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

THE SWORD-PEN

“Wutzler was missing last night,” said Heywood, lazily. He had finished breakfast, and lighted a short, fat, glossy pipe. “Just occurred to me. We must have a look in on him. Poor old Wutz, he’s getting worse and worse. Chantel’s right, I fancy: it’s the native wife.” He rose, with a short laugh. “Queer. The rest never feel so, Nesbit, and Sturgeon, and that lot. But then, they don’t fall so low as to marry theirs.”

“By the way,” he sneered, on the landing, “until this scare blows over, you’d better postpone any such establishment, if you intend ”

“I do not,” stammered Rudolph.

To his amazement, the other clapped him on the shoulder.

“I say!” The sallow face and cynical gray eyes lighted, for the first time, with something like enthusiasm. Next moment they had darkened again, but not before he had said gruffly, “You’re not a bad little chap.”

Morosely, as if ashamed of this outburst, he led the way through the bare, sunny compound, and when the gate had closed rattling behind them, stated their plans concisely and sourly. “No work to-day, not a stroke! We’ll just make it a holiday, catchee good time. What? No. Rot! I won’t work, and you can’t. That’s all there is about that. Don’t be an ass! Come along. We’ll go out first and see Captain Kneebone.” And when Rudolph, faithful to certain tradesmen snoring in Bremen, would have protested mildly, he let fly a stinging retort, and did not regain his temper until they had passed the outskirts of the village. Yet even the quarrel seemed part of some better understanding, some new, subtle bond between two lonely men.

Before them opened a broad field dotted with curious white disks, like bone buttons thrown on a green carpet. Near at hand, coolies trotted and stooped, laying out more of these circular baskets, filled with tiny dough-balls. Makers of rice-wine, said Heywood; as he strode along explaining, he threw off his surly fit. The brilliant sunlight, the breeze stirring toward them from a background of drooping bamboos, the gabble of coolies, the faint aroma of the fermenting no-me cakes, began, after all, to give a truant sense of holiday.

Almost gayly, the companions threaded a marshy path to the river, and bargained with a shrewd, plump woman who squatted in the bow of a sampan. She chaffered angrily, then laughed at some unknown saying of Heywood’s, and let them come aboard. Summoned by voluble scolding, her husband appeared, and placidly labored at the creaking sweep. They slipped down a river of bronze, between the oozy banks; and the war-junks, the naked fisherman, the green-coated ruins of forts, drifted past like things in reverie, while the men lay smoking, basking in bright weather. They looked up into serene spaces, and forgot the umbra of pestilence.

Heywood, now lazy, now animated, exchanged barbaric words with the boat-woman. As their tones rose and fell, she laughed. Long afterward, Rudolph was to remember her, a wholesome, capable figure in faded blue, darting keen glances from her beady eyes, flashing her white teeth in a smile, or laughing till the green pendants of false jade trembled in her ears.

“Her name is Mrs. Wu,” said Heywood, between smoke-rings, “and she is a lady of humor. We are discussing the latest lawsuit, which she describes as suing a flea and winning the bite. Her maiden name was the Pretty Lily. She is captain of this sampan, and fears that her husband does not rate A. B.”

Where the river disembogued, the Pretty Lily, cursing and shrilling, pattering barefoot about her craft, set a matting sail and caught the breeze. Over the copper surface of the roadstead, the sampan drew out handily. Ahead, a black, disreputable little steamer lay anchored, her name two enormous hieroglyphics painted amidships staring a bilious yellow in the morning sun. Under these, at last, the sampan came bumping, unperceived or neglected.

Overhead, a pair of white shoes protruded from the rail in a blue film of smoke. They twitched, as a dry cackle of laughter broke out.

“Kut Sing, ahoy!” shouted Heywood. “On deck! Kneebone!”

The shoes whipped inboard. Outboard popped a ruddy little face, set in the green circle of a topi, and contorted with laughter.

“Listen to this, will ye!” cried the apparition, as though illustrating a point. Leaning his white sleeves on the rail, cigar in one fist, Tauchnitz volume in the other, he roared down over the side a passage of prose, from which his visitors caught only the words “Ginger Dick” and “Peter Russet,” before mirth strangled him.

