korea. A way out lies open to us if we can only take it.”

Bethell had his fingers to his lips instantly, warning against the other’s lifted voice. We drew together about the~little lamp, and there in a shadow-splashed circle we stood while the baron poured out his tale in scarce suppressed whisper.

“One way out—yes, one way out,” he repeated. “And that’s at the Court of the World—the Hague. The conference meets there in September, and Korea must be represented. Korea must make there her open plea to all the world for justice—and her national life.”

“What’s that—what’s there!” Bethell broke in impetuously. “The Japs permit delegates from Korea to the Hague conference? Never fear!”

“Listen,” the young man impatiently silenced the editor. “You know the letter I carried from his majesty—carried out of Korea and half across the world in the lining of my shoe. That letter was delivered to the proper person in Petersburg, and”—Yong named a man so high in the secret councils of Czar Nicholas and such a present force in blind European diplomacy that I must give him a pseudonym; say, the Prince Asterisky—“and Prince Asterisky gave me assurance that if Korea had authorized delegates at the conference the czar’s agents would stand behind them to the point of making an issue of Japan’s conduct in this land. Then the truth—the whole bitter truth of our slow murder as an independent nation—will come out. Japan will stand revealed, the strangling cord in her hands!”

I wish I could reproduce here the feel of that minute there in the sickly lamplight—that fine Korean patriot, fired with the lure of his country’s last hope; those two white intriguers, Englishman and American, thrilling to it as if their own country’s destinies lay in the hollows of their hands. There in the dark night of Korea’s existence—under the shadow of a grandeur that was greatest when Columbus sang a Te Deum on San Salvador, these three mites heard a promise of help from the other side of the world. To their exalted vision appeared the figure of a czar bending his ear to catch the last gasping cry for help from a nation in the hands of the strangler. Oh, such minutes are glorious in the dreary monotony of life’s little villainies!

"I do not know what Russia's game is,” continued the baron. “I do not seek to go behind the promise. I only know that I have the sworn word of a man who never gives his word carelessly.”

“True,” I put in, “but how can we get his majesty’s proper authorization for delegates to the Hague; how get them out of the country under the eye of Ito?”

“Unless their credentials, or what-you-call-its, bear the emperor’s signature, or his seal,” Bethell supplemented, “the delegates might as well be armed with pawn tickets so far as admission to the conference goes.”

“There’s the big trouble,” Yong answered. “It's kept me awake nights all the way across Siberia. His majesty is a prisoner in his palace under the sleepless eyes of Hagiwara; he is not even allowed to see the crown prince alone. Yet we must get to him, tell him of the hope that lies for us at the Hague, have him put his seal to credentials for two men, and then——

“Then our troubles just begin.” Bethell was quick to take the baron’s speech from his mouth. “Once we have his majesty’s great cardinal seal on these credentials, how get the men they authorized out of Korea? You’re watched like a mouse, Yong; the few others like you who would be good men for the Hague are watched, too. If you've got to sneak here in a coolie’s rig how much harder to make Chemulpo or Fusan for a steamer.”

Silence fell on us then. The magnitude of the job we were ready to put our hands to appalled us for a minute. How could three men, all of them watched, make through the hedge of espionage the invaders had built around the person of old Bugs-to call majesty irreverently out of name; how combat the guile of the craftiest serpent in the whole Japanese nest, Hagiwara, the ubiquitous eyes and ears of Ito?

“Do you think the emperor still has his seal?” Bethell popped the question with his characteristic explosiveness. “You know he’s never set the cardinal seal to the Treaty of Protectorate, and there’s a rumor he slipped the precious bit of crystal out of the palace and to some monastery back in the mountains for safe-keeping, so he couldn’t be forced to use it on a Jap-made document.”

“There’s another——” Baron Yong checked himself as if shot. Bethell and I felt the same congealing shock that had stopped his lips.

The metal match safe had dropped from the doorknob. It struck the floor with a sharp knock.

Bethell acted first. He whipped a short-barreled automatic from his coat pocket, swept the night lamp up in his left hand, and was at the door in a bound. An instant he stood there, his ear against the panel. Then he quickly set the lamp down on the near-by edge of the washstand, and, holding his weapon at the hip, threw the lock, and swung back the door with a single movement.

Blackness there; naught else.

Yong and I crowded to the doorway, and as Bethell lifted the lamp above his head we peered up and down the hallway as far as the feeble radiance carried. Not a sound; nor a shadow. Yet the match safe had fallen.

I think we looked into each other’s eyes with a half-incredulous, half-shamed air. Then we stepped back into the room, and Bethell started to close the door.

“Hello!”

Yong suddenly stooped, and picked up something that lay next the door-sill, so close to our feet that we had almost trodden on it. He held his find to the light, his face all drawn into little puckers of surprise. Bethell and I brought our heads together over the Korean’s hand.

What it held was a six-inch curl of woman’s hair. It was a rusty gray, and at one end was the hairpin that had skewered it to its wearer’s head.


CHAPTER II.

Theodosia Rampant; Exit.


How long we three stood there like dolts gazing at that grizzled wisp of hair I do not know. Bethel1’s eyes met mine, and a question shot between them. She—Theodosia Tooling; that frumpy owlet from Dorsetmount—she eavesdropping, and on the night of her arrival? Incredible! Yet this same Theodosia Tooling was the only creature under Looie’s roof that night who wore long hair—and gray hair. We couldn’t go behind that. The evidence seemed incontestable.

“We’ll look into this thing in the morning,” Bethell grunted, as he closed and locked the door. “There’ll be no more listening at keyholes to-night; that’s certain.”

Of course, Yong could not share the suspicion that curl of false hair had fired in us. Nor did we reveal our mutual conjecture. Somehow it would have been absurd for two men wise in the ways of the land to accuse a freaky waif just in from the beyond of the China coast of playing the national indoor game so soon after her coming. I confess, though, that when we drew our heads together once more to plot and plan ways for accomplishing the great adventure Yong had outlined, that absurd twist of hair seemed to assume personality, and to take its place as a fourth party to our cabal. It lay under the night lamp where Bethell had thrown it, and, try as I would, I could not keep my eyes from its drab and snaky convolutions. Everything inanimate is perverse in the dreary lexicon of Korean demonology; a false curl dropped outside a door guarding treasonable conference was not an omen of joy.

