Read CHAPTER II of Dragon's blood, free online book, by Henry Milner Rideout, on ReadCentral.com.

THE PIED PIPER

A gray smudge trailing northward showed where the Fa-Hien Scottish Oriental, sixteen hundred tons was disappearing from the pale expanse of ocean. The sampan drifted landward imperceptibly, seeming, with nut-brown sail unstirred, to remain where the impatient steamer had met it, dropped a solitary passenger overside, and cast him loose upon the breadth of the antipodes. Rare and far, the sails of junks patched the horizon with umber polygons. Rudolph, sitting among his boxes in the sampan, viewed by turns this desolate void astern and the more desolate sweep of coast ahead. His matting sail divided the shining bronze outpour of an invisible river, divided a low brown shore beyond, and above these, the strips of some higher desert country that shone like snowdrifts, or like sifted ashes from which the hills rose black and charred. Their savage, winter-blasted look, in the clear light of an almost vernal morning, made the land seem fabulous. Yet here in reality, thought Rudolph, as he floated toward that hoary kingdom, here at last, facing a lonely sea, reared the lifeless, inhospitable shore, the sullen margin of China.

The slow creaking of the spliced oar, swung in its lashing by a half-naked yellow man, his incomprehensible chatter with some fellow boatman hidden in the bows, were sounds lost in a drowsy silence, rhythms lost in a wide inertia. Time itself seemed stationary. Rudolph nodded, slept, and waking, found the afternoon sped, the hills gone, and his clumsy, time-worn craft stealing close under a muddy bank topped with brown weeds and grass. They had left behind the silted roadstead, and now, gliding on a gentle flood, entered the river-mouth. Here and there, against the saffron tide, or under banks quaggy as melting chocolate, stooped a naked fisherman, who swarthy as his background but for a loin-band of yellow flesh shone wet and glistening while he stirred a dip-net through the liquid mud. Faint in the distance harsh cries sounded now and then, and the soft popping of small-arms, tiny revolts in the reign of a stillness aged and formidable. Crumbling walls and squat ruins, black and green-patched with mould old towers of defense against pirates guarded from either bank the turns of the river. In one reach, a “war-junk,” her sails furled, lay at anchor, the red and white eyes staring fish-like from her black prow: a silly monster, the painted tompions of her wooden cannon aiming drunkenly askew, her crew’s wash fluttering peacefully in a line of blue dungaree.

Beyond the next turn, a fowling-piece cracked sharply, close at hand; something splashed, and the ruffled body of a snipe bobbed in the bronze flood alongside.

“Hang it!” complained a voice, loudly. “The beggar was too Hallo! Oh, I say, Gilly! Gilly, ahoy! Pick us up, there’s a good chap! The bird first, will you, and then me.”

A tall young man in brown holland and a battered terai stood above on the grassy brink.

“Oh, beg pardon,” he continued. “Took you for old Gilly, you know.” He snapped the empty shells from his gun, and blew into the breech, before adding, “Would you mind, then? That is, if you’re bound up for Stink-Chau. It’s a beastly long tramp, and I’ve been shooting all afternoon.”

Followed by three coolies who popped out of the grass with game-bags, the young stranger descended, hopped nimbly from tussock to gunwale, and perched there to wash his boots in the river.

“Might have known you weren’t old Gilly,” he said over his shoulder. “Wutzler said the Fa-Hien lay off signaling for sampan before breakfast. Going to stay long?”

“I am agent,” answered Rudolph, with a touch of pride, “for Fliegelman and Sons.”

“Oh?” drawled the hunter, lazily. He swung his legs inboard, faced about, and studied Rudolph with embarrassing frankness. He was a long-limbed young Englishman, whose cynical gray eyes, and thin face tinged rather sallow and Oriental, bespoke a reckless good humor. “Life sentence, eh? Then your name’s what is it again? Hackh, isn’t it? Heywood’s mine. So you take Zimmerman’s place. He’s off already, and good riddance. He was a bounder! Charming spot you’ve come to! I daresay if your Fliegelmans opened a hong in hell, you might possibly get a worse station.”

