Read CHAPTER XI of Dragon's blood, free online book, by Henry Milner Rideout, on


He was swarming up, quiet as a thief, when his fingers clawed the bare plaster. The ladder hung from the square end of a protruding beam, above which there were no more rungs. He hung in doubt.

Then, to his great relief, something blacker than the starlight gathered into form over his head, a slanting bulk, which gradually took on a familiar meaning. He chuckled, reached for it, and fingering the rough edge to avoid loose tiles, hauled himself up to a foothold on the beam, and so, flinging out his arms and hooking one knee, scrambled over and lay on a ribbed and mossy surface, under the friendly stars. The outcast and his strange brethren had played fair: this was the long roof, and close ahead rose the wall of some higher building, an upright blackness from which escaped two bits of light, a right angle of hairbreadth lines, and below this a brighter patch, small and ragged. Here, louder, but confused with a gentle scuffing of feet, sounded the voices of the rival lodge.

Toward these he crawled, stopping at every creak of the tiles. Once a broken roll snapped off, and slid rattling down the roof. He sat up, every muscle ready for the sudden leap and shove that would send him sliding after it into the lower darkness. It fell but a short distance, into something soft. Gradually he relaxed, but lay very still. Nothing followed; no one had heard.

He tried again, crawled forward his own length, and brought up snug and safe in the angle where roof met wall. The voices and shuffling feet were dangerously close. He sat up, caught a shaft of light full in his face, and peered in through the ragged chink. Two legs in bright, wrinkled hose, and a pair of black shoes with thick white soles, blocked the view. For a long time they shifted, uneasy and tantalizing. He could hear only a hubbub of talk, random phrases without meaning. The legs moved away, and left a clear space.

But at the same instant, a grating noise startled him, directly overhead, out of doors. The thin right angle of light spread instantly into a brilliant square. With a bang, a wooden shutter slid open. Heywood lay back swiftly, just as a long, fat bamboo pipe, two sleeves, and the head of a man in a red silk cap were thrust out into the night air.

Ai-yah!" sighed the man, and puffed at his bamboo. “It is hot.”

Heywood tried to blot himself against the wall. The lounger, propped on elbows, finished his smoke, spat upon the tiles, and remained, a pensive silhouette.

Ai-yah!" he sighed again; then knocking out the bamboo, drew in his head. Not until the shutter slammed, did Heywood shake the burning sparks from his wrist.

In the same movement, however, he raised head and shoulders to spy through the chink. This time the bright-hosed legs were gone. He saw clear down a brilliant lane of robes and banners, multicolored, and shining with embroidery and tinsel, a lane between two ranks of crowded men, who, splendid with green and blue and yellow robes of ceremony, faced each other in a strong lamplight, that glistened on their oily cheeks. The chatter had ceased. Under the crowded rows of shaven foreheads, their eyes blinked, deep-set and expectant. At the far end of the loft, through two circular arches or giant hoops of rattan, Heywood at last descried a third arch, of swords; beyond this, a tall incense jar smouldering gray wisps of smoke, beside a transverse table twinkling with candles like an altar; and over these, a black image with a pale, carved face, seated bolt upright before a lofty, intricate, gilded shrine of the Patriot War-God.

A tall man in dove-gray silk with a high scarlet turban moved athwart the altar, chanting as he solemnly lifted one by one a row of symbols: a round wooden measure, heaped with something white, like rice, in which stuck a gay cluster of paper flags; a brown, polished abacus; a mace carved with a dragon, another carved with a phoenix; a rainbow robe, gleaming with the plumage of Siamese kingfishers. All these, and more, he displayed aloft and replaced among the candles.

When his chant ended, a brisk little man in yellow stepped forward into the lane.

“O Fragrant Ones,” he shrilled, “I bring ten thousand recruits, to join our army and swear brotherhood. Attend, O Master of Incense.”

Behind him, a squad of some dozen barefoot wretches, in coolie clothes, with queues un-plaited, crawled on all fours through the first arch. They crouched abject, while the tall Master of Incense in the dove-gray silk sternly examined their sponsor.

In the outer darkness, Heywood craned and listened till neck and shoulders ached. He could make nothing of the florid verbiage.