We talked until the first streak of dawn light on the rugged face of Pukhan warned Yong that he would have to flit through the wasting dark to regain his home undetected. We saw him fling himself over the rear wall of the hotel compound, one with the slinking cats in stealth; then I went back with Bethell to his room to smoke and drive at the abattis of our problem until the sun came. We found no gap in the bristling hedge about the sacred person of old Bugs; at every angle of attack we saw eyes-the eager, watchful eyes of the Japanese. Eyes at the doors of the royal prisoner’s palace; eyes in the coiled shape of the dragon on the screen in his audience chamber; eyes frescoed on the shoji of his bedchamber. Of all persons in the peninsula His Majesty Bugs was the most isolated—one hapless individual under the patient scrutiny of threescore slant eyes. Our single hope for a successful start on the harebrained venture lay in the farewell promise of Yong.

“Unless he has been corrupted like the others,” he said, “there is one man still close to his majesty’s person who may serve to carry our message through the Japanese lines. Old Tai-Song, the keeper of the wardrobe, has been considered harmless enough to stay in the emperor’s household. I think I can get word to him and gold enough to tempt him. You will hear from me soon.”

So, perforce, the matter rested with us. We had but to wait in patience while Yong burrowed into the secret places of the palace under the suspended Samurai sword.

There was a matter of immediate interest, however—the telltale lock of hair. Bethell handled this in his characteristic, bull-charging way, while I, a volunteer Greek chorus, stood ready to carry through the action by strenuous recitative if need be. The stage was the lonely dining room of the hotel; time, about eight—thirty a. m.

Very red-eyed and soggy with tobacco smoke and no sleep, Bethell and I took our seats before the Lady Theodosia made her entrance. We dawdled over the marmalade and coffee until, with a mannish tread and a defiant flapping of her rakish auk’s wing, the little sister of the occult flounced to her table and took her seat with her back to us. She did not favor us with so much as a glance. Scorn spoke from the bony angles of her elbows, from the nest of watch—spring curls—veritable mates of the curl—which bounced and waggled at their moorings in the nape of her neck. When he had finished with his breakfast Bethell noisily pushed back his chair, rose, and strode toward Theodosia’s table. As he neared it he drew from his coat pocket the coiled and hairpin-skewered evidence of a maiden lady’s indiscretion.

He came to a stop by Theodosia’s elbow, and with a blunt little bow laid the curl on the tablecloth by the butter dish.

“Miss Tooling,” he began, in his usual throaty roar, “I believe you dropped this—ah—article of the toilet outside the door of my room at eleven o’clock last night. I found it there just half a minute after you dropped it.”

I could see the lady’s freshly kalsomined cheek, the smile that wrinkled it, as she turned her eyes to Bethell’s. With something like a simper she answered him:

“This is—very considerate of you, Mr.—Bethell, I think the name is. I haven’t many of these—er—appendages, and I imagine it would be hard to replace one lost in Korea.”

Sublime innocence or sublime impudence? I choked as I saw Bethell’s jaw drop; he was so pathetically helpless before the unexpected retort. Theodosia calmly picked up the betraying curl, and tucked it with its kin in her coiffure. The chunky little editor glowered at the twist of hair as it took its place in the fair Tooling superstructure, then he shook his shoulders like a challenging mastiff, and returned to the charge:

“I said, Miss Tooling, that I picked up this—ah—lock near eleven o’clock last night. Some gentlemen were in my room at the time. We were having a private conversation. Yet I found this just outside my door—just below the keyhole, in fact. Might that not be rather embarrassing to you?”

This was drawing it too strong. I was on the point of rising to pull Bethell away when Theodosia answered—ah, so sweetly.

“It would have been embarrassing, indeed, Mr. Bethell,” she purred, “if you had found the—ah—lock just inside your door.”

Bethell whirled and fled out of the dining room. Theodosia applied marmalade to a bit of toast with the least concerned air in the world.

“Guilty, by the Lord Harry!” my vanquished friend stormed when I joined him in the office. “I tell you, Billy, that woman can afford to be watched! She’s playing some deep game; that’s what she's doing. Tut, tut, there; maskee that laugh, or I’ll proper well give you what-for!”

Events of the next few days proved, that watching Theodosia could well be counted one of the pleasurably exciting pastimes of Seoul—at least, of the foreign contingent in the capital. Not since the invasion of Hideyoshi had such a restless spirit coursed through the rotting-worm tracks of the old city. Theodosia was a veritable will-o’-the-wisp in Scotch bonnet and fatigue jacket One minute she would be settled in the living room—of the British resident, boring the unhappy wife of that official through and through with theosophical shafts; the next she would be launching her esoteric doctrines in a machine-gun fire at the head of the third assistant secretary to Marquis Ito in the big residency building. Her voice was that of the pelican in the wilderness; it failed not from morn to dewy eve. There was not a lady of the legations who did not hear its high-pitched, rasping objurgations to follow the light; not a starred and belted baron who did not barricade himself in his office against the descent of this ravaging Hun of pantheism. First she was a joke; then a nuisance; then a terror. When men came to the club for the five-o’clock high ball they ducked into the protecting portals with a hunted, furtive air, and the common hail to them from the chairs was, “Have you met Theodosia?”

But particularly did the Tooling avenger haunt little Hagiwara, the boss of the palace, and in this fact all foreign Seoul found great joy; Hagiwara was not a popular person. His office the determined British proselyter made her favorite roost. She shouted down all of the understrappers who would bar her way to the Hagiwara spider web, patiently sat under her green umbrella on the steps of the office until Hagiwara must either make a dash for freedom or starve, waylaid him on his missions to Marquis Ito's house, pursued him by rickisha, bombarded him with accusing letters. It was a new and bitter experience for the suave little chief of the spy squadron. The hunter was hunted. Whatever professional suspicion Hagiwara may have entertained as to Theodosia’s mission to Seoul—and he was suspicious on principle of every new white face in the city—must have been dissipated by growing conviction that Theodosia Tooling was innocent of every form of human frailty except insanity. It is reasonable to suppose that Hagiwara believed her to be some strange and terrible species of British female never before seen in the Far East.

