Held by Chinese Brigands - Part 9

Part 9

In his extreme anxiety, it did not occur to the boy that Yung How, who knew him a great deal better than any of the brigands, had been quite deceived, that Frank had been obliged to declare his ident.i.ty to the man who had known him since childhood. For all that, even if the boy had had either the presence of mind or the inclination to take stock of his chances of success, he could not have overlooked a very important fact: that Cheong-Chau was looking for him, whereas Yung How, on the other hand, had never suspected for an instant that he had escaped.

Cheong-Chau and his men had come south in pursuit of the fugitive. The man had been enticed into the opium den by Ah Wu, whom he still believed to be his colleague. Here Cheong-Chau was to be drugged by order of the subtle and relentless villain who even then lay in hiding--like a great cat crouching by the side of a mouse-hole--behind the embroidered curtains. And now Cheong-Chau was to find himself, suddenly and unexpectedly, confronted by the very fugitive whom he had pursued for days.

Frank, cold with fear, certain of disaster, and dreading that he would be mercilessly put to death, looked Cheong-Chau in the face. The varied sensations he experienced were akin to what those must be of a condemned man upon the scaffold. He did but wait for the terminating blow to fall.

He could not look at Cheong-Chau for more than an instant. He turned and regarded Ah Wu, who was standing on the other side of him. Ah Wu was smiling in his oily, plausible manner. He looked the complete host, affability itself, and all the time he was planning the discomfiture of his guest. A fat, genuine rogue!

"Ah Li," said he, addressing Frank, "you will attend to the wants of our distinguished guest. Conduct Cheong-Chau and his friends to the more comfortable couches upstairs, smooth the pillows, place a spirit-lamp upon each table, and then hasten to the storeroom and procure the best quality opium. Cheong-Chau would smoke the Indian variety, that which comes from Calcutta, than which there is no finer opium in the world."

Frank turned, and departed up the staircase. Indeed, he was devoutly thankful to get away. At the top of the steps he paused, and stood for a moment trying to think, with his back turned to the room.

Nothing had happened--nothing at all. Cheong-Chau had not spoken. None of his men had said a word. The boy was still unrecognised. It was too good to be true. It was all like a dream.

Pulling himself together, Frank carried out his orders, thinking all the time that the remarkable chain of circ.u.mstances which had carried him against his will and inclination from one adventure to another was something altogether foreign to his former experiences. Life, instead of a pleasant and somewhat homely occupation, had become a kind of romantic nightmare. It was hard not to believe that presently he would awaken to find that Cheong-Chau, Ah Wu and Ling himself were phantasms, hallucinations, that would vanish at the moment of waking, their sinister and evil personalities fading away, in the boy's memory, like smoke upon the air.

He could scarce believe that a few minutes' calm reasoning would not instantly dissipate the reality of these strange and terrible people, the remarkable events dependent upon the thoughts and actions of a ruffian like Ling. Everything was all the more unreal to Frank because he appeared to exist, to continue to undergo such singular experiences, only by virtue of a series of miracles. The unexpected always happened.

It was also inconceivable to the boy that he himself, the nephew of one of the most distinguished government officials in Hong-Kong, a man of almost world-wide reputation as a lawyer, should find himself a coolie attendant in a Canton opium den, in which he conversed, in terms of intimate acquaintance, with Chinese thieves, brigands, swindlers and cut-throats. And yet he was not dreaming: he was conscious of a headache; both his knees and elbows had been badly bruised; and besides, Yung How, who had once been wont to take a small five-year-old boy for walks upon the level paths on the crest of the Peak, had known him, had fallen upon his knees before him, and had wept tears of repentance.

Whilst the boy was busy with these thoughts, he was carrying out his duties. He had arranged the couches, lighted the spirit-lamps, and seen that there was one of Ah Wu's best carved ivory opium pipes upon each lacquer table.

By that time Cheong-Chau and his three companions, attended by the officious Ah Wu, had ascended the stairs. Cheong-Chau's eyes glistened at the thought of the treat in store for him; while his men--rough Chinese of the very lowest cla.s.s--stared about them in awed amazement at the carved wood, the rich draperies, the gilded lacquer that adorned Ah Wu's premises. Doubtless they had never before found themselves in such a high-cla.s.s establishment. They had been wont to smoke their opium in the foul and verminous dens of the provincial town of Pinglo. Possibly they had never before beheld the miraculous city of Canton.

Frank observed all this, and knew that he could find here the reason why he had not been recognised. The men were too much impressed by their surroundings to take note of details. Place a beggar in a palace, and he will most likely fail to notice the pattern of the carpet upon which he stands, even though he stare in his embarra.s.sment at nothing else.

