Sir Thomas Armitage did not at first recognise his nephew, and when he did so, he could hardly believe the evidence of his eyes.
"Frank!" he exclaimed. "However did you come here?"
"That is too long a story to tell you now," answered the boy. "What a relief it is to see you! All these days I have not known whether you were alive or dead."
"Say," said Mr Waldron, "are we to be let loose? Am I a free citizen of the United States or a condemned criminal? I should like to know."
Frank turned to Ling.
"Those are questions," said he, "which you are better able to answer than I."
Ling, finding it inconvenient to remain standing in so cramped a position, seated himself cross-legged upon the floor and spoke in excellent English.
"You are right," said he. "The situation is in my hands. I hold you as hostages until the ransom is paid."
Here Mr Waldron was guilty of an injudicious action. He expressed himself with extreme rashness in a moment of deep-seated indignation.
"I a.s.sure you," said he, "that I will pay this twenty thousand dollars without question and without delay. To be frank, I consider the value of my freedom and my safety to be far greater than that. Twenty thousand dollars is nothing to me."
"I am glad to hear it," said Ling. "I may demand forty or even fifty thousand. In the meantime, I must satisfy myself with what I can get."
"Do I understand," said the judge, addressing himself to the Honanese, "that you are not one of Cheong-Chau's band?"
"Does the tiger serve the wolf?" said Ling. "I am neither his coolie nor is he mine. Understand that I have taken possession of this junk, that at the present moment every man on board is bound hand and foot, with the exception of this boy. The crew, the ransom money, Cheong-Chau and yourselves--all are at the mercy of the mighty Ling. I will tell you plainly what I intend to do.
"At any moment," he continued, "I expect the ransom money to arrive at its destination. It is possible that Cheong-Chau may put in an appearance. When he recovers his senses, he will probably behave like a madman. If he puts his head into the tiger's jaws, the fault is his--not mine. It would appear to be a simple matter for me to possess myself of this money. I have but to wait here until it arrives, and then, taking the treasure on board, to sail down-stream to the North River, and thence to Canton. However, I have reason to suspect treachery. I must therefore be careful to act with the greatest circ.u.mspection."
"Treachery from whom?" asked Frank.
"From your friend, Yung How," said Ling, "the Hong-Kong 'boy.'"
He got suddenly to his feet, and pa.s.sing through the door into the cabin beyond, set foot upon the lowest rung of the little companion-ladder that led to the deck above.
"I leave you for a few seconds," said he to Frank. "In my absence you are not to attempt to unbind your friends. I propose to inconvenience them a little longer."
He mounted the ladder and returned soon afterwards, carrying the man whom he had overpowered on the upper deck. This fellow he threw down upon the ground alongside the others. He then returned to the inner room.
"I desire you to come with me," said he, still addressing Frank. "It is not so much that I find your company indispensable, as that I am not such a fool as to leave you on board. I propose to go to the tower, from the top of which we shall be able to obtain a good view of the surrounding country. So soon as the money arrives we will return to the junk. You will a.s.sist me in hoisting the sail and navigating the ship down-stream after we have taken our cargo on board. I know of a village on the North River where I shall find friends who will a.s.sist me--good seamen, who know their work. These will sign on as my crew, and Cheong-Chau's men can be packed off ash.o.r.e. We shall sail to an island that lies not far from Macao. There I shall keep you and your two friends in comfort and in safety--if not in luxury--until I obtain a second ransom. This gentleman," he added, indicating Mr Waldron, "has been so obliging as to inform me that he can well afford to pay fifty thousand dollars. Very well, he shall do so. The matter can be arranged."
He then told Frank to ascend the companion-ladder, he himself following, the ladder creaking violently beneath his weight.
Upon the deck they were able to observe the first signs of daybreak upon the horizon to the east. The old moon was setting; one by one, the stars were disappearing in the sky. The river at that hour looked ghostly. A thin white mist was drifting down the valley.
Ling, walking to the stern part of the ship, found a small boat, a kind of dinghy. This he lowered into the water; and then he and Frank climbed down by means of a rope. It required but a few strokes of the oar, wielded by Ling's powerful arms, to drive the boat into the bank, where he hid it among the rushes. A moment after they set off walking rapidly in the direction of the tower and the Glade of Children's Tears.