Doubtless it was just this conviction that led to the surprising thing. Theodosia had audience with His Majesty Bugs!

I will always believe Hagiwara hit upon this idea. as the most refined of all the little cruelties he and his crew devised to keep the mind of the hapless prisoner in a constant state of terror. Turn Theodosia loose on the emperor, and she would do what fear of poison and the knife had failed to accomplish; there would be nothing remaining to arrange but the formal obsequies.

Whatever Hagiwara's motive, the fact remained that Theodosia Tooling, of Dorsetmount, did what no foreigner in Seoul, man or woman, had done in nearly two years: saw and talked with the Emperor of Korea in his palace. And alone, so gossip buzzed through the city, save for the necessary presence of an interpreter, a Korean. All who marveled at her triumph felt, too, that a distinctly Japanese trick had been played on the old boy; there was a fine sense of derision in thus sacrificing his pitiful dignity to the assaults of such a harridan as Theodosia.

Her audience occurred just a week to the day from the time of her arrival. That night Bethell sent one of his printers to my house with an imperative message that I join him at Looie’s immediately. I was at my dinner when the coolie arrived; in half an hour I was trundling through the black streets in my ricksha. A misty rain made the night Stygian. I could hardly see the bobbing head of my puller, so dense was the darkness. Only occasionally did a cranny of light shining through the shutter crack of some house give proof that I was in the heart of a city of thousands, and not a desert in Mongolia. Not half a dozen pedestrians passed me—pale ghosts, swinging tiny star lanterns of white-oiled paper in their hands. On such a night one shares with the natives the certain belief that the tiger ghosts are abroad. “The rain dragon can snatch a loose topknot,” they have it.

At the Astor House I found Bethell in a high state of excitement. He dragged me into a corner of the shabby bar before I had shaken the wet from my coat.

“The word from Yong,” he hoarsely whispered. “We’re to meet him at eleven in the lotus pavilion of the old palace. He sent just that message, nothing else, by old Hi-dong, his house slave. ‘All depends on to-night;’ that’s the way he put it. Something big—brig, Billy. ‘Yong must have got a message through to the emperor. The big scheme is moving!”

For two restless hours Bethell and I speculated upon what the tryst in the old palace grounds would bring forth as we knocked the billiard balls about the table. Then, a little after ten o’clock, I left the hotel, bound by a roundabout way for the appointed meeting place. Bethell was to follow, and we were to meet at the breach in the wall on the Puk-han side of the ancient palace inclosure, and then proceed together through the wildwood tangle to the lotus pavilion.

The rendezvous Baron Yong had appointed was in the midst of the strangest jungle in the world—the old Kyeng-pok Palace compound. Set in the heart of dead Seoul are these fifty acres of ghost walk, the hovels of the people pressing against its walls on three sides, and on the fourth the savage granite of Puk-han Cliff. Behind its barred gates decay and desolation are locked—palace halls, pavilions, a royal library of blue-glazed brick, a throne hall whose steps are worn hollow by the feet of thousands of courtiers, deer parks, archery courts, flimsy summer-houses, and toy bridges over fish ponds. All—all in the ruin of neglect. The lotus flowers in scum; cats prowl through the chambers of royal seraglios; pigeons weave straws above the ebony throne chair for their nests. Capricious majesty in the person of the last emperor forsook Kyeng-pok when Queen Min was hacked to death and burned in the deer park and built him a new palace in the far corner of the ancient inclosure—the palace which was to become his prison house in the black days of the Japanese occupation.

I went on foot from the hotel, taking the full time of an hour to skirt the walls of Kyeng-pok to the breach. No ghostlier sally have I made in all my life. In the wet blackness of the night the guarding stone lions at the palace South Gate loomed large as mastodons, every uptwisted gable was a witches’ toboggan, each square tower set on the wall’s crest the stronghold of fantastic archers of a dead day. I found the breach, unchallenged, and there crouched behind a pile of the fallen masonry to await Bethell’s coming. He splashed through the mud to join me, and together we groped our way through the tangle of ruins to the lotus pavilion. This was merely an unwalled summerhouse built on a platform over a fish pond. A fancifully gabled roof hung over it on carved pillars; a gingerbread railing of teak rose from the floor. Oh, a dismal, ghost-ridden place!

Together we waited for, perhaps, half an hour, listening to the patter of rain on the lotus pads and the r-r-r-rick-r-r-r-rick of some ghoulish insect in the rotting beams over our heads. Then the snapping of a twig near at hand, the noise of a foot on stone. Bethell whistled very low. A voice out of the dark called “Bethell?”

Another minute and the muffled white figure of Baron Yong stepped out on the little causeway leading to our retreat. Another blurred shape followed.

They drew nearer. Baron Yong stepped aside, as they gained the platform, with a little gesture of deference, to permit the one accompanying him to pass and greet us first. Curiously we moved forward; so dark it was we almost had to rub noses with the stranger to identify him.

“Theodosia Too—Tooling! Good Lord!”

Bethell stumbled backa gainst me asthe exclamation leaped from his lips.

“No, Bethell—no, Billy.” The voice in the dark was low and infinitely sweet. “Theodosia Tooling no longer to you, dear friends. Just the girl—the girl whom you helped to kidnap the emperor two years ago, and who failed—with you.”


CHAPTER III.

In The Dragon’s Nest.


One who has spent twelve years west of the one hundred and eightieth parallel is supposed to be inured to shock. I discovered that instant there in the rain-drenched pavilion that I was not yet surprise proof. Even when I felt the girl’s hand in a heartening clasp and could see dimly under the peak of the Tooling Scotch bonnet the eyes of her with whom I had once traveled the treacherous path of high adventure, I could not believe that the late Theodosia and the girl of stirring memory were the same.

With one voice Bethell and I began to put eager questions.

“Hs-sh!” she cautioned, and put her fingers quickly upon our lips. “Another time. We have something more important than explanations on hand. Come!”

