"I did not think," answered the boy, somewhat weakly, "that you needed me any longer."
"No more I do," said Ling. "But you know too much about me. When I have run Men-Ching to ground, and emptied the old rascal's pockets, then you are free to go where you like. For the present you remain with me."
He bent down, and seizing the boy by a wrist, dragged him to his feet. Then he set off walking briskly through the narrow streets, dragging the boy after him like a dog on a leash and roughly thrusting aside everyone who got in his way.
In about ten minutes they found themselves in the neighbourhood of the Mohammedan Mosque. Having crossed the main street that runs parallel to the river, Ling turned into a by-street, and thence into the blind alley, at the termination of which was Ah Wu's opium den.
He kicked open the door with his foot and thrust the boy inside. Frank found himself standing before the embroidered curtains that were suspended across the entrance of the smoking-room. Ling lifted his great voice in a kind of shout, mingling his words with triumphant laughter.
"Ah Wu," he cried, "give welcome to a visitor who loves you. There is one here whom it will rejoice your heart to see. Come forth, old fox, and greet the mighty Ling!"
Having delivered himself thus dramatically, he flung the curtains aside, and stepped into the opium den, dragging Frank with him.
Ah Wu, as fat and crafty-looking as ever, stood in the centre of the lower room in front of the stairs that led to the balcony above.
He was holding in his hand a blue china bowl filled with samshu. And so dismayed was he when he set eyes upon his gigantic guest that the bowl fell from his hand and smashed to atoms on the floor.
"Ling!" he gasped.
"The same," roared Ling. "And this time I come not to debate and argue, to exchange words with liars. I come for Men-Ching. I have reason to believe that he is here."
Ah Wu strove to pretend he was delighted to welcome Ling. He smiled from ear to ear, his little eyes almost disappearing in the fat of his face. He bowed, folding his hands in the prescribed Chinese fashion. He even took a few steps forward, so that he was almost within reach of the long arms of the Honanese.
"Men-Ching," said he, still smiling, "is not here."
And no sooner had the words left his lips than he was given a practical and somewhat painful demonstration of the violent character of the man with whom he had to deal. Upon the right of the entrance, adorned by the embroidered curtains, was a lacquer table, upon which stood a heavy china vase. Without a word of warning, Ling seized this vase by the neck, and hurled it with all his force at the proprietor of the opium den. The ornament must have weighed several pounds, and it struck Ah Wu fair in the chest, with the result that he went over backwards and lay, stretched at his full length, at the foot of the staircase. Almost a minute elapsed before he struggled to his feet. Ling had not moved.
"And now," he roared, "lie to me again."
In the meantime, in spite of such extraordinary happenings, Frank had taken in his surroundings. Ah Wu's opium den has been already described--except that we saw it before at night, when the place was crowded. On this occasion there was only one man asleep upon a couch in the lower room. It was about twelve o'clock in the morning, and at this hour, as a general rule, Chinese opium dens are empty, the smokers of the previous evening having departed and the day's customers not having arrived.
Strangely enough, the vase had not broken, but in falling to the floor it had made a considerable noise, and this was sufficient to awaken the sleeper, who evidently suffered from a guilty conscience. The man sprang to his feet, and rushed to the entrance, as if he intended to escape. There, of course, he found his way barred by Ling, who lifted one of his huge fists as if to strike the fellow. The man jumped backward like a cat that finds itself face to face with a dog. And it was then, once again, that Ling burst into one of his boisterous fits of laughter.
"And here's the flunkey!" he cried. "Here's the Hong-Kong cur-dog! Have you also a mind to lie to me, or do you set a value on your life? I tell you truly, I am not here to exchange words. I know what I want, and I am come to get it. Hands up!" he shouted, seeing the man move one of his hands to his waistbelt, under his coat, where he might have carried a firearm. "Hands up, or I wring your neck like a duck!"
In fear and trembling the man lifted both hands above his head. Frank regarded him then for the first time. And it was as if the boy's heart had suddenly ceased to beat when he recognised Yung How, his uncle's servant.