Without change of manner, he uttered a few gabbling, barbaric words. A coolie knelt, and with a rag began to clean the boots, which, from the expression of young Mr. Heywood’s face, were more interesting than the arrival of a new manager from Germany.

“It will be dark before we’re in,” he said. “My place for the night, of course, and let your predecessor’s leavings stand over till daylight. After dinner we’ll go to the club. Dinner! Chicken and rice, chicken and rice! Better like it, though, for you’ll eat nothing else, term of your life.”

“You are very kind,” began Rudolph; but this bewildering off-hand youngster cut him short, with a laugh:

“No fear, you’ll pay me! Your firm supplies unlimited liquor. Much good that ever did us, with old Zimmerman.”

The sampan now slipped rapidly on the full flood, up a narrow channel that the setting of the sun had turned, as at a blow, from copper to indigo. The shores passed, more and more obscure against a fading light. A star or two already shone faint in the lower spaces. A second war-junk loomed above them, with a ruddy fire in the stern lighting a glimpse of squat forms and yellow goblin faces.

“It is very curious,” said Rudolph, trying polite conversation, “how they paint so the eyes on their jonks.”

“No eyes, no can see; no can see, no can walkee,” chanted Heywood in careless formula. “I say,” he complained suddenly, “you’re not going to ‘study the people,’ and all that rot? We’re already fed up with missionaries. Their cant, I mean; no allusion to cannibalism.”

He lighted a cigarette. After the blinding flare of the match, night seemed to have fallen instantaneously. As their boat crept on to the slow creaking sweep, both maintained silence, Rudolph rebuked and lonely, Heywood supine beneath a comfortable winking spark.

“What I mean is,” drawled the hunter, “we need all the good fellows we can get. Bring any new songs out? Oh, I forgot, you’re a German, too. A sweet little colony! Gilly’s the only gentleman in the whole half-dozen of us, and Heaven knows he’s not up to much. Ah, we’re in. On our right, fellow sufferers, we see the blooming Village of Stinks.”

He had risen in the gloom. Beyond his shadow a few feeble lights burned low and scattered along the bank. Strange cries arose, the bumping of sampans, the mournful caterwauling of a stringed instrument.

“The native town’s a bit above,” he continued. “We herd together here on the edge. No concession, no bund, nothing.”

Their sampan grounded softly in malodorous ooze. Each mounting the bare shoulders of a coolie, the two Europeans rode precariously to shore.

“My boys will fetch your boxes,” called Heywood. “Come on.”

The path, sometimes marshy, sometimes hard-packed clay or stone flags deeply littered, led them a winding course in the night. Now and then shapes met them and pattered past in single file, furtive and sinister. At last, where a wall loomed white, Heywood stopped, and, kicking at a wooden gate, gave a sing-song cry. With rattling weights, the door swung open, and closed behind them heavily. A kind of empty garden, a bare little inclosure, shone dimly in the light that streamed from a low, thick-set veranda at the farther end. Dogs flew at them, barking outrageously.

“Down, Chang! Down, Chutney!” cried their master. “Be quiet, Flounce, you fool!”

On the stone floor of the house, they leaped upon him, two red chows and a fox-terrier bitch, knocking each other over in their joy.

“Olo she-dog he catchee plenty lats,” piped a little Chinaman, who shuffled out from a side-room where lamplight showed an office desk. “Too-day catchee. Plenty lats. No can.”

“My compradore, Ah Pat,” said Heywood to Rudolph. “Ah Pat, my friend he b’long number one Flickleman, boss man.”

The withered little creature bobbed in his blue robe, grinning at the introduction.

“You welly high-tone man,” he murmured amiably. “Catchee goo’ plice.”

