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

THE WAR BOARD

“Rigmarole?” drawled Heywood, and abstained from glancing at Chantel. “Dare say. However, Gilly, their rigmarole may mean business. On that supposition, I made my notes urgent to you chaps.”

“Quite right,” said Mr. Forrester, tugging his gray moustache, and studying the floor. “Obviously. Rigmarole or not, your plan is thoroughly sound: stock one house, and if the pinch comes, fortify.”

Chantel drummed on Heywood’s long table, and smiled quaintly, with eyes which roved out at window, and from mast to bare mast of the few small junks that lay moored against the distant bank. He bore himself, to-day, like a lazy cock of the walk. The rest of the council, Nesbit, Teppich, Sturgeon, Kempner, and the great snow-headed padre, surrounded the table with heat-worn, thoughtful faces. When they looked up, their eyes went straight to Heywood at the head; so that, though deferring to his elders, the youngest man plainly presided.

Chantel turned suddenly, merrily, his teeth flashing in a laugh.

“If we are then afraid, let us all take a jonc down the river,” he scoffed, “or the next vessel for Hongkong!”

Gilly’s tired, honest eyes saw only the plain statement.

“Impossible.” He shook his bullet head. “We can’t run away from a rumor, you know. Can we, now? The women, perhaps. But we should lose face no end horribly.”

“Let’s come to facts,” urged Heywood. “Arms, for example. What have we? To my knowledge, one pair of good rifles, mine and Sturgeon’s. Ammunition uncertain, but limited. Two revolvers: my Weble, and that little thing of Nesbit’s, which is not man-stopping. Shot-guns? Every one but you, padre: fit only for spring snipe, anyway, or bamboo partridge. Hackh has just taken over, from this house, the only real weapons in the settlement one dozen old Mausers, Argentine, calibre.765. My predecessor left ’em, and three cases of cartridges. I’ve kept the guns oiled, and will warrant the lot sound. Now, who’ll lend me spare coolies, and stuff for sand-bags?”

“Over where?” puffed Sturgeon. “Where’s he taking your Mausers?”

“Nunnery, of course.”

“Oh, I say!” Mr. Forrester looked up, with an injured air. “As the senior here, except Dr. Earle, I naturally thought the choice would be my house.”

“Right!” cried two or three voices from the foot of the table. “It should be Farthest off ”

All talked at once, except Chantel, who eyed them leniently, and smiled as at so many absurd children. Kempner a pale, dogged man, with a pompous white moustache which pouted and bristled while he spoke rose and delivered a pointless oration. “Ignoring race and creed,” he droned, “we must stand together ”

Heywood balanced a pencil, twirled it, and at last took to drawing. On the polished wood he scratched, with great pains, the effigy of a pig, whose snout blared forth a gale of quarter-notes.

“Whistle away!” he muttered; then resumed, as if no one had interrupted: “Very good of you, Gilly. But with your permission, I see five points. Here’s a rough sketch, made some time ago.”

He tossed on the table a sheet of paper. Forrester spread it, frowning, while the others leaned across or craned over his chair.

“All out of whack, you see,” explained the draughtsman; “but here are my points, Gilly. One: your house lies quite inland, with four sides to defend: the river and marsh give Rudie’s but two and a fraction. Boats? Not hardly: we’d soon stop that, as you’ll see, if they dare. Anyhow, point two, your house is all hillocks behind, and shops roundabout: here’s just one low ridge, and the rest clear field. Third: the Portuguese built a well of sorts in the courtyard; water’s deadly, I dare say, but your place has no well whatever. And as to four, suppose in a sudden alarm, say, those cut off by land could run another half-chance to reach the place by river. By the way, the nunnery has a bell to ring.”

Gilbert Forrester shoved the map along to his neighbor, and cleared his throat.

“Gentlemen,” he declared slowly, “you once did me the honor to say that in in a certain event, you would consider me as acting head. Frankly, I confess, my plans were quite ah! vague. I wish to briefly, to resign, in favor of this young ah bachelor.”

