The Image of Earth
The Image of Earth—A Story of the Orient
JIM HANECY, the red-headed American, whose doctrine of pitiless efficiency had made him one of the most successful agents and dealers in Chinese objets d'art, stood on the deck of his chartered river boat and bade farewell to Cheng-tu.
"About the best clean-up I've ever made!" he reflected. "We've got most of the things taken from the grave of the Emperor Ling Ti; also, we have the whole magnificent collection of Wu Liang the antiquary. We'll clear big money on this—if we safely reach the coast. And Benson—driven him out!"
This was true enough. Benson had fled for his life from Cheng-tu. Crooked work was well enough along the coast, but up in the interior of China old-fashioned ethics prevailed. Jim Hanecy was glad that he had seen the last of Benson.
He opened and read again the note he had received at the last momentfrom his partner, Toptit, who had gone down-river to secure, if possible, the Image of Earth.
"Have secured the Image. Am stopping at the Sen-chi villa near the Pe-lo-chou. Shall wait for you. Pick me up. Toptit."
Hanecy called the master of his boat.
"Do you know where the Pe-lo-chou is—the beach of white herons?"
"Half-way to the Yang-tse, excellency," was the prompt response. This indicated about a hundred miles down the Min-kiang, on which river they were voyaging.
"There is a villa near that spot—the Sen-chi villa?"
The captain repressed a smile.
"I would hardly call it by the polite name of villa," he answered. "The Winning Game House, as its name signifies, is devoted to the pleasure of gambling. There are women also. Once it was a very fine resort for mandarins, but now only unworthy persons frequent it."
HANECY frowned at this. Neither gambling houses nor women would have drawn Toptit there; somehow it did not look right. But since his partner was there, he ordered the captain to stop at the White Heron Beach. Then, observing a great activity of workmen and teams on the shore, outside the Cheng-tu walls, he asked the reason of it.
"That is the new landing station, Excellency," said the captain, "for the line of air machines between this place and Shanghai. A mail-and-passenger service."
Hanecy remembered, and eyed the dust-clouded work with interest. A company, confined to Chinese merchants, with a capital of nearly a million, had organized this air service fifteen hundred miles above the Yang-tse and Min rivers, from Shanghai on the coast to the great plain of Cheng-tu far inland.
"If I'd waited a few weeks," thought Hanecy, "we might have flown to the coast! I wonder where that scoundrel Benson went to? It'd be like him to try and lay me out on the voyage down, and get the whole shipload of loot! I wish he'd try it."
It did not occur to Jim Hanecy that Benson, maddened by his repeated defeats, might have thought of this little scheme some time previously.
Toptit had secured the Image of Earth—how, does not matter here—and was really at the Winning Game House. This much was true, right enough.
The Sen-chi-lou was a disreputable ruin set amid wondrously beautiful surroundings by the river. Once a resort of mandarins, it was now a den of thieving, lechery and murder. Its delicate buildings were filthy and ruinous; its magnificent gardens had been untouched for a score of years. The wide fields beside it, where once the most delicate melons and rare delicacies had been grown, were now knee-deep in uncut grass. The orchard had been cut down for firewood.
The place lay in a backwater of the river. Here was a wide beach of white sand where white herons had come in flocks through unknown centuries. A gradual ascent from the beach still bore traces of its wondrous gardening and landscape work; then the buildings themselves, faintly gay with old gilding and lacquer. Still very beautiful, one had to come close to realize that this was in reality a whited sepulcher, where the lowest of rivermen gambled and drank and lusted after abomination.
Half a dozen small craft lay tied at the neglected, crazy landing-place. In the main pavilion, whose tattered silken hangings had once witnessed the poetical competitions of mandarins; the keen intellectual pursuits of scholarly men; the gently veiled and refined obscenity of talented courtesans and courtly princes—there was now another scene. Nearly naked coolies guzzled their wine sweatingly; low women exchanged vile jests across the dice; in one corner huddled a yellow body with a knife-hilt protruding from the neck. Over the place hovered a raw, shameless debauchery.
Into the main doorway came a white man. This was Benson—rather small, smooth-spoken, always deadly cool—Benson, whose affiliations with the tongs of thieves and river folk brought into his hands many stolen, beautiful things. Although he had fled for his life from Cheng-tu, Benson had not fled far before finding friends and a haven.