--HOW LING SNUFFED THE CANDLE.
Frank had every reason to suppose that he would be recognised in spite of his disguise. To deceive Men-Ching was one thing, but Yung How had known the boy for years. More than ever he desired to escape. It was clear that both Yung How and even Ah Wu himself were equally anxious to get away from the room. All three of them, however, were caught like rats in a trap, for Ling guarded the entrance, and it was as much as the life of any one of them was worth to attempt to pa.s.s, either by force or stealth.
Ling approached Yung How, lifted the man's coat and drew a large nickel-plated revolver from his belt.
"I thought so," said he. "I draw the jackal's teeth."
So saying, he thrust the revolver into his pocket.
"And now, Ah Wu," he cried, "is Men-Ching here or not?"
Some seconds elapsed before Ah Wu could summon sufficient courage to answer.
"Yes," said he at last. "He is."
"Where?" asked Ling.
"In the little room--asleep."
"Asleep! He could not have arrived more than an hour ago!"
"He was very frightened," said Ah Wu, who was now certainly speaking the truth. "His nerves were shaken. He knew you were in pursuit. He smoked opium to calm himself, and now he sleeps."
"Lead the way," said Ling. "And you too," he added, addressing himself to Yung How. "I drive you before me like a herd of pigs."
This was indeed a very accurate description of the proceeding, for Ling was determined that neither of the Chinese nor Frank should for a moment get out of his sight. It was remarkable that one man should have so much power--by which we mean will-power as well as physical force. But undoubtedly, the most extraordinary thing about him was the unbounded confidence he seemed to have in himself. And it was this self-confidence, even more than his courage and great physical strength, that made this man a master over others.
Into the little room under the staircase he hustled the three of them. There he locked the door and pocketed the key. Upon the only couch in the room lay Men-Ching in his faded scarlet coat--sound asleep.
Ling bent down and placed both hands upon the sleeper's chest. Then he smiled, and turning slowly round, looked Ah Wu straight in the face.
"They are here," said he. "It is the custom of the G.o.ds to reward those who deserve to prosper."
"What do you seek?" asked Ah Wu, upon the features of whose face was stamped an expression of the most profound dismay.
"The letters," said Ling. "The letters for which I have searched for fourteen days."
"Fourteen days ago," retorted Ah Wu, "they were not written."
"Of that," answered the other, "I confess I know nothing, and care less. It is sufficient for me--and for you, too--that I have found that for which I sought."
There was a pause. And then Yung How asked a question.
"How did you know about these letters?" said he.
Ling smiled again. "Do you think," he asked, "that when I found you three rascals with heads together in this very room--do you think I did not know that something was afoot, something into which it might be worth my while to inquire? Do you suppose for a moment I believed your lies? No. I watched. And I sent a spy here to smoke opium and to pretend to sleep--a spy who listened to all you had to say, who told me that Cheong-Chau had sent a messenger with the news that the fish had been landed high and dry, and a promise that both Ah Wu and yourself would have your share of the ransom as soon as it was paid. I had but to watch the river. And when I was told that one of Cheong-Chau's men had been seen in Sanshui, and the description of that man agreed with Men-Ching, I should be little short of a fool if I did not guess that Men-Ching carried with him letters demanding a ransom. And now," he concluded, "these same letters are mine."
He bent down, and very gently unb.u.t.toned Men-Ching's coat. Then, without waking the sleeper, who appeared to be heavily drugged with opium, he tore open the lining and drew out the two letters: that of Cheong-Chau, written in Chinese, and Sir Thomas Armitage's letter, written in English.
Neither of these was in an envelope, but both were sealed in the Chinese fashion. Without a moment's hesitation Ling broke the seals, and Sir Thomas's gold signet ring fell to the floor. He stooped and picked it up, and then read both letters to himself. And as he read his smile broadened, displaying his fang-like yellow teeth.
"It is fortunate," said he, "that I can read English. It is of advantage in this life to be a scholar. The ignorant man works in the paddy-field wading knee-deep in the mud, but the wise man eats the rice." Then he remained silent for some minutes, still reading to himself.