By that time the first rays of the sun had flooded the valley with a stream of golden light. Frank observed that a great many of the trees were covered with bloom, and that the surrounding country was rich in colour, the slopes across the river being scarlet with the bloom of the opium poppy.
Ling came to a halt before a carved door at the base of the tower. Opening this, he entered, followed by the boy, and found himself in a small circular room. Owing to the semi-darkness of the place, Frank could not at first take in his surroundings, but as soon as his eyes grew accustomed to the light, he was able to make out a narrow spiral staircase, built into the wall itself, which must have been at least five feet thick.
By means of this they ascended to the top of the tower, where they found themselves upon a narrow, projecting balcony, encircling a little room that reminded Frank of a summer-house. From this position they were able to look down upon the whole valley, which extended to the east as far as the eye could reach, but which to the left vanished at a distance of about a mile behind a great fold in the hills.
"We wait here," said Ling. "At any moment the treasure may arrive. If you take my advice you will go inside and s.n.a.t.c.h a few hours' sleep. There are strenuous days in front of you. You will have to work for your living. But I will reward you. I am a kind master, as those know well who serve me to the best of their ability."
Frank, thinking that he might as well follow this suggestion, entered the small circular chamber, and there lay down upon the floor, using his rolled coat as a pillow. Almost immediately he fell asleep, and must have slept for several hours, for, when Ling awakened him, he noticed that the sun had pa.s.sed its meridian, and was already sinking towards the west.
The boy was exceedingly hungry, and accepted with eagerness the offer of a large piece of rice-cake which Ling produced from his pocket. Hardly had he taken a mouthful when he remembered his uncle and Mr Waldron.
"Your prisoners!" he exclaimed. "They will be starving!"
The Chinaman shook his head.
"Not so," said he, "whilst you were asleep, I returned to the junk and attended to their wants. I gave them food to eat and water to drink. Besides, I was anxious to see that all was well."
"Supposing they are found," said Frank, after a pause, "by some junk pa.s.sing up or down the river? There is plenty of traffic upon the Sang River, as you know, this part of the country being thickly populated."
"They will not be found," said the Chinaman. "There is no reason why anything of the sort should happen. They have no means of communicating with anyone pa.s.sing upon the river. And there is nothing extraordinary in the spectacle of a junk lying anch.o.r.ed clear of the mid-stream fairway. You yourself often must have seen upon the Chinese rivers thousands of such boats with not a soul visible on board. In all such cases the crew has either gone ash.o.r.e to drink samshu or to smoke opium, or else they lie asleep below. I am anxious about nothing--except, perhaps, Yung How," he added, in an altered voice.
"And the money has not come?" asked Frank.
"It is coming," said Ling. "That is why I awakened you."
"It is coming now!" The boy sprang to his feet.
Ling pointed to the west, in the direction of the river. There, sure enough, about half-a-mile down-stream, was a small white launch, similar to those which may be seen by the score in Hong-Kong harbour, heading straight for the southern bank, for the Glade of Children's Tears.
Like a great vulture in the heavens that soars higher and higher in a series of concentric circles, Ling from the top of the tower looked down upon his prey. After the manner of a vulture, he did but bide his time.
The launch ran into a narrow creek, and for a moment was hidden from view by the trees of the little wood. Shortly after, it appeared again, and both Frank and Ling watched the Chinese sailors tie her up to a stunted tree that overhung the water. On board were three Europeans, dressed in white ducks and wearing sun-helmets. The launch was too far away for Frank to recognise these men.
And then they witnessed a sight that made the dark eyes of the great Honanese glitter with triumph and greed; his wide mouth expanded in a smile. A plank was thrown from the launch to the sh.o.r.e. Across this gangway bag after bag was carried, each one so heavy with silver that it required two men to lift it.
At last the task was ended. The Europeans, who had superintended the discharging of this precious cargo, returned to the launch, which presently turned slowly round and made off down-stream. In the red light of the setting sun, on the surface of the water, they could see the convergent lines of ripples spreading from the bows of the launch.
"Come!" he cried, seizing Frank by a wrist and dragging him out into the open. "The ripe harvest awaits the reaper; the honey-comb is full. Come, come, my little junk rat, let us hasten to the feast. Wisdom and prudence are always triumphant. The victory is ever to the strong."