AT sight of Benson there fell silence on the pavilion. All gazed furiously at him. There were more than a dozen men in the place. Their leader, a brawny and scarred pilot of the gorges named Shwang, came to his feet and spoke with some respect. Benson silenced him with a gesture, and spoke fluently in the local dialect.
"The river is being watched for the approach of any boat from the north?"
"Nine eyes watch, my father."
"Nine eyes?" Benson frowned a little. "You mean——"
"Tu, the one-eyed, and four others, my father."
Benson smiled, and there was a chorus of ribald laughter that quavered up to the broken roof. With a gesture of dismissal, Benson turned and left the pavilion.
He approached a small summer-house in the center of the garden. Across the entrance was sprawled a naked man, asleep. Benson stirred him with his foot. The naked one leaped up and a knife flamed in the sunlight. At Benson's smile, the knife fell and the man stood back with an ashamed murmur.
Benson went into the little house.
There was but one room, circular in shape. In the center arose a carved pillar of nanmu wood, thick and substantial. A graver's inscription that it had been cut and carved in the third year of the reign of Kang-hsi, yet it still filled the room with a subtly aromatic sweetness. Tied to this carven pillar with a knotted cord of silk was Toptit. True, he was not particularly happy, but he was quite at his ease to all appearances.
Toptit, who was a poet as well as a dealer in antiques, was rather deceptive in looks; one of his strong points, this. He was a gangling, awkward Yankee, always quite innocent about the eyes, and unconquerably cheerful. Most people—including Benson—took him for a fool who had a fool's luck. Those who, upon this assumption, undertook to rook Toptit either revised their opinions ruefully or else enjoyed their six feet of earth in silence. Benson was the first man who had managed to "get" Toptit—which speaks well for Benson's ability.
There were reasons for Toptit's being lashed to the carven pillar; for his wrists being bound in front of him until the flesh-biting silk had turned the hands swollen purple; for his ankles being bound likewise. Shwang the river pilot, had lost four men before he captured Toptit—and he had found the American asleep at that. Something of this showed at the dried blood streaked across Toptit's face.
"Hullo!" said Benson amiably. "Getting enough to eat?"
"Plenty, thanks," said Toptit, in his cheerfully negligent way. "But I'd appreciate a smoke, if you have one to spare."
Benson produced cheerots. He took one himself, then placed one between Toptit's lips and held a lighted match to each. This done, he seated himself opposite his captive and inspected the latter critically.
"Oh, I'm all here," said Toptit. "What's troubling me is, why don't you have me killed?"
Benson smiled. "Because I'm expecting Hanecy," he answered. "I wrote him in your name."
"Oh!" said Toptit. He gave no sign of the awful chill that swept his spine. "That's good of you! But——"
"You see," explained Benson calmly, "you're only an incident, but Hanecy is something else, again. He'll bring all the stuff with him that you and he have collected; I'll take the lot, thanks. Then Hanecy will watch while you're wiped out. The process of wiping out will be slow, and that'll hurt him bad—and I mean to hurt him to the soul before I'm done with him."
"You're a hell of a white man," was wrenched from Toptit. Then he forced himself to smile again. "Bet you ten dollars Jim doesn't fall into your trap."
Benson merely laughed at this, without response. From his pocket he took a small object and set it on the floor between himself and Toptit.
THIS object was a cylinder of old yellowish Han jade, square on the outside, with the cavity perfectly round. A thick round lip projected about each end of the cylinder. This object had been taken from the tomb of the Emperor Ling Ti, the Eastern Han dynasty, and by Toptit just before his capture.
"Why do you call this an Image of Earth?" asked Benton meditatively. "It's the wheel nave of an Imperial jade chariot."
"You're wrong," said Toptit.
"I'm right," asserted Benson, who usually knew what he was talking about. "Bushell has identified these objects as such, and there's no authority beyond him."
"Yes, there is—common sense," said Toptit.
"Bushell got his data out of the old classical work the Ku Yu T'u P'u and that was utterly wrong. If you'd kept up with things, you'd know. Laufer has published the matter fully. He's identifies these things as images of the deity earth. This is the forty-seventh specimen known to be in existence."