“But look-a—here, girl,” Bethell persisted, a grieved quality in his tone. "Why, Theodosia Tooling? Why did you come back to Seoul and fool us—your friends, willing to help? And that gray curl outside my door! Why, you spied on us; you were eavesdropping; I knew it! On us, the only people in Korea who——

“Listen, Bethell; listen, Billy.” She put her arms about our shoulders in the way of a comrade, and drew our heads to hers. “I was sent here by—by the same big man whom Baron Yong saw in Petersburg to do what the baron and you planned to do that night in your room at the hotel. Yong did not know he—that big man in Petersburg—was sending me. I was told only to find him here in Seoul, and act with him. I had to come as Theodosia”—here she laughed a little at her own Mr. Hyde incarnation, I imagine—“because that was the best way. I did listen at your door, Bethell—very clumsily, too, I admit—and discovered you were already playing my game. So—what to do? Play it with you! And I have! Now, come.”

“What’s up?" I asked Yong, who had stood a little apart from us during our colloquy.

“We go to meet his majesty," the Korean replied simply.

Picture the strange procession through the midnight dark of deserted Kyeng-pok—scuttering phantoms in the pleasure places of long-dead kings. The girl walked with her hand in mine for guidance. We did not speak, but from her strong, confident fingers there passed to mine the bold, full pulse of her soul—the soul of indomitable youth, daring all in the head of romance. Mercifully the dark hid the physical mask of Theodosia Tooling. Instead of the kalsomined cheek, the penciled brows, the pitiful lines of waning bloom refurbrished that made the apostle of theosophy a dreary object in the eye of intolerant youth, I could see in the clear vision of remembrance the radiant beauty of firm, round throat and cheek crowned by masses of hair the color of bronzed autumn oaks. What a sacrifice of her jealous feminine values the girl had made in becoming Theodosia Tooling of the rusted locks! And what an artist of make-up she had proved herself!

Baron Yong leading, we threaded the wastes of deer park and courtyard until we had come stealthily to the low wall which bounded the small inclosure of the new palace. Yong brought us to an angle in the masonry where the Wall swerved to avoid a big rock, and there we huddled together, waiting—for what?

“He will come, though it is dangerous,” the girl whispered. “Little Hagiwara helped me arrange the meeting when he admitted me to audience, though he doesn’t know it.”

The rain swept our faces, and a misshapen pine branch above our heads swayed back and forth in the fitful wind like the arm of some unlaid ghost. We were cramped, wet, horribly uncomfortable. Minutes dragged.

A stone, tossed from above, fell at our feet with a little startling sound. A voice called softly: “Yong-Yong!"

We were on our feet in an instant. There over the low top of the wall almost flush with our faces the night had breeched two mummy shapes of white, swathed and formless.

“Your majesty!”

Yong’s low exclamation in the vernacular suddenly brought us to a realization of the proprieties, uncommon as was the occasion. Bethell and I swept off our hats, the girl bowed profoundly; Yong prostrated himself.

“Hurry—hurry! Say what you have to say before the Japanese discover his majesty’s absence.” The command came from the emperor’s bodyguard, who was the faithful Tai-Song, the loyal member of the household whom Yong had “reached.”

We all drew near the wall. Baron Yong and Bethell began speaking hurriedly to the emperor in the court language. From the little I understood I knew they were-putting before him in the most glowing terms the hazard of the Hague delegates. Occasionally his majesty interrupted with an eager treble piping. The old fellow grew so agitated his stuffed and padded body swayed perkily this way and that.

“What does he say, Bethell?” the girl inquired eagerly. Her restlessness under the handicap of the alien speech would not let her keep silence.

“He’s for it,” the editor flung over his shoulder, then renewed his earnest conversation in the Korean tongue. For another minute the buzzing over the wall was uninterrupted. Once his majesty uttered a sharp exclamation in a querulous, childish outburst, and Bethell growled an abrupt oath. Then Yong took up the burden of the argument pleadingly. Speech between the three flew so fast I could not follow it; I only knew that some serious objection had been raised by old Bugs, to which he seemed to cleave with a mulish stubbornness.

“Annoné”

The hail, in the Japanese, popped like a cracker in the dark beyond the wall. Then a flash of light, dim in the background of trees behind the emperor.

“A-a-a-ai!” the royal prisoner moaned, and his head dropped below the wall like Mr. Punch’s at the arrival of the hangman.

“Quick—quick!” Bethell whirled about and grasped one of the girl’s hands. I took the other. Yong, in the lead, gripped Bethell’s wrist, and we ran blunderingly away from the wall into the bramble tangle of the old palace grounds. There was a sudden spray of light behind us as a lantern was lifted over the wall. We heard a gruff call to halt, in the Japanese tongue. A whistle trilled, and somewhere off in the dark another answered. All the nerves of Hagiwara’s spy guard were thrumming to the alarm.

As I look back at it now, that race of ours away from the trysting place was something like bad boys’ escape from an orchard and a farmer with his gun. Yes—maybe. But, also, I reflect upon the dreary wildwood of Kyengpok: how easily it would have concealed for all time the result of a chance shot in the dark.

We ran I do not know how far, and finally came to a stop under the eaves of some crumbling building because breath lacked. There was no sound of pursuit; doubtless none was attempted, the Japanese jailers being content with catching the emperor at a forbidden assignation.

It was here, as we huddled together out of the drip of the rain, Bethell and Yong reviewed their conversation with the royal prisoner and told the girl and me of the stumblingblock the old loon had put in the path of our scheme. His majesty welcomed with the joy of a seasoned intriguer the project of sending delegates to the Hague conference, and on the spot commissioned Baron Yong to be one of them and choose his fellow delegate. But at signing his name to their credentials old Bugs balked—flatly refused.

“His majesty rightly says,” Yong explained, “that no document of state bears his signature. It must be stamped with the great cardinal seal, which was the seal of Kija, first ruler over Cho-sen.”

“Rot!” Bethell broke in impetuously. “The old boy’s afraid to put his hand to the credentials, for if the Japs grabbed them he’d be condemned by his own signature. If the cardinal seal alone is on ’em he can swear it was put there without his authorization. What’s more, he hasn’t got the seal. Says he smuggled it out of the palace and up to the U-cham Monastery, on Diamond Mountain, so the Japs couldn’t force him to use it. There you are—no seal no credentials; no Hague business! Seal hidden away somewhere by a lot of rooty old monks who wouldn’t give it up if Buddha himself demanded it.”

