Outside he took in a deep breath of the fresh night air, then hurried in the direction of the river. He realised that fortune had played in a remarkable manner into his hands. Men-Ching was but a few hours in front of him. He intended, if possible, to overtake the man and possess himself of the letters. He might be able to do this by stealth if he could not succeed by force. He could, at any rate, make sure that the letters reached their destination, since the lives of both his uncle and Mr Waldron depended upon their delivery into the hands of the Governor of Hong-Kong.
--OF THE REAPPEARANCE OF LING.
Walking rapidly, the boy soon found himself upon the right bank of the river. Though there was as yet no sign of daybreak in the east, several people were already abroad, for the Chinese begin their day's work early in the morning and do not cease till late at night. Parties of men were engaged in loading the junks and wupans which were moored to the wharves and jetties.
Frank walked along the river-side until he found a junk about to sail. He hailed the captain, a tall, sun-burnt Chinaman with his pigtail coiled round the top of his head, who wore hardly any clothes at all. This man informed him that the junk was bound upon a fishing cruise upon the open sea. He readily agreed to take Frank as far as Canton for a small consideration in the way of copper cash; and a minute later, the boy was on board, whilst the junk moved down-stream under full canvas.
Nearly all the relatives of the captain and his crew had come down to the wharf to bid them good-bye. There were small-footed Chinese women, and little round-faced, naked children, each of whom appeared to have eaten so much rice that he looked in danger of bursting. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth--for the Chinese on occasion can be exceedingly emotional--and no sooner was the junk clear of her moorings than the silence of the morning was disturbed by a veritable fusillade of Chinese squibs, rockets and crackers.
Indeed it might have been an Eastern Fifth of November. A great bundle of gunpowder crackers, tied to the p.o.o.p of the vessel, went off in a kind of feu de joie, sending out so many sparks in all directions that it appeared that the ship was in danger of catching fire. The idea and object of this custom, which is universal throughout China from Tonkin to the Great Wall, is to scare away the evil spirits which might be disposed to embark on board the departing ship. The Chinese believe in the potency and the ubiquity of evil spirits. A European--commonly called "a foreign devil"--is invariably accompanied by a host of such attendant ghosts. Indeed, it is extremely difficult for any man, even a virtuous Chinese, to avoid being shadowed by malignant spooks who desire nothing more than to lead him into calamity and misfortune. There is, as every Chinese is well aware, but one method of driving away these evil spirits, and that is by exploding so much gunpowder and creating such a noise, that they flee in all haste back to the spirit land whence they come.
Frank Armitage observed this ceremony from the forepart of the boat. He had often witnessed such a scene before in the Chinese quarter of the harbour of Hong-Kong, but he had seldom seen such an expensive and gorgeous display. It was evident that the master and owner of the junk was a rich man who could afford to insure his property at the maximum premium. Also, this particular junk had an unusually large pair of eyes painted upon the bows. As the captain himself explained later in the day, if a junk has no eyes it cannot see where it is going. If a junk cannot see where it is going, it will probably, sooner or later, strike a rock or another ship, or run ash.o.r.e. That would be a disaster for both the junk and its owner. Hence a junk must have eyes the same as a man. This argument is thoroughly Chinese and would be entirely rational provided the painted eyes upon the bows of a Chinese ship were of the slightest practical use.
All that day they sailed down-stream towards the centre of the great valley of the West River. Every mile the country became more and more thickly populated. They pa.s.sed many villages situated upon both banks of the river, the houses in the majority of cases overhanging the water, supported by heavy wooden piles. The country was exceedingly fertile, being given over almost exclusively to the cultivation of rice. There were few trees and few hills except far in the distance, towards the north, where the foothills of the great Nan-ling Mountains stood forth upon the horizon like a wall.
Late the following afternoon the river joined a wider stream flowing towards the south-east. This Frank at first believed to be the West River itself, but he was informed by the captain of the junk that the Si-kiang was still fifty li to the south.