"On what grounds?" Benson spoke as calmly as though discussing the matter in some drawing-room, and Toptit met his manner with equal phlegm.
"He's identified them with the t'sung mentioned in the chronicles of the Chou dynasty as images of the deity Earth. The shuo Wen calls the t'sung 'an auspicious jade resembling a wheel nave.' There's the root of the mistake——"
"But an Image of Earth is said to have eight sides!" broke in Benson perplexedly. "It's been figured by Gingell and others as an eight-pointed star——"
"All bosh," said Toptit. "Look at the the thing, there—you'll find four corners at each end of the cylinder! There are your eight angles; just as the Chinese call a rectangular block octagonal—because it has eight corners or angles. The shape is the common symbol of Earth. Look the thing up for yourself and you'll find I'm right."
"Very likely," said Benson, "Very likely."
He stared at the object with reflective eyes, for the moment quite absorbed in it. A shrill scream came suddenly from outside—a scream wrenched from the very soul of a man.
Benson leaped to his feet, thrust the jade into his pocket and was gone.
Toptit, left alone in the room, bowed his head, the cigar in his mouth. Then he realized the utter futility of his half-formed plan. He might burn through the cord about his wrists; but before he could do this he must burn through the cord about his waist. Before this the cord about his shoulders. Impossible!
He spat out the cigar, half in hopes that it might set the floor afire. But it only smoldered there on the floor, and the thin line of blue smoke became thinner, thinned down into nothing.
Outside Benson had found the guard prostrate on the earth in terrible fright. The man had some tale of a monstrous bird that had swooped down close above his head, all but seizing him; a bird the size of a house. Benson swore at the fool. The thought of an airplane did occur to him, but he had heard no motor and so dismissed the notion. He went on to the main pavilion. Shwang and the others assembled there had heard nothing. He passed down to the White Heron Beach itself and located Tu the One-eyed. Tu and his four men swore that there had been no such bird: but as they were located amid thick bushes with a view only of the river, their testimony was not important. Benson was satisfied beyond question that the guard had been dreaming.
He was very quickly diverted from the subject, however. Tu the One-eyed pointed out a river boat which, instead of keeping in the usual traffic lanes, was most certainly headed over for their bank. As Tu observed grimly, few boats came this way unless they had business.
Benson knew that Hanecy was coming into his hands at last—and with Hanecy a very choice lot of plunder. Deep hatred burning in him, Benson sent to the pavilion for Shwang, and presently rivermen and women came trooping forth in company, eager to take part in the coming ambuscade. They hurried forth to the White Herron Beach every last soul of them—even the guard from Toptit's cage rushed to join the fun, loath to miss his share of the takings.
BENSON, who was paying well for obedience, gave strict orders that Hanecy was to be allowed to land, and then taken alive. His hatred was too bitter, too intense, to be satisfied with a quick death. For the moment this man was tainted with the bestial urge of the yellow brutes around him, filled with the fever of passion and blood-lust that was theirs. He had set it to work as his servant, and now it was mastering him.
Laughter rippled among the rocks and bushes above the shore, as men and women settled down, veritable harpies who awaited the coming of their victims. There was something shrill and viciously terrible in that bubbling laughter. Then the shore was silent again.
Jim Hanecy, standing in the prow of the boat with the captain, scrutinized the landing-place carefully. There was no sign of life visible on the shore or up at the buildings; the whole place appeared deserted. A dozen white herons stalked along the sandy beach!
"This is a place of evil talk, heavenborn," protested the Captain for the last time as the boat drew toward shore and the sail was run down. "Junks have vanished; there is rumor of piracy——"
"It looks peaceful enough," said Hanecy, frowning at the shore. "Besides, my friend is here. If he's in trouble, he needs me. If not, we'll be gone in five minutes."
The captain made a gesture of resignation and turned away.
The boat's prow scraped the shelving sand; the white herons flapped into the air and sailed slowly away. Hanecy jumped ashore and strode toward the pavilion above.
At his third step, a bush moved. At his fourth a net was flung over his head. Hanecy fired one shot, and Tu the One-eyed died there; then the net was drawn tight and men were on top of him. There was an outburst of musket-shots. Black powder smoke obscured the Beach of White Herons and from the smoke came the shrill screams of dying men, the curses of Hanecy, and the terrible wild laughter of naked women, whose knives dripped red.