“Then there is but one thing to do.” The girl bore down Bethell’s grumbling by her calm assurance. “We will go and get that seal.”

“And this will open the way,” Yong supplemented. “His majesty gave it to me just as the Japanese called. His personal luck charm!”

From hand to hand passed the curiously wrought bit of jade Yong produced. We could not see it; could only feel the complicated involutions of that Chinese ideograph which in Korean fetichism represents the all-in-all of favoring fortune. Old Bugs had, indeed, made a sacrifice in giving up the luck stone; next to the soul tablet of his father it was his most precious warder of harm.

We planned, then, the trip to the U-cham Monastery, away back in the shadow land of the mountains two days by chair from the railroad. We planned at that strange hour and place because we were together, and there was no forecasting when at another time we might gather unsuspected. Though Yong and I urged against the girl’s making the journey, she would not be put off; she said she could not remain in Seoul while the big adventure was moving forward elsewhere. Bethell, it was agreed, should not attempt to leave the capital; he was too well known outside the central zone of Japanese activity to escape detection once his absence from the city was noted by Hagiwara’s men. It was problematical, even, if Yong and I could leave the walls in canopied chairs and await the girl’s coming at a certain point on the railroad without being spied upon. It was a desperate sally we were to attempt, and the chances of success were ten to one against us; we knew that. But we had the emperor’s luck stone to confound the thousand devils of Japanese interference and the smiling god, youth, uncalculating servitor of romance, was nudging our elbows.

So, under the dripping eaves of Kyeng-pok we perfected the details of our raid on the great cardinal seal, and after a handgrip all around we parted to pick our way severally—except that I piloted the girl—out of the labyrinth of moldering grandeur to the safety of familiar roofs. So finished a night that even now flashes in memory like the blinding white beam of a searchlight in the dark.


“The mother of all the dragons suckles her young in Keum-kang San,” says a Korean legend. And a dragon’s nest it is, this spinous cluster of peaks called by the foreigner Diamond Mountain. Fantastic as the painted mountains on a Chinese screen, all needle spires, black gorges, and mist-shrouded pines, the Keum-kang San shelters a community of men no less bizarre than the monstrosities of nature surrounding them—the Buddhist monks and acolytes of U-cham Sa, largest of the few remaining monasteries in Korea. They are the decadent remnant of what was once the national faith—the flotsam marking the high tide of Buddhism in northeastern Asia.

Here in the aisles of the mountains great bells, forged when the Crusaders were before Jerusalem, still send out their booming calls to prayer thrice in the day’s round; the sun’s rays drop through a slit in the mountain wall to illumine the placid face of a Buddha sitting in bas-relief against the age-gray mother rock; strange carven toadstools stand over the graves of abbots who died no man remembers when. Only the shadow of the Great Teacher lingers at U-chain; the votaries mingle exorcisms of demons with their mumbled Sanskrit prayers. Buddha is far, far away, but the ferocious spirits of mountain crag and blasted pine very near.

Seoul lay three days behind us, and we three—the girl, Yong, and myself-found ourselves in the heavy fist of Keum-kang San at the third setting of the sun. She in a rough mountain chair, hoisted on the shoulders of sturdy coolies, Yong and I following on foot, we traveled in a land raw and crude as on the world’s first day. The trail led through the black gap of a gorge, back and forth over a thundering torrent bridged by tottering planks.

As the light gradually failed the bleak sides of the cañon closed in on us like a dungeon’s steel walls; against the orange blue of the sky stunted pines on the gorge rim opposed affrighted hands to the approach of night; the narrow vault hummed with the steady diapason of tumbling water. It was a time and place of terror, vague, unsettled.

We walked in the precincts of the gods of primordial things. Yong, the bachelor of letters, the cosmopolite, strode silently by my shoulder, his face grave and fixed under an effort of will. Once I caught the look in his eyes and matched it with the fear that widened the eyes of the nearest chair coolie. Through all the veneer of travel and study the Korean nature of the man was pushing into the ascendency.

It was dusk when we emerged upon a little plateau. Over the softer voice of the torrent came to us the throb-throb-throb of a great bell somewhere ahead in the graying valley. The heavy bell note was answered by others; the gathering dark pulsed with the beat of wood on metal. Yet not a light ahead, not a sign of human habitation. The wilderness had suddenly become vocal. We passed through an ancient burial place. About us strange tumuli lifted themselves in the shadows; rock lanterns and mushroom growths leaned drunkenly this way and that. Still the booming of the bells. Spirit, bells, ringing the requiem of the ancient dead!

Suddenly we came upon U-cham Sa—a sprawling blot of temple, pagoda, and bell tower against the lighter dark. Little lights pricked out here and there. The glowing of great hidden lanterns cut the porch pillars of a shrine out of the night. We heard the intoning of many voices. The chair coolies began to croon a labor song and quickened their step. We were out of the grip of goblins at last and on sanctified ground.

Our coming to the great monastery made a considerable stir. When the evening chanting was finished,—a service we bided in the shadows of the largest temple—fully a hundred shave-polls gathered about us, chattering excitedly, and we were conducted into the presence of the Chong-sop, or abbot. He was a man of benevolent countenance, paunchy and good-humored. He received us in a bare, vaulted room of stone and hewn wood, at one end of which sat on a dais a dingy Buddha, gazing with placid lacquered eyes upon two smoky dishes of burning oil at his knees.

The open door through which we passed instantly became crowded with jostling priests and novitiates, fighting for opportunity to feast their eyes on the strange sight of a foreign woman. The presence of the curious ones, which seemed to disturb the abbot not at all, made it impossible for Yong to state our mission. He had to invent, on the moment, some specious fabrication about our being travelers who had undertaken the difficulties of the road for a view of the wonders of U-cham. Though we sat with the reverend abbot for many hours, balanced on the uncomfortable narrow benches, and Yong talked with him interminably, the vigil at the door did not abate.