“All the same, I don’t half like it,” was Heywood’s comment later. He had led his guest upstairs into a bare white-washed room, furnished in wicker. Open windows admitted the damp sea breeze and a smell, like foul gun-barrels, from the river marshes. “Where should all the rats be coming from?” He frowned, meditating on what Rudolph thought a trifle. Above the sallow brown face, his chestnut hair shone oddly, close-cropped and vigorous. “Maskee, can’t be helped. O Boy, one sherry-bitters, one bamboo!”

“To our better acquaintance,” said Rudolph, as they raised their glasses.

“What? Oh, yes, thanks,” the other laughed. “Any one would know you for a griffin here, Mr. Hackh. You’ve not forgotten your manners yet.”

When they had sat down to dinner in another white-washed room, and had undertaken the promised rice and chicken, he laughed again, somewhat bitterly.

“Better acquaintance no fear! You’ll be so well acquainted with us all that you’ll wish you never clapped eyes on us.” He drained his whiskey and soda, signaled for more, and added: “Were you ever cooped up, yachting, with a chap you detested? That’s the feeling you come to have. Here, stand by. You’re drinking nothing.”

Rudolph protested. Politeness had so far conquered habit, that he felt uncommonly flushed, genial, and giddy.

“That,” urged Heywood, tapping the bottle, “that’s our only amusement. You’ll see. One good thing we can get is the liquor. ’Nisi damnose bibimus,’ forget how it runs: ’Drink hearty, or you’ll die without getting your revenge,’”

“You are then a university’s-man?” cried Rudolph, with enthusiasm.

The other nodded gloomily. On the instant his face had fallen as impassive as that of the Chinese boy who stood behind his chair, straight, rigid, like a waxen image of Gravity in a blue gown. “Yes, of sorts. Young fool. Scrapes. Debt. Out to Orient. Same old story. More debt. Trust the firm to encourage that! Debt and debt and debt. Tied up safe. Transfer. Finish! Never go Home.” He rose with a laugh and an impatient gesture. “Come on. Might as well take in the club as to sit here talking rot.”

Outside the gate of the compound, coolies crouching round a lantern sprang upright and whipped a pair of sedan-chairs into position. Heywood, his feet elevated comfortably over the poles, swung in the lead; Rudolph followed, bobbing in the springy rhythm of the long bamboos. The lanterns danced before them down an open road, past a few blank walls and dark buildings, and soon halted before a whitened front, where light gleamed from the upper story.

“Mind the stairs,” called Heywood. “Narrow and beastly dark.”

As they stumbled up the steep flight, Rudolph heard the click of billiard balls. A pair of hanging lamps lighted the room into which he rose, a low, gloomy loft, devoid of comfort. At the nearer table, a weazened little man bent eagerly over a pictorial paper; at the farther, chalking their cues, stood two players, one a sturdy Englishman with a gray moustache, the other a lithe, graceful person, whose blue coat, smart as an officer’s, and swarthy but handsome face made him at a glance the most striking figure in the room. A little Chinese imp in white, who acted as marker, turned on the new-comers a face of preternatural cunning.

“Mr. Wutzler,” said Heywood. The weazened reader rose in a nervous flutter, underwent his introduction to Rudolph with as much bashful agony as a school-girl, mumbled a few words in German, and instantly took refuge in his tattered Graphic. The players, however, advanced in a more friendly fashion. The Englishman, whose name Rudolph did not catch, shook his hand heartily.

“Mr. Hackh is a welcome addition.” He spoke with deliberate courtesy. Something in his voice, the tired look in his frank blue eyes and serious face, at once engaged respect. “For our sakes,” he continued, “we’re glad to see you here. I am sure Doctor Chantel will agree with me.”

“Ah, indeed,” said the man in military blue, with a courtier’s bow. Both air and accent were French. “Most welcome.”

“Let’s all have a drink,” cried Heywood. Despite his many glasses at dinner, he spoke with the alacrity of a new idea. “O Boy, whiskey Ho-lan suey, fai di!”

Away bounded the boy marker like a tennis-ball.