“God bless a man,” he cried, choking, “that can make a lonesome old beggar laugh, out here! Eh, what? How he ever thinks up But he’s took to writing plays, they tell me. Plays!” He scowled ferociously. “Fat lot o’ good they are, for skippers, and planters, and gory exiles! Eh, what? Be-george, I’ll write him a chit! I’ll tell him! Plays be damned; we want more stories!”

Red and savage, he hurled the book fluttering into the sea, then swore in consternation.

“Oh, I say!” he wailed. “Fish her out! I’ve not finished her. My intention was, ye know, to fling the bloomin’ cigar!”

Heywood, laughing, rescued the volume on a long bamboo.

“Just came out on the look-see, captain,” he called up. “Can’t board you. Plague ashore.”

“Plague be ’anged!” scoffed the little captain. “That hole’s no worse with plague than’t is without. Got two cases on board, myself coolies. Stowed ’em topside, under the boats. Come up here, ye castaway! Come up, ye goatskin Robinson Crusoe, and get a white man’s chow!”

He received them on deck, a red, peppery little officer, whose shaven cheeks and close gray hair gave him the look of a parson gone wrong, a hedge-priest run away to sea. Two tall Chinese boys scurried about with wicker chairs, with trays of bottles, ice, and cheroots, while he barked his orders, like a fox-terrier commanding a pair of solemn dock-rats. The white men soon lounged beside the wheel-house.

“So you brought Mrs. Forrester,” drawled Heywood.

Rudolph, wondering if they saw him wince, listened with painful eagerness. But the captain disposed of that subject very simply.

She’s no good.” He stared up at the grimy awning. “What I’m thinking is, will that there Dacca babu at Koprah slip me through his blessed quarantine for twenty-five dollars. What?”

Their talk drifted far away from Rudolph, far from China itself, to touch a hundred ports and islands, Cebu and Sourabaya, Tavoy and Selangor. They talked of men and women, a death at Zamboanga, a birth at Chittagong, of obscure heroism or suicide, and fortunes made or lost; while the two boys, gentle, melancholy, gliding silent in bright blue robes, spread a white tablecloth, clamped it with shining brass, and laid the tiffin. Then the talk flowed on, the feast made a tiny clatter of jollity in the slumbering noon, in the silence of an ocean and a continent. And when at last the visitors clambered down the iron side, they went victorious with Spanish wine.

“Mind ye,” shouted Captain Kneebone, from the rail, “that don’t half exhaust the subjeck o’ lott’ries! Why, luck” He shook both fists aloft, triumphantly, as if they had been full of money. “Just ye wait. I’ve a tip from Calcutta that Never mind. Bar sells, when that fortch’n comes, my boy, the half’s yours! Home we go, remember that!”

The sampan drew away. Sweeping his arm violently, to threaten the coast of China and the whole range of his vision,

“You’re the one man,” he roared, “that makes all this mess worth a cowrie!”

Heywood laughed, waved his helmet, and when at last he turned, sat looking downward with a queer smile.

“Illusions!” he chuckled. “What would a chap ever do without ’em? Old Kneebone there: his was always that a fortune in a lottery, and then Home! Illusions! And he’s no fool, either. Good navigator. Decent old beggar.” He waved his helmet again, before stretching out to sleep. “Do you know, I believe he would take me.”

The clinkered hills, quivering in the west, sank gradually into the heated blur above the plains. As gradually, the two men sank into dreams.

Furious, metallic cries from the Pretty Lily woke them, in the blue twilight. She had moored her sampan alongside a flight of stone steps, up which, vigorously, with a bamboo, she now prodded her husband. He contended, snarling, but mounted; and when Heywood’s silver fell jingling into her palm, lighted his lantern and scuffed along, a churlish guide. At the head of the slimy stairs, Heywood rattled a ponderous gate in a wall, and shouted. Some one came running, shot bolts, and swung the door inward. The lantern showed the tawny, grinning face of a servant, as they passed into a small garden, of dwarf orange trees pent in by a lofty, whitewashed wall.