Cheong-Chau stretched himself upon the couch immediately facing the stair-head. His three followers similarly disposed themselves upon his left, the one at the end reclining under the window through which Yung How had escaped.

Ah Wu rubbed his hands together and addressed himself to the brigand.

"They tell me," said he, "that one of your prisoners has cut off?"

"That is so," said Cheong-Chau, with an oath. "The fools of sentries let him through. He got away in the night. I and ten men started at daybreak, bringing with us the two other captives, but so far we have failed to find the culprit."

Frank, standing near at hand, listened intently to every word. The boy had placed himself against the wall, a little behind Cheong-Chau, so that the man would have to turn to look at him.

"Can he have reached Hong-Kong, do you think?" asked Ah Wu.

Cheong-Chau shrugged his shoulders.

"I think not," said he. "He has barely had time. But who can say?"

"And you have brought your other captives with you?"

"That was necessary," said Cheong-Chau. "I had to keep them under my eye. I cannot trust my men. They allow hostages to escape."

"Did you not find them very much in the way?" asked Ah Wu.

"Not in the least. We came down in one of my own sea-going junks. We are now anch.o.r.ed in the Sang River, about two miles from the Glade of Children's Tears. Still, I am not here to give information but to receive it. What news have you of Men-Ching?"

"He left here yesterday morning," answered the other, without moving a muscle of his face.

"Did he not say where he was going?"

"Not a word."

"Strange," said Cheong-Chau. "A surprising circ.u.mstance! He knew well enough that you were in our confidence. He ought to have spoken openly to you."

Ah Wu laughed.

"Of course," said he. "Why, it was I myself who arranged the whole matter."

"And what of the other man, Yung How, the Hong-Kong servant?"

"He also is gone."

Cheong-Chau was silent a moment.

"We must suppose," said he, "that Men-Ching has gone on to Hong-Kong with the letters. We may therefore presume that the letters have already reached their destination. The money may arrive at the Glade to-morrow. As for Yung How, I do not know the man. But if he contemplates treachery, it will go ill with him. And now, Ah Wu, my opium. I would smoke."

Ah Wu turned to the boy and ordered him to bring four bowls of Indian opium from the storeroom. Frank descended the stairs, pa.s.sed down the length of the lower room, drew back the embroidered curtains and entered the storeroom, where he found Ling seated upon a stool. It was one of those high stools upon which Chinese of the merchant cla.s.s are wont to do their accounts, similar to the old-fashioned clerks' stools sometimes seen in offices in England. When seated upon one of these, the average man rests his feet upon a cross-piece, several inches from the ground. Ling, however, sat with one foot upon the floor and the other leg crossed upon his knee.

When the boy entered, Ling was reading, but he at once looked up from his book.

"The writings of Confucius," said he, "a.s.sure me that the perfect life cannot be attained by any man. Troubles, disappointment, sorrows and failure are bound to accompany us wherever we go. Divine philosophy instructs us to accept our destiny with grace. The coat of every man is patched; there are cracks in the armour upon which he depends to defend himself from the arrows of adversity. He who thinks himself infallible falls the most heavily; the conceited man lays the trap by which he himself is caught; his own vanity trips him up. He who attempts much, hopes for much, but is prepared to go unrewarded, is he to whom success is doubly a.s.sured. I trust, my youthful friend, you follow me."

"Perfectly," said Frank.

"That is well," said Ling, laying down his book. "And now we will poison Cheong-Chau."

"Poison him!" exclaimed the boy.

"Fear not," said Ling. "Send him comfortably to sleep--a sleep that will last for some days. By then I shall have gathered the harvest at the Glade of Children's Tears, and you, my little one, will be free--your heart's sole desire."

He turned and picked up a large pale blue bowl in which he had stirred a quant.i.ty of opium, mixing it with a colourless fluid contained in a bottle.

"There are four of them, I understand?" said he.

"Yes," said Frank.

"It is as well," observed Ling, "that I have made enough. I fill four small bowls--one for each. These fools will not taste anything; they will not suspect. They will smoke and dream, and enjoy to the full the delights of opium. And they will fall gradually into such a sleep that the firing of a cannon in the room would not awaken them."

He handed to the boy the four small bowls upon a tray of carved black wood.

"Take it," said he, "and leave me to my reading. Happiness is to be found in wisdom, not wisdom in happiness. In prosperity the heart withers; in adversity, it blooms. Farewell."

Frank went out, holding the tray before him, and ascended the flight of steps.