"I see," he remarked, "this matter has been well arranged. Cheong-Chau threatens to take the lives of the foreigners if he does not receive a ransom of twenty thousand dollars before the new moon. It interests me to learn that the money must be hidden before that date in the Glade of Children's Tears, upon the banks of the Sang River. I know the place well. I even remember the red stone--though I admit I did not know there was a vault beneath that stone. Certainly the matter has been well arranged."
During this soliloquy--for Ling had to all intents and purposes been speaking to himself--Frank could not help regarding the countenances of Ah Wu and Yung How. The expression upon the face of each was suggestive of the most complete disgust. Disappointment and infinite distress were conveyed in every feature. Ling looked at them and burst into laughter.
"Two fools!" he cried. "Had you been wise men you had taken me into your confidence and allowed me a share of the plunder. As it is, you may see not a cent of it. It will be very simple for me to deliver these letters and to keep watch upon the Glade of Children's Tears."
His laughter had disturbed the sleeper, for Men-Ching turned over upon his back and mumbled a few incoherent words in his sleep. Then, still sleeping, he moved a hand to the breast of his coat, to the place where he had carried the letters.
Almost at once he sat bolt upright--wide awake.
"Stolen!" he cried, his hands still clutching at his coat. "Stolen," he repeated.
Then he set eyes upon Ling.
Upon his face an expression of dismay turned, as in a flash, to one of uncontrollable anger. He sprang to his feet, at the same time drawing from his belt a long curved knife. Though he stood upon the couch itself, he was little taller than Ling. With a savage oath he raised the knife above his head. And then he struck downward, straight for the heart of the gigantic Honanese.
The tragedy that now took place was the work of a few seconds. Men-Ching's wrist was caught. He let out a shriek of pain as that grip of steel tightened under such steady, inevitable pressure that the very wrist-bone was in danger of breaking like a piece of rotted wood. Then he was caught by the throat. He was jerked forward. Something snapped. And then he was thrown down upon the floor--dead. It was all over in an instant.
Frank Armitage was horror-stricken. He had never seen anything so terrible in all his life. And this was murder. And the man who had committed the crime merely shrugged his shoulders.
"Take warning," said he. "Behold the fool who tried to kill me. He who lives by violence comes to a violent end. I had no wish to kill him; he attempted to stab me. I have dealt with him in the same way as I would snuff a tallow candle."
Here Ah Wu fell into a kind of hysterical panic. Wringing his hands together, he worked himself up to such a pitch of emotion that the tears streamed from his eyes.
"What is to become of me?" he cried. "This thing has happened in my house. If the tao-tai hears of it I shall be led to my execution in a potter's yard. Woe is me that such a crime should be committed under my roof!"
"You make a great fuss about nothing," said he. "Put him away till darkness falls. Then set him up in a ricksha, place a lighted cigarette between his lips, run him down to the river, and throw him in. Such things have happened before in this city of Canton. You make much of nothing. What was the old scoundrel worth? Not a snap of the finger. And in any case he had but a few years to live."
Ah Wu seated himself upon the couch, immediately above the body of the murdered man. Placing his elbows upon his knees and his head between his hands, he rocked himself from side to side. As for Frank, the whole thing seemed to him like some terrible nightmare. He had lived in China all his life, but he had lived in a different China--a land of comfort and civilisation. This was a world of devilry and crime. And all this time Yung How stood by, motionless, speechless, his face pale with terror.
Ling stooped down and thrust the body under the couch.
"What is death?" he asked. "A sleep--no more. A long sleep in which--for aught we know--the divine spirit roams the eternal heavens. Sweeter by far the adventures of the soul than the dreams that come from opium. A moment since he slept upon the couch, and now he sleeps beneath it. Why grieve, old fool? Why weep? Men-Ching is already with the spirits of his fathers."
Taking the key from his pocket, he unlocked the door.
"Come," said he. "We will hold converse together; there are many things that I wish to discuss. See that the outer door is locked, that no one is allowed to enter the house. We four will be alone."