It was midnight when they turned into the main stream, and soon afterwards they saw before them the bright lights of the city of Sanshui, which is situated about twenty-five miles due west of Canton.
At this place, Frank was in two minds what to do. He might go straight on to Canton and thence down the river to Hong-Kong, at both of which places he would be able to get in touch with his friends. On the other hand, he had every reason to suppose that Men-Ching was at that very moment in the city of Sanshui. The junk had made good headway down the river, and the boy knew that the boat on which Cheong-Chau's messenger had come south was to call at Sanshui to take on a cargo.
Now there is no doubt that Frank Armitage would have been wise had he first considered his own safety. He was already practically out of danger; there was no vital necessity for him to put his head deliberately into the lion's mouth. If his determination appears to be rash, it may be supposed that he was guided by some natural instinct that warned him that, in this case, the most dangerous course was the only means by which his uncle and Mr Waldron could be saved.
Be that as it may, he argued thus: from the very moment he escaped from the cave his journey had been extraordinarily uneventful; he saw no reason why it should not continue to be so. If Cheong-Chau's men were in pursuit he had seen nothing of them; he had apparently left them miles behind. He had every reason to be satisfied with his disguise; he was fairly confident that even if he found Men-Ching he would not be recognised, since he knew the old man to be extremely short-sighted. Throughout his journey, he had experienced no difficulty in pa.s.sing himself off as a Chinese. The barber, the proprietor of the opium den, the fisherman and the captain of the junk--all had taken him to be a native of the country. The boy was sanguine of success; he never dreamt for a moment of failure. He saw no reason why he should not succeed in finding Men-Ching, in tracking the old rascal all the way to Hong-Kong and there having him arrested by the British police authorities. He even considered the possibility of completing the remainder of his journey actually in the company of Men-Ching and his companion.
He therefore asked the captain of the junk to set him ash.o.r.e. He paid the man according to his agreement, and found himself, at about one o'clock in the morning, in the centre of a very dilapidated and evil-smelling city.
Since he had slept a good deal on board the junk--there being nothing else for him to do--he decided to remain awake until daybreak, keeping a close watch upon the bund, alongside which the junks and river-boats were moored. He felt sure, from what he had overheard in the opium den, that one of the many wupans that lay alongside the wharves was that upon which Men-Ching had come down the river. His object was first to discover the wupan. He would then have no difficulty in finding Men-Ching himself.
The boy seated himself upon the end of a jetty whence he could obtain a good view of the harbour. A watery moon was low in the heavens, and this, together with the stars, illumined the river with an iridescent, ghostly light, by which it was possible to see for a considerable distance.
The hour was as yet too early for the riverside workmen to begin work. The bund was deserted save for a number of rats, which were to be seen quite clearly continually crossing the open s.p.a.ce that separated the houses from the ships.
Though the night was warm the air was somewhat damp, and Frank, fearing that he would contract malarial fever, rose to his feet and strolled casually down the jetty. At the corner of a narrow street he came quite suddenly face to face with a most alarming personage.
The expression "face to face" cannot be taken literally, for the man was a giant, and Frank's face was scarcely on a level with his chest. In the shadowy slums of a poverty-stricken Chinese town, at such a ghostly hour as two o'clock in the morning, to find oneself unexpectedly confronted by an individual of the stature of a Goliath and with the countenance of a demon, is an experience well calculated to give a jolt to the nervous system of anyone. To put the truth in a word, Frank Armitage was frightened out of his wits, and these fears were by no means dissipated when the Herculean stranger, without the least warning, grasped him by the collar of his coat and lifted him bodily from off his feet.
"Ha!" the man roared, in the Cantonese of the educated cla.s.ses. "A river-side thief! A junk rat! A prowler by night! Tell me, friend weasel, have you stolen rice from on board a Canton junk, or a night-watchman's supper?"
"I pray you, sir," cried Frank, "put me down upon my feet again. I am no thief, I a.s.sure you, but a peaceable citizen of Wu-chau, who goes upon a visit to his grandfather."