Upon the balcony Frank found Cheong-Chau still in conversation with Ah Wu. No one would have suspected from the demeanour of the fat proprietor of the opium den that he plotted the overthrow of the redoubtable brigand chief. The man was all smiles and Chinese courtesy. He rubbed his hands together; he flattered his guest; he bowed repeatedly. Frank advanced, carrying the tray upon which were the four bowls of opium.

"Ah!" exclaimed Ah Wu. "We have here the choice opium of which I spoke. I guarantee that the distinguished Cheong-Chau has never smoked the like of it. I procure it from an agent in Burma. This, I believe, is the only house in China in which it is sold."

"I thank you, Ah Wu," said the brigand, who had divested himself of the greater part of his clothing. "I thank you from my heart. I am a rough man, accustomed to the wilds. Such luxuries seldom come my way. At the same time, Ah Wu, who is this boy? It occurs to me that I have seen him before."

The man was staring at Frank, who felt his heart sink within him. Ah Wu's answer, given without hesitation, was somewhat rea.s.suring.

"He has been here," said Ah Wu, "for many months."

"Strange," said Cheong-Chau, "that I have never seen him before!"

Frank was, at first, at a loss to explain what motive Ah Wu could have for telling such a deliberate falsehood. It then occurred to him that Ah Wu could not explain truthfully who he was without mentioning Ling; and it was--from Ah Wu's point of view--of extreme importance to keep the name of Ling out of the whole affair. If Cheong-Chau but knew that the great Honanese was in the building, he would not have remained in the place for five seconds, much less would he have been so careless as to allow his physical and mental capacities to be temporarily subdued by the subtle fumes of the opium poppy.

"Come here, boy," said Cheong-Chau, who had not yet removed his eyes from Frank. "I want to look at you more closely."

The boy went forward in fear and trembling. Cheong-Chau grasped him by a wrist, and drew him downward, so that their faces were not more than a foot apart.

"You bear," said Cheong-Chau, speaking very deliberately, "a most remarkable resemblance to the very man I am looking for. What is your name?"

"Ah Li," said Frank.

The boy's heart was beating like a sledgehammer. He felt instinctively that the Sword of Damocles, which had been suspended for so long above his head, was at last about to fall. That the result would be fatal to himself, and those whose lives depended upon him, he could not for a moment doubt.

"I come from Sanshui," said he, in a weak voice that quailed.

Cheong-Chau suddenly rose to his feet and lifted his voice to a kind of shriek. It was the voice Frank had heard when Cheong-Chau addressed his followers in the gloomy nave of the temple; it was the same voice the man had used on the occasion when he staggered into the cave, senseless and drugged with opium.

"It is in my way of thinking," he shouted, "that you come from Hong-Kong, that your name is no more Ah Li than mine is, that you are a foreign devil in disguise!"

Ah Wu opened his eyes in astonishment. He lifted both hands with fingers widespread. He looked like an old woman who has seen a ghost.

"There is some mistake!" he cried.

"This boy," roared Cheong-Chau, "is a foreigner."

His voice was so loud that it carried to the farther end of the room. Everyone heard his words, and those who were not asleep raised themselves upon their elbows to ascertain what the disturbance was about. Behind the embroidered curtains the mighty Ling, who had been listening to all that was said, crouching like a cat, rose stealthily and slowly to his feet. He was like a great beast of prey that suddenly scents danger. It was as if he stretched the great muscles of his body, preparatory to action.

"You are a foreigner!" cried Cheong-Chau.

Frank knew not which way to look. He had put down the tray upon a small lacquer table by the side of Cheong-Chau's couch. The brigand still held him tightly by a wrist. Realising that he could not deny the truth of the man's words, the boy made a foolish, headstrong effort to escape. With a quick wrench, he freed his arm, and turned upon his heel with the intention of dashing down the steps. Since subterfuge had failed, he felt that he had nothing else to rely upon but physical agility.

He had almost reached the head of the stairs when Ah Wu stretched forth a hand to detain him. It is strange that the boy's exposure should have been brought about by Ah Wu, in whose interests it was for the deception to continue--at least, whilst Cheong-Chau was in the house.

Ah Wu attempted to seize the boy by a shoulder, and failing in this, he clutched at Frank's pigtail, which was flying out behind him. Needless to say, as the boy plunged down the stairs, he left behind him his false pigtail in the hands of the dumbfounded Ah Wu. Before he could stop himself, Frank was at the bottom of the stairs, and there, for the first time, he remembered that he would have to pa.s.s Ling at the outer door.