As the words left his lips, there came from the direction of the glade the report of a revolver, and a bullet, speeding upon its way with a soft, shrill whistle, cut off the lobe of one of the great Chinaman's ears. On the instant Ling fell flat upon his face, and Frank was not slow to follow his example.
--HOW THE TIGER VANISHED IN THIN AIR.
They had thrown themselves down upon the ground in a place where the gra.s.s was long enough to screen them from view. The light was fading rapidly. It would soon be quite dark. A heavy mist was gathering in the valley.
Frank looked at his companion. He could see blood flowing profusely down the man's neck. For all that, the expression upon Ling's face did not suggest that he suffered pain. He was grinning.
He held in his hand the loaded revolver he had taken from Yung How in Ah Wu's opium den. It was manifest that every sense was alert. s.c.r.e.w.i.n.g his eyes, he endeavoured to pierce the gloom of the thickets immediately in front of them.
Nothing was to be seen. No sound disturbed the silence of the evening. Slowly and stealthily Ling began to move forward through the long gra.s.s, after the manner of a snake, never for a moment lifting his chin more than a few inches from the ground.
Frank followed him. There was no reason why the boy should have done so, and without doubt he had been wiser had he remained behind in safety. But he was consumed by an overmastering desire to see the matter out, to follow to the bitter end the fortunes of the mighty Ling.
He followed in the man's wake, Ling in his progress was making a kind of pathway through the gra.s.s. Frank was careful not to show himself. He realised that the exposure of any part of his body would, in all probability, immediately be greeted by another shot from the glade.
Ling was making for a great boulder that lay upon the outskirts of the wood, about twenty yards from a place where the undergrowth was exceedingly dense. He gained this without any mishap; and there, a moment later, he was joined by Frank.
"You have followed me?" he asked, in a whisper.
The boy nodded his head, not venturing to speak.
"Then you have done so at your own risk. I am not responsible for your life."
Very cautiously, Ling peered round the boulder behind which they lay in hiding. Almost at once, a single shot from a revolver was fired from the thickets immediately before them.
Ling did not draw back, nor did he flinch. On the contrary, he drew himself forward until at least half his body was exposed to view.
Then came another shot from the wood; Frank saw a bullet strike the ground not three inches from the man's head. At that moment Ling himself fired. Three revolver shots rang out in quick succession, and then, with a roar like that of a charging tiger, the man rose to his feet and plunged into the wood.
Frank saw the flash of a long knife he carried in his left hand. In his right he still held his revolver. He crashed into the undergrowth like a wild bull, and the darkness swallowed him up.
The boy waited an instant; then, as nothing happened, he rose to his feet and followed after Ling.
He was able to see very little of his surroundings. He found himself in twilight. Trees arose on every side of him like gaunt spectres, twisted and deformed. Dark shadows upon the ground seemed to be moving, floating here and there like silent ghosts.
Knowing not which way to go, for a few seconds the boy remained quite motionless. Then suddenly there came a loud shout, in which Frank recognised the voice of Ling. This shout was followed by an uproar, a noise that bore no small resemblance to the crackling of green wood upon a mighty fire. Branches were broken; dry sticks and twigs were trampled under the feet of excited, hastening men.
Frank, running forward, found himself, before he had gone thirty yards, upon the skirting of the Glade of Children's Tears. Here there was more light. The boy could see the great broken idols, overgrown with moss and lichen, lying upon the ground; he could see the ruins of the ancient temple and the great red stone beneath which the treasure had been hidden. Then, on a sudden, he became conscious of the figure of a man crouching behind a rock, not ten yards away.
Though he was well in the shadow, there was sufficient light to enable the boy to make quite sure that the man in front of him was not Ling. One could not fail to identify the gigantic proportions of the Honanese; and this was a thin, small man. Moreover, he did not wear the long robe of the upper cla.s.ses in China, but a short jacket, reaching not far below the waist; and so far as Frank could make out, this coat was red. Also, the man was bareheaded, whereas Ling had been wearing the b.u.t.toned hat of a mandarin.
Frank remained silent and motionless, scarcely daring to breathe. On hands and knees the man moved a few paces forward, which brought him into the light. The boy recognised at once the shrunken, evil features of Cheong-Chau, the brigand chief.