"A peaceable citizen!" roared the man, bursting into laughter. "That's good, indeed. I would have you to know that all citizens are peaceful when they fall into the hands of the mighty Ling."
So if Frank were none the wiser, the reader at any rate is better informed. Frank Armitage had never in his life, to the best of his knowledge, heard of the mighty Ling. The reader, however, has made that extraordinary man's acquaintance. He knows that Ling was not by any means one who could be trifled with, and he has been given some kind of a notion of the character and reputation of this same unmitigated villain who was wont to call himself "the mighty Ling."
The giant set down the boy upon his feet, planting him immediately in front of him.
"I have need of you," said he. "It is possible you may be able to render me some a.s.sistance. You doubtless have not failed to observe that the G.o.ds have made me too big to hide myself without considerable inconvenience. It is in this regard that you can help me. If you do so faithfully I shall reward you. If you attempt to play the fool with me, you go into the river with a twisted neck. And now, follow, my junk rat! Follow me!"
At that, he grasped the boy by a wrist and, taking such tremendous strides that Frank was obliged almost to run, dragged him along the wharf.
--HOW MEN-CHING ESCAPED.
Ling led the way to one of the many warehouses which were situated along the wharf--which in China are called "go-downs." On attempting to open the door and finding it locked, with one wrench the Chinaman tore the hinges from the jamb and, casting the door aside, dragged Frank into a great darkened chamber that smelt of grease or some kind of oil. There he struck a match.
One of the first objects that attracted his attention was a candle stuck in the neck of a bottle, and this he at once lighted so that the place was dimly illumined.
The "go-down" was filled with all manner of packing-cases, casks, barrels and bales. Picking these up, one after another, as though each weighed but a few pounds, the great Honanese--who might have been in a towering rage--threw them right and left, breaking many open, and creating such a disturbance that Frank was surprised that the whole town was not awakened.
After a while, by means of such brutal violence, he had make a way for himself to the farther end of the warehouse. Thither he ordered Frank to bring the candle, and then proceeded to ascend a step-ladder that led through a trap-door, such as one usually finds over stables, to an upper story.
The boy, following his captor, found himself in a kind of loft, containing all manner of things--rope, sails, fishing-nets, straw and sacks of millet. Here Ling, holding the candle well above his head, carefully examined the roof.
He very soon found what he was looking for, and, laughing aloud, ordered Frank to come to him. Laying one of his enormous hands upon the boy's shoulder, he suddenly burst forth into the following eulogy upon his own abilities and prowess.
"The mighty Ling," he declared, "is the favoured child of the G.o.ds; swift as the kite, wise as the tortoise, strong as the tigers of Amoy. There are few things within the attainment of mortal man that Ling cannot accomplish. Scholar, poet, robber, soldier, merchant, mandarin--all these am I, and more. But there is one thing, I declare to you, that is beyond me. Guess, my little junk rat, what it is?"
Fortunately Ling did not appear to expect an answer, for he ran on, without giving the boy time to reply: "Do you see that man-hole in the roof?" he asked, pointing upward. "Well, the sages themselves could not devise a method by which the mighty Ling could pa.s.s through there. But you can, my monkey, and thither you go, whether you want to or not."
"What am I to do when I get there?" asked Frank, who could think of no way of escaping from this truculent, swaggering monster.
"Know you nothing," roared Ling, "of the sayings of the seers? How it is written truly that 'Patience filleth the stomach, whereas he that hurries to the feast falleth by the way'? Hearken unto me and ask no questions."
He placed the candle upon the ground and seated himself straddle-legged across a sack, with his great legs sprawled out before him. Frank regarded the man's face in the candlelight, and thought that he had never seen anyone of appearance more formidable and sinister.
