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

THE GUNWALE

Rudolph’s mission began quietly, with a glimpse which he afterward recalled as incredibly peaceful. Two of the women, at least, showed no fear. In the living-room sat Mrs. Earle, her chin cramped on her high bosom, while she mournfully studied his colored picture-book of the Rhine. Miss Drake, who leaned in one of the river windows, answered him, saying rather coldly that Chantel and Mrs. Forrester had gone down to the garden.

In the court, however, he ran across Ah Pat, loitering beside a lantern. The compradore grinned, and in a tone of great unconcern called out that the pair were not in the garden. “Walkee so.” He pointed down the passage to the main gate, and hooked his thumb toward the right, to indicate their course. “Makee finish, makee die now,” he added calmly; “too muchee, no can.”

Rudolph experienced his first shock of terror, like an icy blow on the scalp. They had gone outside before the alarm; she, Bertha, was swept away in that tumult which came raging through the darkness. He stood transfixed, but only for an instant, rather by the stroke of helplessness than by fear; and then, blindly, without plan or foresight, darted down the covered way. The tiny flame of a pith wick, floating in a saucer of oil, showed Heywood’s gatekeeper sitting at his post, like a gnome in the gallery of a mine. Rudolph tore away the bar, heard the heavy gate slam shut, and found himself running down the starlit road.

Not all starlight, however; a dim red glow began to flicker on the shapes which rushed behind him in his flight. Wheeling once, he saw two broad flames leaping high in wild and splendid rivalry, one from Heywood’s house, one from the club. He caught also a whirling impression of many heads and arms, far off, tiny, black, and crowded in rushing disorder; of pale torches in the road; and of a hissing, snarling shout, a single word, like “Sha, sha!” repeated incessantly in a high key. The flame at the club shot up threefold, with a crash; and a glorious criss-cross multitude of sparks flew hissing through the treetops, like fiery tadpoles through a net.

He turned and ran on, dazzled; fell over some one who lay groaning; rose on hands and knees, groped in the dust, and suddenly fingered thin, rough cloth, warm and sopping. In a nausea of relief, he felt that this was a native, some unknown dying man, who coughed like a drunkard.

Rudolph sprang up and raced again, following by habit the path which he and she had traversed at noon. Once, with a heavy collision, he stopped short violently in the midst of crowded men, who shouted, clung to him, wrestling, and struck out with something sharp that ripped his tunic. He kicked, shook them off, hammered his fists right and left, and ran free, with a strange conviction that to-night he was invincible. Stranger still, as the bamboo leaves now and then brushed his bare forehead, he missed the sharp music of her cicadas.

The looming of a wall checked him. Here stood her house; she had the briefest possible start of him, and he had run headlong the whole way; by all the certainty of instinct, he knew that he had chosen the right path: why, then, had he not overtaken her? If she met that band which he had just broken through He wavered in the darkness, and was turning wildly to race back, when a sudden light sprang up before him in her window. He plunged forward, in at the gate, across a plot of turf, stumbled through the Goddess of Mercy bamboo that hedged the door, and went falling up the dark stairs, crying aloud, for the first time in his life, “Bertha! Bertha!”

Empty rooms rang with the name, but no one answered. At last, however, reaching the upper level, he saw by lamplight, through the open door, two figures struggling. Just before he entered, she tore herself free and went unsteadily across the room. Chantel, white and abject, turned as in panic.

“Oh!” Plainly he had not expected to see another face as white as his own. Breathless and trembling, he spoke in a strangely little voice; but his staring eyes lighted with a sudden and desperate resolution. “Help me with her,” he begged. “She won’t listen. The woman’s out of her wits.”

He caught Rudolph by the arm; and standing for a moment like close friends, the two panting rivals watched her in stupefaction. She ransacked a great cedar chest, a table, shelves, boxes, and strewed the contents on the floor, silk scarfs, shining Benares brass, Chinese silver, vivid sarongs from the Preanger regency, Kyoto cloisonne, a wild heap of plunder from the bazaars of all the nations where Gilly’s meagre earnings had been squandered. A Cingalese box dropped and burst open, scattering bright stones, false or precious, broadcast. She trampled them in her blind and furious search.