“Don’t go rotting me,” complained Heywood, and his sallow cheeks turned ruddy. “I merely bring up these points. And five is this: your compound’s very cramped, where the nunnery could shelter the goodly blooming fellowship of native converts.”

Chantel laughed heartily, and stretched his legs at ease under the table.

“What strategy!” he chuckled, preening his moustache. “Your mythical siege it will be brief! For me, I vote no to that: no rice-Christians filling their bellies eating us into a surrender!” He made a pantomime of chop-sticks. “A compound full, eating, eating!”

One or two nodded, approving the retort. Heywood, slightly lifting his chin, stared at the speaker coldly, down the length of their council-board. The red in his cheeks burned darker.

“Our everlasting shame, then,” he replied quietly. “It will be everlasting, if we leave these poor devils in the lurch, after cutting them loose from their people. Excuse me, padre, but it’s no time to mince our words. We made them strangers in their own land. Desert ’em? Damned if we do!”

No one made reply. The padre, who had looked up, looked down quickly, musing, and smoothed his white hair with big fingers that somewhat trembled.

“Besides,” continued the speaker, in a tone of apology, “we’ll need ’em to man the works. Meantime, you chaps must lend coolies, eh? Look here.” With rising spirits, he traced an eager finger along the map. “I must run a good strong bamboo scaffold along the inside wall, with plenty of sand-bags ready for loopholing specially atop the servants’ quarters and pony-shed, and in that northeast angle, where we’ll throw up a mound or platform. What do you say? Suggestions, please!”

Chantel, humming a tune, reached for his helmet, and rose. He paused, struck a match, and in an empty glass, shielding the flame against the breeze of the punkah, lighted a cigarette.

“Since we have appointed our dictator,” he began amiably, “we may repose ”

From the landing, without, a coolie bawled impudently for the master of the house.

“Wutzler!” said Heywood, jumping up. “I mean his messenger.”

He was gone a noticeable time, but came back smiling.

“Good news, Gilly.” He held aloft a scrap of Chinese paper, scrawled on with pencil. “We need expect nothing these ten days. They wait for more ammunition ’more shoots,’ the text has it. The Hak Kau their Black Dog is a bronze cannon, nine feet long, cast at Rotterdam in 1607. He writes, ‘I saw it in shed last night, but is gone to-day. O.W.’ Gentlemen, for a timid man, our friend does not scamp his reports. Thorough, rather? Little O.W. is O.K.”

Chantel, still humming, had moved toward the door. All at once he halted, and stared from the landward window. Cymbals clashed somewhere below.

“What’s this?” he cried sharply. The noise drew nearer, more brazen, and with it a clatter of hoofs. “Here come swordsmen!”

“To play with you, I suppose. Your fame has spread.” Heywood spoke with a slow, mischievous drawl; but he crossed the room quickly. “What’s up?”

Below, by the open gate, a gay grotesque rider reined in a piebald pony, and leaning down, handed to the house-boy a ribbon of scarlet paper. Behind him, to the clash of cymbals, a file of men in motley robes swaggered into position, wheeled, and formed the ragged front of a Falstaff regiment. Overcome by the scarlet ribbon, the long-coated “boy” bowed, just as through the gate, like a top-heavy boat swept under an arch, came heaving an unwieldy screened chair, borne by four broad men: not naked and glistening coolies, but “Tail-less Horses” in proud livery. Before they could lower their shafts, Heywood ran clattering down the stairs.

Slowly, cautiously, like a little fat old woman, there clambered out from the broadcloth box a rotund man, in flowing silks, and a conical, tasseled hat of fine straw. He waddled down the compound path, shading with his fan a shrewd, bland face, thoughtful, yet smooth as a babe’s.

The watchers in the upper room saw Heywood greet him with extreme ceremony, and heard the murmur of “Pray you, I pray you,” as with endless bows and deprecations the two men passed from sight, within the house. A long time dragged by. The visitor did not join the company, but from another room, now and then, sounded his clear-pitched voice, full of odd and courteous modulations. When at last the conference ended, and their unmated footsteps crossed the landing, a few sentences echoed from the stairway.