His huge countenance was like a mask of some weird and evil Eastern G.o.d. There were deep lines scored about his forehead, mouth and eyes--lines of wrath; so that even in moments of rest he appeared to be in the throes of an uncontrollable pa.s.sion. And this expression of fierceness and of anger was intensified by his black, glittering eyes, which seemed to pierce whatsoever he regarded. In addition to this, Frank was impressed by the gigantic proportions of the Honanese: his great sinewy hands, the muscles in his neck, his thighs, each as thick as the waist of a smaller man.
"Listen," said he. "Listen to the description of the man who goes by the name of Men-Ching, who is a fool who believed in his blindness that he and his cur-dog friends could cheat the mighty Ling."
It was as if Frank Armitage had been struck. He was so astonished at the sudden mention of Men-Ching's name that he caught his breath in a kind of gasp. Fortunately Ling was not looking at him at the moment. The man had drawn a long knife of Malay design from his belt, and was examining it fondly, feeling the sharpness of the blade with his thumb.
"This man," said Ling, "is over sixty years of age--old in crime, but a babe in matters of intelligence. He has a long thin beard upon his chin and his grey queue is no larger than the tail of a rat. He wears a faded scarlet coat, and limps with his left foot when he walks. Also, he rubs his hands together as if he were always pleased. Pleased!" roared Ling. "When he sets eyes upon me, the pleasure will go out of him as a candle is blown out in the draught. But, tell me, you have listened and will remember?"
Frank answered that he had paid strict attention. He did not think it inc.u.mbent upon him to advise the "mighty Ling" that he already knew Men-Ching perfectly well. He was both amazed by the coincidence and utterly bewildered as regards the business which these two could have in common. He did not dream for a moment that Ling was as dangerous to himself as the redoubtable Cheong-Chau: that he now found himself in the presence of the man who would soon hold in his great hands the trump cards in this colossal game of Death.
Ling picked up the candle, and rose to his full height.
"If I lift you up by the feet," said he, "you should be able to reach that rafter. Thence, without difficulty, you should be able to gain the man-hole, and so to the roof. From the roof you will obtain an excellent view of the harbour. The moonlight should be sufficient to enable you to see anyone who approaches. Keep your eyes open, and the moment you see the man whom I have described let me know. I will remain here."
Frank had no alternative but to obey the instructions of this extraordinary ruffian. Indeed, he was powerless as a mouse in the jaws of a cat. He was ordered to straighten himself, to remain in a position perfectly upright and rigid, and then he was lifted high above the man's head until he was within easy reach of one of the rafters. Swinging himself on to this, he gained the man-hole which had been pointed out to him, and a moment after he found himself upon the roof.
Thence--as Ling had predicted--he was able to look down upon the numerous wharves and jetties along the bank of the river. The moon was sinking low, but it was so magnified by refraction on account of the moisture in the atmosphere that the boy was able to see quite clearly, not only the various junks, wupans and sampans that lay anch.o.r.ed along the sh.o.r.e, but also the whole extent of the bund itself.
A party of coolies was already at work, and in several places there were signs of life on board the ships. Frank, looking down through the man-hole through which he had pa.s.sed, could see the mighty Ling, who had taken a book from his pocket and was reading aloud by means of the candlelight. He was reading the a.n.a.lects of Confucius, a volume that is admitted to contain some of the purest ethical reasoning in the world. The man read aloud in a deep voice that sounded to Frank like a roll of far distant thunder. He was obviously fully conscious of the literary and philosophic beauty of the famous maxims.
As for Frank, his thoughts were purely material. He could not think why this singular and terrible man should be so anxious to find Men-Ching. He knew, however, that it was essential that he himself should get into touch with Cheong-Chau's second-in-command. Personally, he was not in the least inclined to render a.s.sistance to Ling. But he could not deny the fact, even to himself, that he feared the man more than he had ever feared anyone before--even the giants and ogres of which, as a child, he had been wont to dream. He knew that his life was at stake, that Ling would not hesitate to kill him if, through any fault of his, Men-Ching managed to escape.