He could have been given no greater cause to regret the fact that he was altogether unarmed. In this conflict, the sympathies of the boy were wholly on the side of Ling. That Cheong-Chau was more evil than Ling was not to be doubted, since the brigand was never to be trusted. Ling, on the other hand--so far as Frank's experience went--was not likely to go back upon his word. He was pitiless and wholly unscrupulous; but at the same time, he had in his own way certain estimable virtues. The boy considered that the worst calamity that could, at this juncture, possibly befall him and his friends was for Cheong-Chau to regain possession of his hostages. If the brigand overpowered Ling, he would possess himself of the ransom money, he would recapture his own junk, setting free the crew which Ling had bound hand and foot; and then, it was more than probable, he would seek satisfaction in the murder of his victims.
Frank therefore was eager to render all the a.s.sistance he could to Ling. But since he had upon him neither fire-arms nor weapons of any sort, he could do nothing but lie still and await the tide of events. Cheong-Chau continued to move forward on hands and knees. He turned his head rapidly first one way and then another. The boy was well able to see that the brigand was armed to the same extent as Ling; in other words, he carried in one hand a revolver of European manufacture, and between his teeth a long Chinese knife.
It was plain that the man was searching in all directions for his adversary. He was still not many yards away from Frank. On a sudden, he lay quite still, seeming to flatten himself into nothing, just as a cat does when it lies in ambush. He had evidently seen something.
Frank, straining his eyes, observed another man, visible as a mere shadow, moving slowly and silently amidst the undergrowth on the other side of the glade. This man was steadily approaching. Cheong-Chau did not stir.
When the two men were not fifteen paces away from each other, Cheong-Chau raised his revolver, and was evidently about to fire, when suddenly he brought it down again.
"Tong!" said he, in a loud whisper.
"Is that you, Cheong-Chau?" came back the answer.
"It is myself. And have you seen aught of the tiger?"
By then the two men were together lying side by side behind a fragment of the ruined temple wall. They were so close to Frank that, though they spoke to one another in whispers, it was easy for him to hear every word that they said.
"I thought you were he," said the man who had answered to the name of Tong.
"And I too," said Cheong-Chau. "I was about to fire when I saw that you were too small to be Ling."
"That is fortunate," said the other, "fortunate--for me."
"And where is Chin Yen?" asked the brigand chief.
"He is close behind me," said the man. "He is here."
Indeed, at that moment they were joined by a third man, who crept forward from out of the midst of the shadows. The night was descending rapidly; it was already almost dark. Frank, however, had no doubt as to the ident.i.ty of these two men. He remembered very well hearing their names when he was in the opium den of Ah Wu. Chin Yen was the man who had fallen down upon his knees beside an opium couch, holding his head between his hands. Tong was the unfortunate individual who had been struck down with the paraffin lamp. It was subsequently discovered that the third man never recovered from his injuries.
"Well, Chin Yen," said Cheong-Chau, "where is the tiger? Have you seen nothing of him?"
"Nothing at all," came the answer. "Three minutes ago I saw him standing on the edge of the glade. I was about to fire, when suddenly he disappeared. I think he fell upon his face."
"He is somewhere here," said Cheong-Chau. "He is too big to hide himself. We shall find him sooner or later. He cannot have been spirited away."
Tong shivered--or rather there was a tremor in his voice.
"I don't like this business," said he. "Presently, without a moment's warning, the tiger will spring upon us from out of the darkness. And then, woe betide him into whom he digs his claws."
"You are a coward," said Cheong-Chau. "We are three to one, and we are all armed with revolvers. What is there to fear, if we keep together? Ling's strength will avail him nothing."
"That is true," said Chin Yen.
All the same the tone of his voice carried not the least conviction. He was obviously just as frightened of his opponent as his comrade. Cheong-Chau himself was the most courageous of the three.
"Obey my orders," said he, "and remain at my side. We will search the place thoroughly. He lies somewhere in hiding. Keep as close to the ground as possible. He will fire the moment he sees us."
"He may have escaped," said Tong.
"He has done nothing of the kind," said Cheong-Chau. "For two reasons: first, we must have heard him; secondly, it is not the custom of Ling to run away."
"Let us go first to the junk," said Chin Yen. "We shall then be ten to one."
"Fool!" exclaimed Cheong-Chau. "We should never get there. Ling would shoot us in the open. Come, we do but waste time talking. The glade must be searched."
As he said the words, he began to move forward, straight toward the place where Frank was hiding.