With endless ritual, the crawling novices reached the arch of swords. They knelt, each holding above his head a lighted bundle of incense-sticks, red sparks that quivered like angry fireflies. Above them the tall Master of Incense thundered:

“O Spirits of the Hills and Brooks, the Land, the swollen seeds of the ground, and all the Veins of Earth; O Thou, young Bearer of the Axe that cleared the Hills; O Imperial Heaven, and ye, Five Dragons of the Five Regions, with all the Holy Influences who pass and instantly re-pass through unutterable space: draw near, record our oath, accept the draught of blood.”

He raised at arm’s length a heavy baton, which, with a flowing movement, unrolled to the floor a bright yellow scroll thickly inscribed. From this he read, slowly, an interminable catalogue of oaths. Heywood could catch only the scolding sing-song of the responses:

“If any brother shall break this, let him die beneath ten thousand knives.”

“ Who violates this, shall be hurled down into the great sky.”

“ Let thunder from the Five Regions annihilate him.”

Silence followed, broken suddenly by the frenzied squawking of a fowl, as suddenly cut short. Near the chink, Heywood heard a quick struggling and beating. Next instant he lay flattened against the wall.

The shutter grated open, a flood of light poured out.

Within reach, in that radiance, a pair of sinewy yellow hands gripped the neck of a white cock. The wretched bird squawked once more, feebly, flapped its wings, and clawed the air, just as a second pair of arms reached out and sliced with a knife. The cock’s head flew off upon the tiles. Hot blood spattered on Heywood’s cheek. Half blinded, but not daring to move, he saw the knife withdrawn, and a huge goblet held out to catch the flow. Then arms, goblet, and convulsive wings jerked out of sight, and the shutter slid home.

“Twice they’ve not seen me,” thought Heywood. It was darker, here, than he had hoped. He rose more boldly to the peep-hole.

Under the arch of swords, the new recruits, now standing upright, stretched one by one their wrists over the goblet. The Incense Master pricked each yellow arm, to mingle human blood with the blood of the white cock; then, from a brazen vessel, filled the goblet to the brim. It passed from hand to hand, like a loving-cup. Each novice raised it, chanted some formula, and drank. Then all dispersed. There fell a silence.

Suddenly, in the pale face of the black image seated before the shrine, the eyes turned, scanning the company with a cold contempt. The lips moved. The voice, level and ironic, was that of Fang, the Sword-Pen:

“O Fragrant Ones, when shall the foreign monsters perish like this cock?”

A man in black, with a red wand, bowed and answered harshly:

“The time, Great Elder Brother, draws at hand.”

“How shall we know the hour?”

“The hour,” replied the Red Wand, “shall be when the Black Dog barks.”

“And the day?”

Heywood pressed his ear against the chink, and listened, his five senses fused into one.

No answer came, but presently a rapid, steady clicking, strangely familiar and commonplace. He peered in again. The Red Wand stood by the abacus, rattling the brown beads with flying fingers, like a shroff. Plainly, it was no real calculation, but a ceremony before the answer. The listener clapped his ear to the crevice. Would that answer, he wondered, be a month, a week, to-morrow?

The shutter banged, the light streamed, down went Heywood against the plaster. Thick dregs from the goblet splashed on the tiles. A head, the flattened profile of the brisk man in yellow, leaned far out from the little port-hole. Grunting, he shook the inverted cup, let it dangle from his hands, stared up aimlessly at the stars, and then to Heywood’s consternation dropped his head to meditate, looking straight down.

“He sees me,” thought Heywood, and held himself ready, trembling. But the fellow made no sign, the broad squat features no change. The pose was that of vague, comfortable thought. Yet his vision seemed to rest, true as a plumb-line, on the hiding-place. Was he in doubt? he could reach down lazily, and feel.

Worst of all, the greenish pallor in the eastern sky had imperceptibly turned brighter; and now the ribbed edge of a roof, across the way, began to glow like incandescent silver. The moon was crawling up.

The head and the dangling goblet were slowly pulled in, just before the moonlight, soft and sullen through the brown haze of the heat, stole down the wall and spread upon the tiles. The shutter remained open. But Heywood drew a free breath: those eyes had been staring into vacancy.

“Now, then,” he thought, and sat up to the cranny; for the rattle of the abacus had stopped.

“The counting is complete,” announced the Red Wand slowly, “the hours are numbered. The day ”

Movement, shadow, or nameless instinct, made the listener glance upward swiftly. He caught the gleam of yellow silk, the poise and downward jab, and with a great heave of muscles went shooting down the slippery channel of the cock’s blood. A spearhead grazed his scalp, and smashed a tile behind him. As he rolled over the edge, the spear itself whizzed by him into the dark.