After Benson left him, and his cigar-smoke thinned out to nothing on the floor, Toptit quite gave up hope.
He drooped in his lashings. Tortured by the pain of his wounds, and weary as he was, none the less his eyes closed and a fitful sleep of exhaustion rested upon him. This slumber lasted only for a moment or two at a time.
"Damn you, Benson!" He spoke unconsciously, his body asleep, his brain tortured by pain. "You've got us this time—but you'll never make us whine!"
A voice broke in—a new voice strangely clear and virile.
"Hullo! 'Pon my word, old chap, this is most extraordinary, y'know! Eh?"
eyelids lifted heavily.
"Go to hell!" he muttered, still half consciously. "You can't make us—good Lord! Who are you? Are you real or—or——"
"I was about to put the same question," came the response.
Toptit stared wildly at the long, clean-limbed, leather-clad Englishman, who, bare-headed was inspecting him with imperturbable calm. He thought he must have gone mad.
"If you're a—a ghost, all right," he mumbled. "If you're real, get out of here—worst lot of cutthroats—coming to murder me——"
He slumped down in the knotted silken cords, and his headforward. At this instant came the crack of an automatic pistol from the river, followed by a crash of muskets, the screams of men and the shrill jackal-cry of women.
The Englishman shivered, then woke into action.
No fool, this man from the sky! He slashed Toptit free and dragged the senseless body to the entrance. One swift glance showed him the deserted gardens, the abandoned pavilion beyond; he cocked his ear at the murderous tumult from the river, and nodded. Then he leaped back into the little summer house.
A wax vesta from his case, and another. He held the little tongues of flame to the lattice-work of the walls. The thin wood, gilded and lacquered carving that had known no rain for two hundred years, embraced the slavering tongues eagerly. Before the man was back at the entrance flames were roaring.
THE Englishman stooped, and came erect with the senseless Toptit across his shoulders. Hardly stooping under the weight, he ran back the way he had come—ran across the overgrown garden and compound, passed through the ruined and empty gateway in the rear wall and was gone among the young trees which formed a wind-break at the crest of the rise, behind the Sen-chi house. There, among the trees, he dropped his burden.
Only a thin, weakly growth of trees, these, where once had towered graceful forest chieftains for the delight of mandarins. On the far side of them glimmered the wide meadow of bush grass where the rare gardens had flourished. In the midst of this tall grass lay the wide wings of a plane, one wing crumpled and broken. A bad landing, obviously.
The Englishman lighted a cigarette. Then, retracing his steps a little, he looked curiously at the place he had just left. In the center of the gardens the little summer house was roaring up in a column of flame. Men came running, weapons in hand, oaths outpouring. In the van was Benson, and after him a string of yellow fiends, blood-stained, lusting. The Englishman watched, and speedily came to some understanding of the situation. Benson cursed furiously, yet neither he nor other men might approach that blazing column of fire—wherein, as all thought, Toptit had been consumed. Hanecy was dragged forward into the garden—a wild figure, fast in the net that held him helpless. Benson swore at him in frantic rage, in drunken exultation; struck him across the face again and again—then snapped out an order and the netted Hanecy was dragged away.
"’Pon my word!" muttered the Englishman, amazedly. "The beggars don't know I'm here—what?"
When Toptit came to his senses hot coffee from a thermos bottle was trickling down his throat, and his wrists had been rubbed and kneaded back into revivified action. He sat up and stared at the Englishman.
"I fancy so," admitted the other, chuckling. "Dev'lish uncertain, this life, what?"
"Where's Benson? Where am I? Look out for them——"
"Right-o! Another sip of this coffee—good! All snug here, old chap."
"Who are you?" demanded Toptit with more coherency.
"Craven, R. A. F. I'm a loan to the Chinese government—plottin' out a bit of the new air route up from Shanghai. Little bit of all right, my comin’ along, what? Engine went dud at five thousands—came down in the meadow yonder. Rotten smash; have to send back to Chung-king now. All clear! Who's your friend Benson?"