“Come,” said Chantel, and snatched at her. “Leave those. Come to the boat. Every minute ”

She pushed him aside like a thing without weight or meaning, stooped again among the gay rubbish, caught up a necklace, flung it down for the sake of a brooch, then dropped everything and turned with blank, dilated eyes, and the face of a child lost in a crowd.

“Rudolph,” she whimpered, “help me. What shall I do?”

Without waiting for answer, she bent once more to sort and discard her pitiful treasures, to pause vaguely, consider, and wring her hands. Rudolph, in his turn, caught her by the arm, but fared no better.

“We must humor her,” whispered Chantel, and, kneeling like a peddler among the bazaar-stuffs, spread on the floor a Java sarong, blue and brown, painted with men and buffaloes. On this he began to heap things pell-mell.

The woman surrendered, and all at once flung her arms about Rudolph, hiding her face, and clinging to him as if with the last of her strength.

“Come, he’ll bring them,” she sobbed. “Let’s go to the boat. He must find his own way. Take me.” Hurry and fright choked her. “Take me leave him, if he won’t come I scolded him then the noises came, and we ran ”

“What boat?” said Rudolph.

Chantel did not look up.

“I have one ready and stocked,” he mumbled, tugging with his teeth at the knot in the sarong corners. “You can come. We’ll drop down the river, and try it along the coast. Only chance. Come on.”

He rose, and started for the door, slinging the bright-colored bundle over his shoulder. “Come on,” he snarled. Against the gay pattern, his handsome pirate face shone brown and evil in the lamplight. “Damn you, I’ve waited long enough for your whims. Stay there and be killed, then.”

He ran to the stairs, and down. The woman’s arms began to drag loosely, as if she were slipping to the floor; then suddenly, with a cry, she turned and bolted. Run as he might, Rudolph did not overtake her till she had caught Chantel at the gate. All three, silent, sped across fields toward the river, through the startling shadows and dim orange glow from distant flames.

The rough ground sloped, at last, and sent them stumbling down into mud. Behind them the bank ran black and ragged against the glow; before them, still more black, lay the river, placid, mysterious, and safe. Through the mud they labored heavily toward a little, smoky light a lantern gleaming faintly on a polished gunwale, the shoulders of a man, and the thin, slant line that was his pole.

“Lowdah?” called Chantel; and the shoulders moved, the line shifted, as the boatman answered. Chantel pitched the bundle over the lantern, and leapt on board. Rudolph came slowly, carrying in his arms the woman, who lay quiet and limp, clasping him in a kind of drowsy oblivion. He felt the flutter of her lips, while she whispered in his ear strange, breathless entreaties, a broken murmur of endearments, unheard-of, which tempted him more than the wide, alluring darkness of the river.

He lowered her slowly; and leaning against the gunwale, she still clung to his hands.

“Aboard! Quickly!” snapped their leader, from the dusk behind the lantern.

Obeying by impulse, Rudolph moved nearer the gunwale. The slippery edge, polished by bare feet through many years, seemed the one bit of reality in this dream, except the warmth of her hands.

“To the nunnery?” he asked, trying dully to rouse from a fascination.

“No, no,” she wailed. “Down away safe.”

“No, back to them,” he answered stupidly. “They are all there. Your he is there. We can’t leave ”

“You fool!” Chantel swore in one tongue, and in another cried to the boatman “Shove off, if they won’t come!” He seized the woman roughly and pulled her on board; but she reached out and caught Rudolph’s hand again.

“Come, hurry,” she whispered, tugging at him. “Come, dear boy. I won’t leave you. Quickly. You saw it burning. They’re all dead. It’s no use. We must live. We must live, darling.”

She was right, somehow; there was no power to confute her. He must come with her, or run back, useless, into the ring of swords and flames. She and life were in the boat; ashore, a friend cut off beyond reach, an impossible duty, and death. His eyes, dull and fixed in the smoky lantern-light, rested for an age on the knotted sarong. It meant nothing; then in a flash, as though for him all light of the eyes had concentrated in a single vision, it meant everything. The colored cloth rudely painted in the hut of some forgotten mountaineer held all her treasure and her heart, the things of this world. She must go with those. It was fitting. She was beautiful in all her fear and disorder, still more beautiful. She went with life, departing into a dream. This glossy gunwale, polished by bare feet, was after all the sole reality, a shining line between life and death.

