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THE WHITE JADE SEAL
By H. BEDFORD-JONES
Author of "Everything for Nothing," "A Tale That is Told," etc.
WHO KNOWS WHAT SHAPES ARE ASSUMED BY THE GODS OF
VENGEANCE AS THEY PROWL UP AND DOWN THE CHINA SEAS
GARVEN, mouthing his cheroot in the smoking-room, idly fingered the white jade seal that depended from his watch-chain. This seal was an odd thing. Garven himself was odd. Most singular of all, however, was the fact that the man sitting on Garven's left should have laid down his book at this precise instant, thus catching sight of the jade seal.
If you are at all intimately acquainted with the line of mailboats running from India to Rangoon, you have heard some queer tales. None of them surpasses the story of the white jade seal when it comes to queerness, however.
Garven was tall, dark, bearded and silent, his eyes darkling with hidden fires. The man on his left was small, spectacled, rather chubby, yet with a mouth that expressed unreasonable determination, a regular trap-mouth in fact. Garven's looks spoke of the far hills and jungle, those of the other man of cities and clubs. The latter was down on the passenger list as John Manning, commercial traveler.
"Beastly hot night," said Manning, an instant after he laid down his book. Garven gave him a swift glance, found him cherubic and smiling, and nodded gravely.
Manning nodded and gave his order, for Garven had previously beckoned a boy. Presently the drinks came. The glasses were touched and sipped. Manning mopped at his brow which had suddenly become finely beaded with perspiration.
"Devilish country, this!" he said impulsively. "Glad I don't have to stay in it. You look as though you didn't mind, though."
Garven smiled slightly. "I don't. It's good country for men, up in the hills!"
"The hills?" Manning turned to him with voluble interest. "Did you hear about that horrible affair upcountry? Rangoon papers were full of it last week. I don't call that a good country; I call it beastly! I read a little something about the details, but not very much. Those two chaps who murdered each other, I mean—or one of them murdered the other, which was it?"
Garven mouthed his cigar, then took it out and carefully inspected it. One gained the distinct impression that he was trying not to look startled.
"You have it wrong," he said slowly and steadily. "You misunderstood the reports. That is, if you refer to the case of Smithsend and Ormsby."
"That's the one," affirmed Manning eagerly. "Those two mining chaps, you know, who had been up into the Shan country looking for gold or tin or something. They'd been gone a long while, given up for dead by everyone, until this story came out—oh, yes! Rubies, that was it. They were after rubies. I swear I had the idea that one of them had murdered the other! Perhaps I read the story amiss. Some chap brought down the yarn—found the bodies or something. Who was he?"
"I was the chap," said Garven. Manning strained around, staring at him blankly.
Garven nodded. "Yes. You see, I happened to run across Ormsby's boy in the hills, dying. He had been captured by the hill tribes and escaped. He told me the whole thing. If you'd be interested in learning what really happened——"
"Oh, yes, yes!" exclaimed Manning. His eyes fell for an instant to the white jade seal. "Yes, do tell me! Let's have that boy fill the glasses again, eh?"
Garven nodded and the boy came. When he had filled the orders and gone again, Garven composedly told his story.
"It's not much of a yarn, though the newspapers played it up," he said, when the boy was out of earshot. "The two chaps got into trouble with the hillmen, and had to run for it. Finally the beggars surrounded them on a hill. They held out for a week, until their last cartridges were used up, and then were rushed. After I heard about it, I went there, found the place, and buried their bones. So that's the whole thing, and not as you had it."
"Oh!" said Manning disappointedly. "So that's the way of it!"
"Exactly," said Garven, and puffed at his cigar. His fingers toyed with the white jade seal, and Manning leaned forward to look at it, frankly enough.
"That's a curious thing! May I see it?"
Garven started slightly, then laughed and held up the seal. It was a trifle over an inch long, a long cube of white jade with a gold ring sunk in one end. On the other end was cut a Chinese inscription in tiny characters.
"It's Malay, isn't it?" asked Manning innocently. Garven laughed at that.
"Oh, no! Chinese! I picked it up in a Singapore bazaar two years ago—it's a seal, you know. The ideographs mean good luck, or something of the sort."
"Odd thing," said Manning, then picked up his book and rose. "Well, I'll say good night, and thanks very much for the story. Queer how I got it so jumbled."
"Night," said Garven.
Manning left the smoking-room. He made his way to the upper deck, and there stood for a moment at the rail. Then, deliberately, he flung his book overboard and watched the splash in the phosphorescent rush of water alongside; it was a gesture as though he had finished with something forever. Drawing a deep breath, he turned aft and went to the purser's cabin, at which he knocked. The purser was splitting a bottle of beer with the first officer, and Manning crowded into the little cabin, and sank on the bunk.
"Greetings and long life, old son," exclaimed the purser cheerfully. "Mac, reach him down another bottle——"
"And then go turn in, like a good little boy," said Manning solemnly.
The first officer collared a bottle of beer and went to the door.
"I wouldn't drink with two bad eggs like you anyhow," he declared, and then grinned as he departed. John Manning seemed to be rather well known aboard here.
"Now, old son, spit it out!" said the purser, wiping his mustache. "Here, I say! What's it all about? Buck up, buck up—this won't do!"
Manning was leaning back in the bunk, looking whitish and rather ill. He smiled faintly, then his trap-mouth set in thin lines again, and he sat up. After gulping down some beer, he accepted a cigarette and lighted it.