Little by little, Toptit came to understand the miracle. When he learned what Capt. Craven had seen in the garden, recently, he groaned. Hanecy captured! Craven was, however, and suggested a cigarette.
"Won't do to get the wind up, old dear! Cheero! What price a helping hand, eh?"
Toptit gathered by degrees that this was an offer of alliance.
Jim Hanecy, still in the net that had enmeshed him and further wound about with rope, was slung to a pillar in the main pavilion and allowed to hang like a quarter of beef during most of the afternoon. He saw two of his boat's crew slaughtered there before his eyes, and it did not improve his temper.
Hanecy was something of a fatalist. He had every reason to suppose that Toptit was dead, as Benson stated; yet he was by no means certain. He knew Toptit better than most people did. So, as he hung in his net and witnessed the wild orgy of blood, lust and liquor that went on in the pavilion, he was thinking rather of himself than of Toptit's fate.
Toward evening Benson came into the place, glanced in distaste at the scene around, and then came to Hanecy. He looked up at the latter with a twisted grin.
"Ah, Mr. Hanecy! You see that I have come out into the open against you at last, as you have so often begged that I would!"
Hanecy said nothing. Benson held up the Image of Earth.
"Here is the deity, Earth, which I took from your late partner. There are only ten in existence outside of China; really quite a find, Hanecy! I've been looking over the stuff in your boat—a most remarkable collection. I must congratulate you! But you were just a bit too greedy. If you'd let the last piece go, you might have been safe. You had to have it all—and now you've lost it all. Tomorrow I'll start for the coast, with your boat. Any message to send?"
Hanecy glared down at him and held his peace. Benson chuckled softly.
"You can hang over night and cure," he purred. "Tomorrow these gentlemen will attend to you. I hate to come down to actual murder, Hanecy, but I don't imagine that I'd be very safe if you were to live, and I believe in looking after number one and sleeping sound. So long! See you later. Toptit set fire to his cage with a cigar I gave him, so I shan't offer you a smoke."
AN hour passed, and another. Darkness fell. With whoops and bestial jokes, the pilot Shwang and his crew brought in a box of candles that Hanecy had meant to pack to the coast—fine temple candles from the famous Ching-yang shrine; great two-foot candles of soft wax with cotton wicks an inch thick, the outside of each candle painted garishly in grease paint. The band removed these candles from the bamboo cases, set them up, lighted them; the candlesticks were huge bronze affairs with pricked ends. Now the wine flowed freely.
Another hour. One of the maudlin women brought a flaring candle and set it in a pricket-socket under the swinging captive, so that the smoky flame of it ran up the back of his legs. Grasping the idea, amid howls of mirth, other candles were brought, so that Hanecy was presently swinging over a dozen of the flaming things, while about him danced the band in wild obscene ravings, maddened by the hot wine and the writhing of their captive. Hanecy spun slowly in his net, like an ox on a spit.
"Keep it up, you devils out of hell!" he gasped suddenly, feeling a strand of the net part under his feet. "Two minutes more and I'll be down among you!"
"Take it easy, Jim," said a voice at his rear—the voice of Toptit. "Say the word when you're ready."
Startled almost out of his senses, the tortured American looked up. There, at a carved and gilded embrasure beside the pillar to which he was hung he perceived the face of his partner. Toptit was cutting at the carved work with a knife and was out of sight from the floor of the pavilion, having climbed to his present perch from outside
"Ready?" he gasped. "I'm ready now, confound you! The net's burning!"
"Then go ahead," said Toptit coolly.
Hanecy had been clinging to the net with his hands, supporting his weight from the flame-rotted strands beneath. Now he let himself go, slumped downward suddenly. The rope wrapped outside the net was not tight enough to hold him. The smoldering net burst from about his feet, and he dropped like a plummet. With a crash and an oath, he struck the score of candles below and scattered them.
A howl of drunken delight went up from the crew. Shwang lurched forward and threw himself at Hanecy, who lay among the spluttering candles. But Hanecy rose to meet him—rose and met him with one kick that took the drunken ruffian under the chin. Shwang pitched sideways with his neck broken.
From the side wall above Hanecy cracked out a shot. From the doorway cracked another. Hanecy himself, pausing not to weigh odds, caught up the nearest candlestick—a three-foot affair of bronze—and crushed the head of the closest man. His red hair, his blood-streaked face, hisgleaming eyes of steel, showed the berserk fury that was on him.