“You must remember,” Yong answered the girl, when she interjected an impatient protest against delay, “you are in the one place in the universe where the word ‘hurry’ does not exist. Time moves like a tortoise here.”

The evening was wasted—uncomfortably wasted. In the end the abbot’s tardy sense of hospitality overcame his garrulity, and we were shown our sleeping quarters—narrow cells with a pallet of rushes in each; clean, however. At the door of her stone box the girl paused to give me good night.

“Billy,” she said, and there was a little quaver of nerves and fatigue in her voice, “I—somehow feel as if—as if—Oh, I’d rather be fighting Hagiwara in Seoul than trying to bore into the—the blind something here! This is not our world. I—I’m afraid we′ll—fail.”

I took those words to my rushes with me. It was strange, nerve—straining, thus to hear from one who faced every hazard without flinching such a confession of doubt.

With the sun came new hope. After a strictly Buddhistic breakfast of strained honey and pine nuts, supplemented by tinned biscuits which the girl in a moment of saving inspiration had added to her traveling bag, we met the abbot. This time, through Yong’s clever contrivance, alone.

Never again, I hope, will I have to sit in such a place of horrors as that the abbot chose for this mornings audience. It was the Temple of the Ten judges, the magistrates who hold the woolsack under the dominion of the Lord of Buddhistic Hell and pass judgment upon the human chaff whirled down to them on the wind of death. The interior of the temple, smoke-blackened by the candles of thousands of votaries and hung with sable gonfalons of silk, like drooping bats’ wings, was dim and shad0w—haunted. The only spots of light were those cast by the flickering tapers and the dull-red eyes of the censers ranged on the shrines of the ten wooden idols.

It was when one stood before a shrine and caught by the flutter of light the outlines of the mural paintings behind it that the chills were spine breaking. For there, in heavy reds, oranges, and blues, were depicted the ingenious tortures of damned souls in torment—ferocity passing belief. As the flames of the candles waxed and waned the mouths of the victims opened and shut in spasms, the eyes of devils gloated, fires in the pictured purgatory leaped and died. Over the whole interior—musty judges, swaying black banners, hell fires—brooded a sullen spirit of malevolence.

It was the abbot’s favorite roost.

In Yong’s eyes, as we took our places cross-legged on the mats, I saw the same strained look of mastered terror I had observed in the gorge the evening before. Somehow the man’s structure of foreign culture seemed to be crumbling, bit by bit; I do not know what told me this, unless it was the look in his eyes and a certain loosening of the corners of his mouth. Reliance and self-confidence appeared to be sloughing away from our friend here in this dim mountain fastness of the unseen.

The girl beside me, her fascinated gaze wandering from one pregnant corner of shadows to another, I bent all my attention at trying to master the sense of what passed between Baron Yong and the Chong-sop. After a lengthy introduction, in which the Seoul patriot tried to give the priest an idea of the swift political changes going on in the capital, he came down to the object of our mission. The reverend master of the monastery listened with close attention, his face bare of the least flicker of emotion, until Yong brought out a silk handkerchief from beneath his linen outer coat, untwisted it, and displayed the emperor’s luck stone—the carved ideograph of moss-green jade. Then up went the eyebrows of his reverence; he sucked in his breath with a whistling sound.

“A command to you from the Heaven born,” Yong said. “He sends his stone of fortune to bring back to the palace the great cardinal seal of his ancestors.”

The monk sat in silence for a minute, then scrambled to his sandaled feet, and shuffled away into the gloom. We heard the hinge of a door creak, a board crack, and then we were alone. None spoke. The spell of the grim place was on us all.

Back padded the abbot, in his hands a bundle wrapped about by purple silk. He eased himself to the mats with a little groan, and then as he fumbled at the knots of silk he began mumbling some jargon of ritual. All of us leaned forward expectantly. The fat hands were an interminable time untying the silk. When the wrapping fell a small silver niello-work basket was revealed. Twice the monk started to open the casket’s top and twice his hand hovered uncertainly over the catch. His intoned prayer became of stronger timbre. His little eyes rolled excitedly. At last he turned the hasp and threw back the cover.

A square ray of limpid light leaped from the silk—upholstered interior. It came from a carved block of clearest crystal quartz—an oblong tablet with a ramping Chinese lion-dog surmounting it as a handle. Through the clear depths of the crystal block the red-crusted involutions of ideographs on its stamping face could be seen. The great cardinal seal; royalty’s stamp of authority since Korea was born a nation from the mists of legend!


CHAPTER IV.

A Fox Juggles With Destiny.


Not until I came to reflect upon it in the light of subsequent events did I find full explanation of Yong’s curious conduct the minute of the great seal’s uncovering. For an instant he sat in petrified awe, as did all of us for that matter, so compelling was the pure beauty of the ancient relic; then he suddenly bent forward on his knees as if to prostrate himself. He checked himself midway of the sweeping gesture, his face flushed and his eyes dropped as if in shame at the impulse of reverence. Of course, I thought at the time, a patriotic Korean would feel a sense of veneration at sight of this instrument of hoary royalty, just as an Englishman looking through the cage at the crown jewels in the Tower of London might thrill before the scepter of Edward the Confessor; but Yong’s involuntary act was different. Again the native in him flashed to the surface—the blind, unreasoning fetishism of the Korean.

It was the girl who broke the awkward silence:

“Well, now that we have it we had better start at once for Seoul.”

Yong stammered something in the Korean which I could not catch. Instantly the abbot with a quick, protective gesture slammed shut the lid of the casket and gathered it under his arm. His face was scowling. He muttered some reply to Yong.

“The abbot says,” Yong interpreted, “that, of course, we cannot move the great seal from U-cham until the proper prayers have been said and the signs have been consulted to determine a propitious day for its departure.”

“What folly!” The girl broke in scornfully. “A bit of carved quartz!”

Here his reverence interrupted with a veritable torrent of words, out of which I picked, “bad luck,” “improper,” “impious.” Yong listened respectfully.