“These grounds are yours, Hackh,” said Heywood. “Your predecessor’s boy; and there” pointing to a lonely barrack that loomed white over the stunted grove “there’s your house. You draw the largest in the station. A Portuguese nunnery, it was, built years ago. My boys are helping set it to rights; but if you don’t mind, I’d like you to stay on at my beastly hut until this this business takes a turn. Plenty of time.” He nodded at the fat little orange trees. “We may live to take our chow under those yet, of an evening. Also a drink. Eh?”

The lantern skipped before them across the garden, through a penitential courtyard, and under a vaulted way to the main door and the road. With Rudolph, the obscure garden and echoing house left a sense of magical ownership, sudden and fleeting, like riches in the Arabian Nights. The road, leaving on the right a low hill, or convex field, that heaved against the lower stars, now led the wanderers down a lane of hovels, among dim squares of smoky lamplight.

Wu, their lantern-bearer, had turned back, and they had begun to pass a few quiet, expectant shops, when a screaming voice, ahead, outraged the evening stillness.

At the first words, Heywood doubled his pace.

“Come along. Here’s a lark or a tragedy.”

Jostling through a malodorous crowd that blockaded the quarrel, they gained the threshold of a lighted shop. Against a rank of orderly shelves, a fat merchant stood at bay, silent, quick-eyed, apprehensive. Before him, like an actor in a mad scene, a sobbing ruffian, naked to the waist, convulsed with passion, brandished wild fists and ranted with incredible sounds. When breath failed, he staggered, gasping, and swept his audience with the glazed, unmeaning stare of drink or lunacy. The merchant spoke up, timid and deprecating. As though the words were vitriol, the other started, whirled face to face, and was seized with a new raving.

Something protruded at his waistband, like a rudimentary, Darwinian stump. To this, all at once, his hand flung back. With a wrench and a glitter, he flourished a blade above his head. Heywood sprang to intervene, in the same instant that the disturber of trade swept his arm down in frenzy. Against his own body, hilt and fist thumped home, with the sound as of a football lightly punted. He turned, with a freezing look of surprise, plucked at the haft, made one step calmly and tentatively toward the door, stumbled, and lay retching and coughing.

The fat shop-keeper wailed like a man beside himself. He gabbled, imploring Heywood. The young man nodded. “Yes, yes,” he repeated irritably, staring down at the body, but listening to the stream of words.

Murmurs had risen, among the goblin faces blinking in the doorway. Behind them, a sudden voice called out two words which were caught up and echoed harshly in the street. Heywood whipped about.

“Never called me that before,” he said quickly. “Come outside.”

He flung back a hurried sentence to the merchant, caught Rudolph’s arm, and plunged into the crowd. The yellow men gave passage mechanically, but with lowering faces. Once free in the muddy path, he halted quickly, and looked about.

“Might have known,” he grumbled. “Never called me ‘Foreign Dog’ before, or ‘Jesus man,’ He set ’em on.”

Rudolph followed his look. In the dim light, at the outskirts of the rabble, a man was turning away, with an air of contempt or unconcern. The long, pale, oval face, the hard eyes gleaming with thought, had vanished at a glance. A tall, slight figure, stooping in his long robe, he glided into the darkness. For all his haste, the gait was not the gait of a coolie.

“That,” said Heywood, turning into their former path, “that was Fang, the Sword-Pen, so-called. Very clever chap. Of the two most dangerous men in the district, he’s one.” They had swung along briskly for several minutes, before he added: “The other most dangerous man you’ve met him already. If I’m not mistaken, he’s no less a person than the Reverend James Earle.”

“What!” exclaimed Rudolph, in dull bewilderment.

“Yes,” grunted his friend. “The padre. We must find him to-night, and report.”

He strode forward, with no more comment. At his side, Rudolph moved as a soldier, carried onward by pressure and automatic rhythm, moves in the apathy of a forced march. The day had been so real, so wholesome, full of careless talk and of sunlight. And now this senseless picture blotted all else, and remained, each outline sharper in memory, the smoky lamp brighter, the blow of the hilt louder, the smell of peanut oil more pungent. The episode, to him, was a disconnected, unnecessary fragment, one bloody strand in the whole terrifying snarl. But his companion stalked on in silence, like a man who saw a pattern in the web of things, and was not pleased.