--OF CHEONG-CHAU'S MESSENGER.
To the reader who is unacquainted with China, the conduct of Ling may appear to be highly improbable. In any other country in the world such a crime might be committed, but in no other country would the criminal not be seized with alarm. He would know that there was direct evidence against him and, in consequence, he would be obliged either to fly for his life or else stand his trial on a charge of murder or manslaughter, as the case might be.
In this regard China is unique--a country without police, in which evidence is extremely hard to obtain, no man presuming to testify against his neighbour. Under the old imperial regime there were no real courts of justice beyond the summary jurisdiction exercised by the local government official--the prefect, the tao-tai or the viceroy. And so far as we are aware, these very necessary reforms have not yet been inst.i.tuted in the modern republican China of the twentieth century.
Ling had little or nothing to fear. Men-Ching had no relations who might carry the tale to the viceroy's yamen. Both Ah Wu and Yung How had been frightened out of their lives, and the Honanese had no apprehensions in regard to the unfortunate boy whom he had kidnapped in Sanshui.
In less than a minute after this deed of violence had been accomplished, Ling was sprawled at his great length upon one of the couches in the outer room. There, puffing complacently at a pipe of opium, he appeared to have dismissed the incident from his mind. He was busy making plans for the future. Ah Wu had now sufficiently recovered his composure to attend to the wants of his unwelcome guest. He brought Ling opium; he lighted the spirit-lamp; he rolled opium pills in his fat little fingers.
To all intents and purposes, Ling had taken complete possession of the opium den. He himself might have been the proprietor. He offered Yung How a pipe of opium, which Yung How accepted. He ordered Frank to be seated, and the boy had no option but to obey. Then he delivered himself as follows, addressing himself to Ah Wu.
"Ah Wu," said he, "I desire that you will be so good as to make a complete confession. There are certain details connected with this affair concerning which I am completely in the dark. For instance, who was to go for the treasure to the Glade of Children's Tears?"
"I was," said Ah Wu.
"No. Yung How was to accompany me." And Ah Wu indicated his Hong-Kong friend by a motion of the hand. "We were to hire a junk in which to take away the money. We were to be a.s.sisted by Men-Ching and another man."
Ling looked across at Yung How and nodded pleasantly.
"And so, my tame cat, your name is Yung How. A fit name for one who washes plates and brushes a foreigner's clothes."
"I do not wash plates," said Yung How; "that is coolies' work."
"I beg your pardon," said Ling. "Since it is beneath your dignity to wash plates I am sorry for you, for presently I propose to eat at Ah Wu's expense. And you shall wash the plates which it shall be my pleasure to use."
Yung How made a wry face, and dropped his eyes to the ground. Frank observed that the man muttered to himself.
The boy was astonished that Yung How had not yet recognised him. Was it possible that he would fail to do so? The thought seemed too good to be true. On the other hand, it was possible that Frank had already been recognised, that Yung How knew who he was, and had managed to conceal his surprise. The average Chinese is quite capable of such extraordinary self-control. The boy's train of thought was interrupted by Ling, who took up the thread of his cross-examination.
"And so," said he, "you, Ah Wu, and Yung How, were to go together to the Glade of Children's Tears, having first ascertained that the neighbourhood was safe, that the foreigners in Hong-Kong had not thought fit to send armed men to capture you?"
"That is so," said Ah Wu.
"And the money was to be brought here by river?"
Ah Wu nodded. "To Canton," said he.
"Where Cheong-Chau would come by night, giving you your share and taking the rest back with him to Pinglo, to divide amongst his gang?"
Ah Wu nodded again.
"A simple business," said Ling. "A well-laid plot that has come to grief. Well, I am generous. My soul is of honey. I am soft of heart. You will find me a better master than Cheong-Chau. I can be generous to those who help me, as I know how to deal with those who declare themselves my enemies." And he jerked a finger in the direction of the little room beneath the stairs.
"Do you mean," asked Yung How, "that you propose to buy our silence?"