“You may not understand," he explained, when the abbot had finished, “that this ‘bit of carved quartz,’ as you call it, is a holy relic in the eyes of the monks here. In it lie the spirits of all the old kings, whose hands were set to it from the dim past to the present. I—I—maybe I do not make myself clear. When his majesty secretly sent this seal up here it was placed before the shrine of his majesty’s ancestors—became a part of that shrine. It cannot be moved until the monks have a sign from the spirits of the dead kings, permitting its removal. Even in the face of a living emperor’s demands it cannot be moved until then.”

“How long will it take them to get this message from the beyond?" I asked, striving to mask my impatience.

“There must be a period of fasting, I presume,” the baron answered. “And then they will begin to look for favorable signs in the rocks—the trees—everywhere. Of course——

“Baron Yong,” the girl sternly took him up, “do you believe in all this mumbo—jumbo business

A deprecatory smile quickly passed over the patrician features; his hands fluttered to his lips.

“Oh, no; of course not! You must remember I do not believe in anything”—this with a conscious air of cynicism. “But, of course—I told you time means nothing to these people—the customs of the country, you know—must be obeyed—I suppose.”

He finished very lamely with a nervous little laugh.

“But have you explained the necessity of quick action?" I asked. “The Hague conference convenes in September; this is July; we are on the opposite side of the world, and even with the seal in our possession much remains to be done before you start with your credentials. Come, man; you forget the destiny of a whole people hangs on our success!”

Again Yong loosed a volley of argument at the Chong-sop. He sat like an aged tortoise, his brown, shaven head thrust a little way out from his shoulders, his eyes narrowed to mere slits in the wrinkled, flabby face. The apotheosis of the unruffled, unhurrying East! When Yong finished, the old boy merely shook his head and smiled, then scrambled to his feet, and, the sacred casket under his arm, pattered away into the gloom. He did not return. We waited there in that hall of horrors for long minutes, none speaking. Yong sat with hands folded across his knees, his face placid. There was something of the Buddha in his pose. The bells began to boom then—a dozen—a score. They roared and moaned and tinkled in every register; the mountains threw back their voices in a jumbled echo. Somewhere out in the sunlight beyond the stern judges of hell and the fires of torment, rose a dreary unison chant of men’s voices:

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“Namu—Namu, Amida Butsu.

Na Mu Ami Tabu.”

“Oh, I must get out of this!”

The girl jumped to her feet with the strangled cry, and ran for the temple porch. I followed. Yong still sat, hands folded on his knees, amid the ghastly crew of the Inferno.

We walked together, she and I, out into the drenching sunlight under the giant cedars. Past the huddle of temples and cell houses, past the tottering headstones in the burial ground, on and on into the primitive wilderness We went until the voices of the bells were softened to silvery music and the chant was a drone. Ahead of us and on either hand the crags leaped up to smash holes through the solid blue vault of the sky, pink and gray spires of splintered granite. The pines lay thick on the slopes like heavy rugs. Foaming, leaping, twisting snakily among the bowlders, roared the stream; liquid jade.

We were two alone in the desert garden of the mountains. And the girl was gloriously a part of the wild beauty of the place. No longer the pinched and kalsomined cheeks of the harridan Theodosia, the dowdy curls, the frumpery grenadier’s packet. Instead the bloom of youth on rounded cheek and throat, lips untouched by art, brow unharrowed by lines. The bronze-gold hair I knew to lie beneath the stain of gray was, indeed, unrestored; but even the gray masses, parted simply over the brows, accented the youth and freshness of the face beneath. Her eyes—those sparkling eyes which had wrought such strange reminiscences in me the day I met Theodosia at the South Gate station—were now clouded with anxiety.

“Ah, Billy,” she said, as we found a seat in a circlet of nodding wild flowers, “I’m afraid we are fighting an unmovable obstacle—battering our heads against the eternal do-nothingness of the East. As well try to move that bowlder with a toothpick.”

“If they’d only give us a handle against them,” I complained. “Oppose us in the way white men do. But, no; ‘what is, is.’ ”

“And Yong,” she added. “Yong, the bachelor of letters—Yong, the world citizen familiar with the boulevards and the cafés chantants—our sturdy patriot; Billy, he’s going back! He’s slipping—slipping into the Korean again! Did you catch his attitude there where we left him? Buddha—Buddha of the ten thousand years’ contemplation. Billy, we’re alone—alone here in the garret of the world with nobody around but unpleasant ghosts who—si-sing horrid chants.”

She faltered, and the droop of her shoulders was eloquent. I tried to rally her spirits. Yong, I reassured her, was all right; he would find a way to cajole the abbot into giving up the seal without all the palaver with the spooks. It was natural he should feel the spell of U-cham differently than we did; mysticism and the fear of the unseen were born in his blood. All he needed was a little prodding; I would wield the goad.

“Why do I do these things, my friend?” She turned her eyes to mine; they were filled with seriousness. “Why do I, a woman with all a woman’s instincts for—for domesticity—a home—soft comforts—why do I come to a land the world's forgot to play the part of interloper? Why did I come here two years ago and lead you, Billy, and Bethell to risk your lives helping to get a stuffy old monarch from Seoul to Shanghai? One night I am stumbling in the ruins of Kyeng-pok here in Korea; the next I may be trying to make a Japanese secretary of legation in Berlin fall in love with me over a dinner table so I may steal his secrets. The Japanese have a fairy tale about a fox woman, who changes her form to do mischief in the dark. I am a fox woman—nothing less.”

“Girl, it’s because you are you; that’s all.” Maybe she did not realize that I had her hands in mine, and, as I knew full well, all my clumsy tongue refused to utter was said by my eyes. Maybe she did not realize; I dared to think maybe she wished it so.

“It is youth—the youth that dares the world to keep romance hidden from it, to deny adventure. Youth is creation’s masterpiece; but it passes, and then——

Ah, well, I am not going to put on a page for every eye to read all that we said there in that little glade of wild flowers. Enough to say that the half promise the girl made that day, that if ever she really could be Mrs.—— Well, she didn't keep it.