“Hello, Wutzler’s off already!” The little old reader had quietly disappeared, leaving them a vacant table. “Isn’t he weird?” laughed Heywood, as they sat down. “Comes and goes like a ghost.”

“It is his Chinese wife,” declared Chantel, preening his moustache. “He is always ashame to meet the new persons.”

“Poor old chap,” said Heywood. “I know feels himself an outcast and all that. Humph! With us! Quite unnecessary.” The Chinese page, quick, solemn, and noiseless, glided round the table with his tray. “Ah, you young devil! You’re another weird one, you atom. See those bead eyes watching us, eh? A Gilpin Homer, you are, and some fine day we’ll see you go off in a flash of fire. If you don’t poison us all first. Well, here’s fortune!”

“Your health, Mr. Hackh,” amended the other Englishman.

As they set down their glasses, a strange cry sounded from below, a stifled call, inarticulate, but in such a key of distress that all four faced about, and listened intently.

“Kom down,” called a hesitating voice, “kom down and look-see.”

They sprang to the stairs, and clattered downward. Dim radiance flooded the landing, from the street door. Outside, a smoky lantern on the ground revealed the lower levels.

In the wide sector of light stood Wutzler, shrinking and apologetic, like a man caught in a fault, his wrinkled face eloquent of fear, his gesture eloquent of excuse. Round him, as round a conjurer, scores of little shadowy things moved in a huddling dance, fitfully hopping like sparrows over spilt grain. Where the light fell brightest these became plainer, their eyes shone in jeweled points of color.

“By Jove, Gilly, they are rats!” said Heywood, in a voice curiously forced and matter-of-fact. “Flounce killed several this afternoon, so my ”

No one heeded him; all stared. The rats, like beings of incantation, stole about with an absence of fear, a disregard of man’s presence, that was odious and alarming.

“Earthquake?” The elder Englishman spoke as though afraid of disturbing some one.

The French doctor shook his head.

“No,” he answered in the same tone. “Look.”

The rats, in all their weaving confusion, displayed one common impulse. They sprang upward continually, with short, agonized leaps, like drowning creatures struggling to keep afloat above some invisible flood. The action, repeated multitudinously into the obscure background, exaggerated in the foreground by magnified shadows tossing and falling on the white walls, suggested the influence of some evil stratum, some vapor subtle and diabolic, crawling poisonously along the ground.

Heywood stamped angrily, without effect. Wutzler stood abject, a magician impotent against his swarm of familiars. Gradually the rats, silent and leaping, passed away into the darkness, as though they heard the summons of a Pied Piper.

“It doesn’t attack Europeans.” Heywood still used that curious inflection.

“Then my brother Julien is still alive,” retorted Doctor Chantel, bitterly.

“What do you think, Gilly?” persisted Heywood.

His compatriot nodded in a meaningless way.

“The doctor’s right, of course,” he answered. “I wish my wife weren’t coming back.”

“Dey are a remember,” ventured Wutzler, timidly. “A warnung.”

The others, as though it had been a point of custom, ignored him. All stared down, musing, at the vacant stones.

“Then the concert’s off to-morrow night,” mocked Heywood, with an unpleasant laugh.

“On the contrary.” Gilly caught him up, prompt and decided. “We shall need all possible amusements; also to meet and plan our campaign. Meantime, what do you say, Doctor? chloride of lime in pots?”

“That, evidently,” smiled the handsome man. “Yes, and charcoal burnt in braziers, perhaps, as Pere Fenouil advises. Fumigate.” Satirical and debonair, he shrugged his shoulders. “What use, among these thousands of yellow pigs?”

“I wish she weren’t coming,” repeated Gilly.

Rudolph, left outside this conference, could bear the uncertainty no longer.

“I am a new arrival,” he confided to his young host. “I do not understand. What is it?”

“The plague, old chap,” replied Heywood, curtly. “These playful little animals get first notice. You’re not the only arrival to-night.”