“The chap saw,” he thought, in mid-air; “beastly clever all the time ”

He landed on the spear-shaft, in a pile of dry rubbish, snatched up the weapon, and ran, dimly conscious of a quiet scurrying behind and above him, of silent men tumbling after, and doors flung violently open.

He raced blindly, but whipped about the next corner, leaving the moon at his back. Westward, somebody had told him, to the gate where dragons met.

There had been no uproar; but running his hardest down the empty corridors of the streets, he felt that the pack was gaining. Ahead loomed something gray, a wall, the end of a blind alley. Scale it, or make a stand at the foot, he debated, racing. Before the decision came, a man popped out of the darkness. Heywood shifted his grip, drew back the spear, but found the stranger bounding lightly alongside, and muttering,

“To the west-south, quick! A brother waits. I fool those who follow ”

Obeying, Heywood dove to the left into the black slit of an alley, while the other fugitive pattered straight on into the seeming trap, with a yelp of encouragement to the band who swept after. The alley was too dark for speed. Heywood ran on, fell, rose and ran, fell again, losing his spear. A pair of trembling hands eagerly helped him to his feet.

“My cozin’s boy, he ron quick,” said Wutzler. “Dose fellows, dey not catch him! Kom.”

They threaded the gloom swiftly. Wutzler, ready and certain of his ground, led the tortuous way through narrow and greasy galleries, along the side of a wall, and at last through an unlighted gate, free of the town.

In the moonlight he stared at his companion, cackled, clapped his thighs, and bent double in unholy convulsions.

“My gracious me!” He laughed immoderately. “Oh, I wait zo fearful, you kom zo fonny!” For a while he clung, shaking, to the young man’s arm. “My friendt, zo fonny you look! My gootness me!” At last he regained himself, stood quiet, and added very pointedly, “What did yow lern?”

“Nothing,” replied Heywood, angrily. “Nothing. Fragrant Ones! Not a bad name. Phew! Oh, I say, what did they mean? What Black Dog is to bark?”

“Black Dog? Black Dog iss cannon.” The man became, once more, as keen as a gossip. “What cannon? When dey shoot him off?”

“Can’t tell,” said his friend. “That’s to be their signal.”

“I do not know,” The conical hat wagged sagely. “I go find out.” He pointed across the moonlit spaces. “Ofer dere iss your house. You can no more. Schlafen Sie wohl.”

The two men wrung each other’s hands.

“Shan’t forget this, Wutz.”

“Oh, for me all you haf done ” The outcast turned away, shaking his head sadly.

Never did Heywood’s fat water-jar glisten more welcome than when he gained the vaulted bath-room. He ripped off his blood-stained clothes, scrubbed the sacrificial clots from his hair, and splashed the cool water luxuriously over his exhausted body. When at last he had thrown a kimono about him, and wearily climbed the stairs, he was surprised to see Rudolph, in the white-washed room ahead, pacing the floor and ardently twisting his little moustache. As Heywood entered, he wheeled, stared long and solemnly.

“I must wait to tell you.” He stalked forward, and with his sound left hand grasped Heywood’s right. “This afternoon, you ”

“My dear boy, it’s too hot. No speeches.”

But Rudolph’s emotion would not be hindered.

“This afternoon,” he persisted, with tragic voice and eyes, “this afternoon I nearly was killed.”

“So was I. Which seems to meet that.” And Heywood pulled free.

“Oh,” cried Rudolph, fervently. “I know! I feel If you knew what I My life ”

The weary stoic in the blue kimono eyed him very coldly, then plucked him by the sleeve. “Come here, for a bit.”

Both men leaned from the window into the hot, airless night. A Chinese rebeck wailed, monotonous and nasal. Heywood pointed at the moon, which now hung clearly above the copper haze.

“What do you see there?” he asked dryly.

“The moon,” replied his friend, wondering.

“Good. You know, I was afraid you might just see Rudie Hackh.”

The rebeck wailed a long complaint before he added:

“If I didn’t like you fairly well The point is Good old Cynthia! That bally orb may not see one of us to-morrow night, next week, next quarter. ‘Through this same Garden, and for us in vain.’ Every man Jack. Let me explain. It will make you better company.”