I will leave blank the three exasperating days of inaction that followed and hurry on to the events of the surprising fourth. Yong, who showed strange variableness of character, blowing hot and cold in alternate moods, I roweled unmercifully. For hours at a time he and I walked the mountain paths, I conjuring him by all the dumb mouths of Korea’s helpless millions to cut the knot of tomfoolery binding the seal and take it away at once. We could not stay on at U-cham indefinitely awaiting the favorable sign of the spirits. Every added day of our absence from Seoul meant that the Japanese spies must inevitably trace us to the mountains and guess our purpose. I tried to shame the man with his superstitious compliance with the abbot’s dictum; asked him if he feared the pursuit of vengeful ghosts if he should lay violent hands on a piece of carved rock crystal. At times Yong would flare into anger at my charge that he had become the slave of Korean shamanism; the next minute he would be dodging and ducking with silly excuses against disturbing the custom of the land.

On the third night of our inaction Yong drew me aside after we had left our very aesthetic evening meal in the refectory. He showed signs of great agitation.

“To-morrow—at dawn—we go away from here!” he said. “While the monks are at the five-o’clock prayer service we Will slip out. The girl’s chair will be waiting at the graveyard.”

“That means we take the seal with us,” I sternly answered.

“Yes—yes! I know where it lies in the casket on the shrine of the dead kings. I will get it some time to-night."

“But the abbot,” I objected. “He’ll be furious. We can't go faster than the chair coolies. In case of pursuit we——

“Beyond the graveyard they cannot pursue,” Yong whispered. “It is a law of the monastery. Only the begging U-cham, and they only at certain times”

Yong was very white and shaky, but I was convinced he had come to the sticking point. We said no more about the morrow’s flight.

That night after the evening prayer we went to visit the abbot in his cell. While the girl and I sat on our feet and blinked like chessy cats Yong carried on the conversation for us by proxy. His reverence exuded urbanity. He told us no less than thirty monks had begun the propitiatory fast in anticipation of asking the spirits of the dead kings for a favorable sign; within a month, at the most, he thought everything would be right and the seal could go to Seoul. In the meantime the hospitality of U-cham was freely ours.

I slept little that night, and before dawn I had slipped out of my narrow cell and roused the girl, who occupied a somewhat more pretentious apartment in the government guest house. We waited in the deserted halls of the guest house until the jangle of the bells summoned all of the inhabitants of U-cham to the great Hall of the Four Sages for prayer. Then we stole furtively through the half light of the morning down past the terrible Temple of the Ten Judges, and to the green mounds of the burial place. The chair coolies were there waiting. Also Yong.

I really felt sorry for the man when I first saw his ashen face. His lips were blue, his eyes roved; the whole aspect of him was one of abysmal terror. I asked him if he had the seal. His lips would not move to answer, but he held up his silk handkerchief. A square object was knotted in it. I offered to take it from him, but he shook his head and clutched the precious seal closer to his breast. I suppose he felt the responsibility for it should rest solely with him since he had stolen it from the shrine of the kings.

The girl hopped into her chair, her eyes alight with happiness. I gave the order, and the coolies started forward on a dogtrot. In our ears was the never-ending “namu—namu” and the clashing of the bells. U-cham dropped back into the mists of morning. Yong and I started together at a swift pace, following the bare feet of the coolies over the narrow, tortuous trail. He said not a word, but his lips moved constantly as if repeating some exorcism of the devil’s. The hand that gripped the ends of the knotted handkerchief, wherein reposed the seal, was pressed against his heart; the knuckles were whitened under the flexure. The trail led down past the Pools of the Three Dragons, three boiling caldrons of white water into which the stream drops with the fall of a mortar shell. According to U-chain legend, it was here the fifty-three Buddhists from India who introduced their religion into Korea met and overcame three dragons who lived in deep dens, and, vanquishing them, caused water to flow into their holes to drown them forever. The drowning potentialities of the pools, at least, are patent, whatever the truth about the unwise dragons. They fairly smoke.

The girl’s chair had drawn abreast of the first pool; Yong and I walked beside it, just as the trail turned to skirt the edge of the second there was a flash of red against the rocks ahead as a fox ran from the bushes almost under our feet. He gave a sharp bark of surprise, and disappeared.

An unearthly yell at my elbow!

I turned to see Yong staggering back as if a bullet had bored his breast. His eyes started from his head. His opened mouth was cavernous. The fingers of his free hand clawed the air. A terrible mask of abject horror!

An instant he stood frozen thus. Then he shrieked aloud. The hand that gripped the silk-wrapped seal suddenly lifted above his head; flew outward.

A square bulk of purple silk soared in the air, caught the sun for a quarter second, then dropped squarely in the midst of the white froth on the dragon’s pool.

The great cardinal seal, relic of three hundred kings, disappeared from the sight of man for all time.

Almost before the foam swallowed the precious crystal Yong had whirled in his tracks and was racing back over the trail to U-cham—and the world of living ghosts. Baron Yong, once the cosmospolite and scholar, but always the Korean, was fleeing the outraged spirits of kings that spoke through the mouth of a fox.

“Ai—ai——ai-yah-h-h-h-h!” We heard his retreating cry diminish, sink to a whisper, cease.


What remains to be written?

Ah, little! The world cares naught for explanations about defeat. It is only the successful who bulk big in the w0rld’s eyes. What the history of Korea might have been—what the shadow land might be to-day if the great cardinal seal had not plunged into the throat of the dragon at Keum-kang San I do not venture to guess. Perhaps—perhaps the hazard that youth seized would have repaid something for the good of a stricken nation.

As for youth’s votaries in this little comedy of the ultimate East, the girl did not even return to Seoul; she kissed me as the train was pulling out of Kaisong for the Yalu boundary and the great beyond. Now she ventures no more on the rainbow trail; I know because I have a little snapshot picture of her villa garden near London, and her two fine boys stand with her in the rose arbor. Bethell? Well, he slashed and cut at inevitable destiny until Death put a hand on his pen and he lies somewhere under black cedars where the walls of Seoul climb the heights of Pukhan. Baron Yong is not of the world, either, for his head is tonsured, and at dawn, when all the bells of U—cham fling their clangorous voices against the mountains, he stands before the shrine of three hundred kings and chants: “Namu—Namu, Amida Butsu.”

Myself? Why, bless your soul, I have five rooms and bath right on the main perambulator track of Brooklyn.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1942, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also 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.