“That is all,” declared the voice, pleasantly. “The Chow Ceremonial says, ‘That man is unwise who knowingly throws away precious things.’ And in the Analects we read, ‘There is merit in dispatch.’”

Heywood’s reply was lost, except the words, “stupid people.”

“In every nation,” agreed the placid voice. “It is true. What says the Viceroy of Hupeh: ’They see a charge of bird-shot, and think they are tasting broiled owl.’ Walk slowly!”

“A safe walk, Your Excellency.”

The cymbals struck up, the cavalcade, headed by ragamuffin lictors with whips, went swaying past the gate. Heywood, when he returned, was grinning.

“Wonderful old chap!” he exclaimed. “Hates this station, I fancy, much as we hate it.”

“Anything to concern us?” asked Gilly.

“Intimated he could beat me at chess,” laughed the young man, “and will bet me a jar of peach wine to a box of Manila cigars!”

Chantel, from a derisive dumb-show near the window, had turned to waddle solemnly down the room. At sight of Heywood’s face he stopped guiltily.

“Chantel!” All the laughter was gone from the voice and the hard gray eyes. “Yesterday we humored you tin-soldier fashion, but to-day let’s put away childish things. I like that magistrate, plainly, a damned deal better than I like you. When you or I show one half his ability, we’re free to mock him in my house.”

For the first time within the memory of any man present, the mimic wilted.

“I I did not know,” he stammered, “that old man was your friend.” Very quiet, and a little flushed, he took his seat among the others.

“I like him no end.” Still more quiet, Heywood appealed to the company. “Part for his hard luck stuck down, a three-year term, in this neglected hole. Enemies in power, higher up. Fang, the Sword-Pen, in great favor up there. What? Oh, said nothing directly, of course. Friendly call, and all that. But his indirections speak straight enough. We understood each other. The dregs of the town are all stirred up bottomside topside danger point. He, in case you know can’t give us any help. No means, no recourse. His chief’s fairly itching to cashier him. Spoke highly of your hospital work, padre, but said, ’Even good deeds may be misconstrued.’ In short, gentlemen, without saying a word, he tells us honestly in plain terms, ’Sorry, but look out for yourselves.’”

A beggar rattled his bowl of cash in the road, below; from up the river sounded wailing cries.

“Did he mention,” said the big padre, presently, “the case against my man, Chok Chung?”

Heywood’s eyes became evasive, his words reluctant.

“The magistrate dodged that that unpleasant subject. The case was forced on him. Some understrapper tried it. Let’s be fair.”

Dr. Earle’s great elbows left the board. Without rising, he seemed to grow in bulk and stature, and send his vision past the company, into those things which are not, to confound the things which are.

“For myself, it does not matter. ’He buries His workmen, but carries on His work.’” The man spoke in a heavy, broken voice, as though it were his body that suffered. “But it comes hard to hear, from a young man, so good a friend, after many years” The deep-set eyes returned, and with a sudden lustre, made a sharp survey from face to face. “If I have made my flock a remnant aliens rejected tell me, what shall I do? Tell me. I have shut eyes and conscience, and never meddled, never! not even when money was levied for the village idols. And here’s a man beaten, cast into prison ”

He shoved both fists out on the table, and bowed his white head.

“My safety is nothing. But yours and his. To keep one, I desert the other. Either way.” The padre groaned. “What must I choose?”

“We’re all quite helpless,” said Heywood, gently. “Quite. It’s a long way to the nearest gunboat.”

“Tell me,” repeated the other, stubbornly.

At the same moment it happened that the cries came louder along the river-bank, and that some one bounded up the stairs.

The runner was Rudolph. All morning he had gone about his errands very calmly, playing the man of action, in a new philosophy learned overnight. But now he forgot to imitate his teacher, and darted in, so headlong that all the dogs came with him, bouncing and barking.

“Look,” he called, stumbling toward the farther window, while Flounce the terrier and a wonk puppy ran nipping at his heels. “Come, look at them! Out on the river!”