Hanecy never likes to tell of just what happened in that pavilion—although when he does tell of it he lays stress upon the bodies of his two tortured boatmen. There was no escape through the main door, and in this doorway stood Capt. Craven, a cigarette between his lips and a Browning in each hand. At all event, it was probably only a moment or two before fire from the overthrown candles was streaking up the walls.
"Chuck it!" exclaimed Craven, as Hanecy swung past him in pursuit of a screaming ruffian. "Chuck it! We've barely time to get away from here."
"Where's Benson?" Hanecy turned upon him savagely.
"At the boat—waitin' for us."
Hanecy took one look at the pavilion—and turned with a shudder. He flung down the bloody candlestick.
"Leave it be!" he said. ""Let's get out of here."
They left the doorway, and Toptit met them. None of the three turned to look back at the blazing inferno. Hanecy paused to ask no question, never so much as looked at Craven, but, as was his custom, coolly took entire command of things.
"You've tied up Benson?" he snapped.
"We have," said Toptit. "Your stuff is all aboard the boat. We have only to push out and be off. What are you going to do with Benson?"
Hanecy did not answer, but strode toward the river.
A broad glare of light was rising from the burning building behind them. All the water was red as blood. Illumined like day, Hanecy came to his boat and saw Benson in the bow, trussed firmly, his face wild with fright.
"Shove off," said Hanecy scrambling abroad. "I am going to be busy here."
BENSON swore at him, then begged for mercy. Hanecy ignored him, while Craven and Toptit shoved the boat off. Searching Benson, Hanecy found the Image of Earth and grimly set it on the deck. Through the jade cylinder he passed a length of line; the other end he made fast to an old iron plow used for an anchor, after disconnecting the plow from its fastenings.
"We've shed a lot of blood over this image," he said to Benson, who was staring wildly at him. "Now, we'll let it settle things. I'll give you an even break, you dog: I won't murder you, as you deserve. Toptit! Come here."
Toptit approached. Under Hanecy's directions he loosened Benson, freed him, left him squatting shivering on the deck. He then cut two ten-foot lengths of line from a coll. One of these he made fast to the jade Image of Earth and the iron plow. He then mixed the two lengths of rope in a confused mass—not tangling them, but leaving them in a heap above the heavy weight. Benson stared in fascinated horror.
"Take your choice of the lines, Benson," said Hanecy coldly. "We each make fast, then jump overboard. One of us goes down with the Image of Earth. The other—floats. I'm giving you first choice. Pick your line!"
Benson chattered a profane refusal. Capt. Craven smiled and swung up his pistol.
"I say, Benson! Take it sportin', now!"
With a furious cry Benson seized one of the projecting ends of rope. Toptit fastened it about his ankles. Hanecy calmly sat on the rail and extended his legs for the other line. Toptit made his fast. It was impossible to tell which line went to the anchor.
"Come on, Benson!" said Hanecy, contempt in his eyes. "If you live, you can swim ashore. You're getting an even break, damn you! Toptit, count three; if he doesn't jump, shoot him."
"One!" said Toptit, hauling out his pistol.
Benson caught the bulwark and drew himself up beside Hanecy, shaking like death.
"Two!" said Toptit.
Side by side, they made ready for the plunge. Craven picked up the anchor and heap of rope and set it between them, on the bulwark.
"Three!" said Toptit, and Craven let the weight fall overboard as the two men awkwardly jumped.
Toptit and Craven stood side by side, gazing down at the reddened swirl of water under the boat's prow. She was drifting idly, a hundred feet from shore. The Senchi pavilion was spouting bloody flames at heaven, but the two men stared at the water below them, and their eyes darkened as the ripples of the splash slowly died away—and no swimmer emerged.
"No tangle In the lines, what?" murmured Craven.
"None," said Toptit. Then his voice broke.
"Why the devil didn't he shoot Benson and be done with it?"
They stood there for a moment longer, then looked at each other, in terrible conviction. Before either man could speak a voice came from the water—came up from the stern of the boat, out of sight.
"Throw a line, there!"
It was the voice of Hanecy.