"You know that chap Garven—tall, bearded, tanned? Brought in that story from the hills that was in all the Rangoon papers last week?"
"Aye," said the purser curiously.
"Well, you have a nasty job to do for me. Will you?"
"For you as owner in chief of this bally steamship line," demanded the purser, "or for you yourself?"
"Damn the steamship line," said Manning. "For me myself, with the same old streamers that you're wearing on your manly chest."
"Old son, I'll do murder for you," said the purser. "Not for you as owner, mind! To hell with owners off duty. But you and me and that brother of yours—say, say now, I'd cut off my right hand to have him here with us over the beer! D'ye mind that night when the three of us was in the Gallipoli trench, and we had a bottle o' beer——"
"Shut up and listen to me," said Manning. "You're drunk this minute."
GARVEN had enjoyed a rubber of bridge and was about ready to turn in for the night, when the purser came into the nearly emptied smoking-room and flopped down into a chair beside Garven. The purser was drunk, obviously so. The row of campaign ribbons on his breast was always askew when he was drunk. He called for a drink, blinked at Garven, and then began to laugh.
"Old son, funniest thing happened tonight!" he said. "Funniest thing you ever heard. S'pose I shouldn't talk about it, but who cares? You're all right. Sparks told me 'bout it—poor kid, he'll have half the Calcutta police out to meet us! Excited, he is. You'n me are pals, what? Here's how, and many to come!"
Garven nodded, the glasses tinkled. The purser thirstily emptied his glass at a gulp.
"What—oh, yes I Funniest thing ever. Here it is, now! Feller on board here who murdered some chap upcountry, understand? Shot him in the back or somewhere, robbed him. Then grew a beard, came down to Rangoon, and came aboard with the loot—funniest thing ever! Here's how!"
Garven gulped a little, lifted his glass mechanically. The purser cursed his own empty glass, noisily summoned the boy, and presently began to talk again.
"This feller—name was Ormsby, understand?—had a thing he took off the man he murdered. Don't understand myself. Something partic'lar, it was. Jade or something. And today or tonight, sometime, he got talking with somebody, and this other chap saw this thing, and popped on to the game, right-o! Police chap, this chap was, understand. Damned complicated thing to talk 'bout. Oh, yes! I remember now. Murdered man's name was Smithsend, and now the wireless is signallin' for the Calcutta police. Funny thing, wireless, when you stop to think 'bout it, now! I remember, one time back—where was it?—oh, yes, back in the old B.P. line. You know it, out o' the Australian ports——"
Garven, rising to his feet, walked away suddenly and was gone. The purser stared vacantly after him, then rose and also left the smoking-room, but with a surprisingly steady step.
When he had returned to his own cabin, the purser found Manning still there, quietly smoking.
"Did it, old son! Though for the life o' me I can't see just what your game is, lettin' on to that rotter you're a police chap."
A knock sounded at the door, and Sparks stepped in. The young wireless officer, who was new in the line, gave Manning one curious glance and then shoved back his cap and looked at the purser.
"See here, I just got in a message from Rangoon for a chap named Smithsend. No one of that name aboard the old hooker——"
The purser waved his hand genially toward Manning.
"Right here y'are. Mister Smithsend, Gawd save the mark! He owns most o' this ruddy steamship line, old son, and I've no respect for him at all. Devil a bit. But you'd best have plenty. Down under his placid exterior he has brains, somewhere."
"Shut up," said Manning, and looked at Sparks. "Where's that message?"
"Here, sir," said Sparks, awed into belief. He handed over the message and left the cabin. Manning spread out the slip on his knee, and at his invitation the purser crowded over to read the words:
"Smithsend, S. S. Hulagu. Little known of Garven here. Said come overland from Yunnan. Explorer. Rangoon Times."
"I sent the Times a request to look him up, this evening, but sent a personal call to the editor and only signed my first name," said Manning in explanation.
"Well, loosen up!" said the purser. "What's your game, now? If what you think is so, why not call in the police? Why give him warning? What's that jade thing?"
Manning smiled slightly. "You're venerable, bald-headed and senile. D'you remember the Taiping rebellion in China?"
"Heard tell of it. Why?"
"My grandfather was in it—a friend and adviser of the Taiping emperor. When my grandfather came home, the Taiping emperor gave him that jade seal; a small, private imperial seal for personal letters. Nothing like it could possibly exist in duplicate. My brother Bob carried it as a lucky token, also in case he got up into China and needed any help. Last letter I had from him, before digging off with Ormsby, he mentioned it. So this chap Garven lied about it. Nobody knows much what Ormsby looked like, but this thing gave his game away."
The purser whistled at this. "Bully! And you're wangling him on the strength of it. But look here, what d'you expect to get out of it? S'pose you and me go down there and arrest the blighter for the murder of your brother, what?"
"Cool down and open another bottle of beer," said Manning. "And shut off that electric fan. Being a purser and at one time a naval brigade officer, it's natural you should have no brains. We'll try and instruct you."
The purser shut off the buzzing electric fan, and sudden silence fell, broken only by the monotonous clang of the engines. In this silence the two men drank their beer, Manning complacent and alert, the purser sadly puzzled and wondering. Suddenly something jarred upon the night. A muffled vibration lifted through the ship. With an exclamation, the purser sprang to his feet.
"That's a shot, somewhere below."
"Exactly," said Manning coolly. "Also, that's the end of the story."
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1949, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 73 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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