There could be no doubt that Men-Ching was at that moment in the town, probably in one of the numerous opium dens which are to be found in every Chinese city. Frank had gleaned that information, and somehow or other Ling was equally well informed. It was also certain that some time that morning Men-Ching would embark and proceed upon his journey to Canton. Frank, therefore, kept a sharp look-out for the man, but it was only fear of Ling that impelled him to do so.
About half-an-hour before sunrise, when the first signs of daybreak were visible in the east, Men-Ching and his companion were among the first people to arrive upon the wharf. They went straight to a wupan that was moored at a distance of about two hundred yards from the door which Ling had broken from its hinges. There Men-Ching called out in a loud voice in order to awaken the owner of the boat, who was asleep under the awning. Frank had no doubt that he had found the right man, for he recognised his voice, and besides the light was sufficient to enable him to identify the old man's scarlet coat.
The boy looked down through the man-hole into the great loft below. Ling was still reading, though the candle had almost burned out.
"He is on the wharf," cried Frank. "He is about to go on board. The fisherman is preparing to hoist his sail."
On the instant, Ling closed his book and, springing to his feet, hastened to the head of the step-ladder that led to the room below. He did not trouble himself in the least about Frank, who was left upon the roof. By no means content to remain an inactive spectator of what was to follow, the boy descended rapidly to the rafter, and thence dropped to the floor, stinging his feet severely. A few seconds later he was swarming down the ladder, hastening after Ling, who had already gained the bund.
Men-Ching had just boarded the boat, when for the first time he caught sight of the mighty Ling, who charged down upon him like an infuriated tiger. Frank was in time to see the expression of absolute horror and dismay which was stamped upon every feature of the old man's face. At the sight of Ling, Men-Ching's jaw dropped and his eyes opened wide, and seemed in danger of springing from his head.
"Make haste!" he shrieked. "If I fall into that man's hands, everything is lost!"
With feverish hands the old man uncoiled the rope that secured the bows of the wupan to a wooden bollard. He succeeded in doing this in the nick of time, for when he was in the very act of pushing the boat clear of the wharf by means of a long boathook, Ling gained the sh.o.r.e and s.n.a.t.c.hed the boathook from his hand.
[Ill.u.s.tration: "LING s.n.a.t.c.hED THE BOATHOOK FROM HIS HAND."]
In the meantime Men-Ching's companion, who had accompanied him throughout his journey from the cave, had seized an oar, with which he propelled the boat clear of the cl.u.s.tered shipping. By that time the fisherman who owned the wupan had hoisted his sail, which, filling immediately with the strong west wind, carried the boat down-stream at a considerable velocity.
Ling was like a raging beast. Stamping with his feet, he filled the air with the most terrible Chinese oaths--and there is no language in the world richer in expletives than the dialect of Southern China. The man's rage lasted no more than a moment. Determined not to allow Men-Ching to get out of sight, he looked about him for some method of following in pursuit. His eyes fell immediately upon a small sailing sampan, with a long oar fastened to the stern which did duty as a rudder.
"That will serve my purpose," he exclaimed, and then, lifting his great voice to the full extent of his lungs, he shouted after the wupan.
"Men-Ching," he cried, "you can never hope to evade me. Go north to beyond the Great Wall, or south to Singapore, and the mighty Ling shall follow."
Then, turning, he beheld Frank Armitage at his elbow.
"And you shall come with me," he roared. "There must be two of us to manage the boat."
He bundled the boy, neck and crop, into the sampan, and a few minutes later they were flying down-stream in pursuit of the wupan, upon the broad waters of the great West River that flows through the mammoth city of Canton.
--HOW FRANK WAS CAUGHT IN THE TOILS.
Throughout the greater part of the morning the pursuit continued without the sampan gaining upon the larger boat. Indeed, when they had sailed a few miles towards the east it became apparent to Ling that they were losing ground, that the distance between the two boats was gradually becoming greater.
The man was infuriated. He stood at his great height in the bows of the sampan from time to time, shaking his fist at the scarlet coat of Men-Ching, who was plainly visible upon the deck of the river-junk. After a time, however, Ling's wrath subsided; and seating himself, he confined his attention to the management of the sail. Frank, who was in the stern of the boat, had received orders to steer.