For the brief s.p.a.ce of a moment, Frank looked about him like a hunted beast. He could see no way of escape. Ling, he knew, was in front of him, though not visible. The back door was locked. There were no windows in the lower room. On the other hand, escape from one of the balcony windows was impossible, for Cheong-Chau and his three followers stood at the stair-head. The voice of Cheong-Chau filled the room, uttering, in a weird, sing-song voice, a kind of triumphant paean.

"I am Cheong-Chau," he cried, "and men fear me from the Nan-ling Mountains to the sea. I have hunted down the fugitive and I have found him. Those who foil me can expect no mercy. I live by the knife, and my enemies die by the knife. Death to foreign devils!"

At that, he dashed down the stairs. As he did so he drew from his belt a long, curved Chinese knife, which he raised high above his head.

Frank turned and fled down the room, but Cheong-Chau was upon him as a cat springs at a mouse. The boy was caught by the coat, and jerked backward. With difficulty he maintained his balance. Looking up, he beheld Cheong-Chau's knife raised on high, whilst the man's eyes were fixed upon the region of the boy's heart.

"By the knife!" shrieked Cheong-Chau. "By the knife!"

The cruel weapon glittered in the light emanating from the paraffin lamps. Frank closed his eyes, knowing that the end was about to come. He felt that he had not strength to look longer into that impa.s.sioned face.

Then, quite suddenly, there came a roar like that of a charging lion. Frank was pushed aside and sent flying across the room, to pitch, head foremost, over an unoccupied couch. Gathering himself together, he beheld a feat of strength that was amazing.


The mighty Ling had swooped down upon his rival as an eagle s.n.a.t.c.hes his prey. A blow from his great fist sounded like a pistol shot, and Cheong-Chau, without a sound, fell in a heap senseless on the floor. And then two of the brigand's followers were seized by the throat, and their two heads were brought together with a crash. One man pitched forward on the instant, and lay upon his face, flat across the body of his leader. As for the other, he went reeling round the room like a man dazed and drunken. Then he dropped down upon both knees by the side of a couch, holding his head between his hands.

The third man turned and fled in trepidation at the sight of the fate of his comrades. However, he had gone no farther than half-way up the stairs, when Ling s.n.a.t.c.hed up one of the small lacquer tables, and hurled it at the fugitive with such force that it crashed to atoms against the banisters. This projectile was followed, a fraction of a second later, by a lighted paraffin lamp, which stretched the man senseless upon the balcony at the feet of the amazed Ah Wu.

All this had happened in less than a minute. Frank Armitage had only just time to observe that the lamp had fortunately gone out, and that there was no danger of the place being set on fire. And then he himself was plucked violently from off his feet.

Ling had picked him up as though he were a babe in arms. In his haste and violence, the man tore down the embroidered curtains. Frank heard the front door slam, and then he was conscious of the fact that he was being borne onward at a terrific pace, through the dark and narrow streets of the great Chinese city.



Frank had neither time to consider the extraordinary sequence of events narrated in the previous chapter nor the slightest inclination to speculate in regard to the future. He realised, somewhat dimly, that he was no more than a p.a.w.n in the game. A few moments since, he had stood defenceless in the stifling atmosphere of the opium den; he had beheld the knife raised to strike him down. He had been delivered with dramatic suddenness at the eleventh hour. At the same time, he could not help realising that, in all probability, he had fallen out of the frying-pan into the fire. If his deception had been detected by Cheong-Chau, his ident.i.ty had also been discovered by the formidable Ling.

In the meantime he was being carried away to some unknown destination. The boy realised the futility of attempting to struggle, and if he cried out for help in those dark streets, no one was likely to take the least notice of him.

Ling kept--so far as he was able--to the by-streets: the narrow, twisting lanes that form a veritable labyrinth in the poorer parts of this wonderful and mysterious city. The hour was tolerably late--approaching midnight. The main streets were lighted by means of the flares in the shops and upon the hawkers' booths; and when it was necessary to cross one of these, the spectacle of the great Honanese carrying under his arm one who was apparently a foreign boy, dressed in Chinese clothes, attracted no little attention. However, with every Chinaman it is a fixed principle of life to mind his own affairs, and no one interfered.

At last, Ling set down the boy upon his feet, and taking hold of him by a wrist, proceeded to drag him forward. Presently they came forth upon the outskirts of the town. It was a bright night; for though the moon was on the wane, the sky was clear and there was a glorious canopy of stars--stars such as can only be seen east of the Suez Ca.n.a.l. The boy was able to make out the great gabled tower, situated upon a hillock to the north of the city, which goes by the name of the Five-Storied PaG.o.da. He remembered very well visiting this place, a few weeks before, accompanied by Mr Waldron and his uncle.