Ling shrugged his great shoulders and came out with a kind of grunt.
"He shall not escape me," said he, talking aloud to himself. "The old fool would be wiser to haul down the sail of the wupan and throw himself upon my mercy."
Frank, summoning to his aid all his moral courage, decided to question the man outright, taking the bull by the horns.
"Why do you want this man Men-Ching?" he asked.
Ling looked up, lifting his black eyebrows, and then chuckled.
"Men-Ching carries upon his person certain letters," said he. "I would have you to know that those letters are worth thousands of dollars."
Frank Armitage was so much astonished that it was some moments before he could recover his presence of mind. How was this man, of all people, in possession of such information? Ling was certainly not a member of Cheong-Chau's brigand band. It was only a week before that Men-Ching had been entrusted with the letters--indeed, he had not been given possession of them until immediately after they were written. The whole thing was a mystery that Frank was in no position to solve.
Sitting amidships in the boat, the man continued to chuckle.
"I will find him in Canton," said he. "He is certain to go to the house of Ah Wu. There I will find him. I will take possession of those letters. A score of men could not prevent me. If Men-Ching hands them over quietly all will be well. If he resists, I cannot say what will happen." And Ling shrugged his shoulders.
Frank was dismayed. It took him some time to realise the extreme gravity of the situation. There was something in the aspect of the boisterous Honanese giant, seated immediately before him, that made the boy feel quite sure that Ling seldom failed in any enterprise he undertook. The man was at once clever, strong and unscrupulous. He meant to obtain those letters, and Frank felt quite sure that he would not fail to do so.
That brought the boy face to face with the fact that the lives of his uncle and Mr Waldron were in the greatest danger. Ling no doubt intended to appropriate the ransom, thus foiling Cheong-Chau. In these circ.u.mstances, there could be but little doubt that the brigand chief, robbed of what he already regarded as his own property, would put both his captives to death out of sheer fiendish spite.
Frank could not for the life of him think what course he should take. His brain was in a whirl. In the end he decided that at any cost he must escape from Ling the moment they arrived at Canton, where he hoped to gain an interview with the British consul.
Throughout the remainder of the journey the boy's thoughts ran continuously upon the mystery in which he found himself enveloped. He could not explain it, and after a time he gave up attempting to do so. He neither knew who Ling was nor how the man had such intimate knowledge of Cheong-Chau's affairs. He regretted bitterly that he had rendered Ling such valuable a.s.sistance. He was, however, determined never to do so again, and during the pursuit down the river he even went so far as to hold the sampan back by means of the oar with which he was supposed to be steering. All the time he was doing so his heart was beating rapidly, since he dared not think what would happen to him if Ling discovered his deception.
When they reached the great city of Canton it was still early in the morning. Ling hauled down the sail and himself took charge of the stern oar, by means of which he propelled the boat into the narrow creek that separates the main part of the city from the island of Shamien. Running into the bank alongside a sea-going junk, he ordered Frank to step ash.o.r.e. The boy did so, determined to avail himself of his first chance to escape. In such narrow, close-packed streets as those of the great southern city, he thought he would have many opportunities of giving Ling the slip. He did not expect any difficulty in getting away, since he had no reason to believe that Ling required his services any longer.
Frank--as the saying goes--had counted his chickens before they were hatched. They had not progressed thirty yards along one of the main streets of the city before Frank dived down a side street, brushed past a party of coolies, and then turned into a still smaller street to the right. There he found a ricksha. Jumping into this, he ordered the ricksha coolie to go ahead as fast as he could. The man had picked up the shafts, and was about to set forward, when Frank was seized by the scruff of the neck and lifted bodily from the seat. He was then thrown so violently to the ground that one of his knees was cut and his elbows badly bruised.
Gathering himself together, he looked up, and found himself at the feet of Ling.
"Do you take me for a fool?" roared the man. "Why have you run away?"