“Then I must die,” he groaned, and wrenched his hands away from that perilous boundary.

He vaguely heard her cry out, vaguely saw Chantel rise above the lantern and slash down at him with the lowdah’s pole. The bamboo struck him, heavy but glancing, on the head. He staggered, lost his footing, and fell into the mud, where, as though his choice had already overtaken him, he lay without thought or emotion, watching the dim light float off into the darkness.

By and by it was gone. From somewhere in another direction came a sharp, continual, crackling fusillade, like the snapping of dry bamboo-joints in a fire. The unstirring night grew heavier with the smell of burnt gunpowder. But Rudolph, sitting in the mud, felt only that his eyes were dry and leaden in their sockets, that there was a drumming in his ears, and that if heat and weariness thus made an end of him, he need no longer watch the oppressive multitude of stars, or hear the monotony of flowing water.

Something stirred in the dry grass above him. Without turning, he heard a man scramble down the bank; without looking up, he felt some one pause and stoop close. When at last, in profound apathy, he raised his eyes, he saw against the starlight the hat, head, and shoulders of a coolie.

Quite natural, he thought, that the fellow should be muttering in German. It was only the halting, rusty fashion of the speech that finally fretted him into listening. The words did not concern him.

“Are you dead, then?” grumbled the coolie. “Did she kill you?”

Rudolph dismissed him with a vague but angry motion.

Some time afterward the same voice came louder. The coolie was still there.

“You cannot sit here all night,” he said. “By daylight they will catch you. Come. Perhaps I can take you to your friends. Come.”

Rudolph felt sharp knuckles working at his lips, and before he could rebel, found his mouth full of sweet fiery liquid. He choked, swallowed, and presently heard the empty bottle splash in the river.

Stoesst an!” said the rescuer, and chuckled something in dispraise of women. “Is that not better?”

The rice-brandy was hot and potent; for of a sudden Rudolph found himself afoot and awake. A dizzy warmth cleared his spirit. He understood perfectly. This man, for some strange reason, was Wutzler, a coolie and yet a brother from the fatherland. He and his nauseous alien brandy had restored the future. There was more to do.

“Come on.” The forsaken lover was first man up the bank. “See!” he cried, pointing to a new flare in the distance. The whole region was now aglow like a furnace, and filled with smoke, with prolonged yells, and a continuity of explosions that ripped the night air like tearing silk. “Her house is burning now.”

“You left in time.” Wutzler shuffled before him, with the trot of a lean and exhausted laborer. “I was with the men you fought, when you ran. I followed to the house, and then here, to the river. I was glad you did not jump on board.” He glanced back, timidly, for approbation. “I am a great coward, Herr Heywood told me so, but I also stay and help.”

He steered craftily among the longest and blackest shadows, now jogging in a path, now threading the boundary of a rice-field, or waiting behind trees; and all the time, though devious and artful as a deer-stalker, crept toward the centre of the noise and the leaping flames. When the quaking shadows grew thin and spare, and the lighted clearings dangerously wide, he swerved to the right through a rolling bank of smoke. They coughed as they ran.

Once Rudolph paused, with the heat of the fire on his cheeks.

“The nunnery is burning,” he said hopelessly.

His guide halted, peered shrewdly, and listened.

“No, they are still shooting,” he answered, and limped onward, skirting the uproar.

At last, when by pale stars above the smoke and flame and sparks, Rudolph judged that they were somewhere north of the nunnery, they came stumbling down into a hollow encumbered with round, swollen obstacles. Like a patch of enormous melons, oil-jars lay scattered.

“Hide here, and wait,” commanded Wutzler. “I will go see.” And he flitted off through the smoke.

Smuggled among the oil-jars, Rudolph lay panting. Shapes of men ran past, another empty jar rolled down beside him, and a stray bullet sang overhead like a vibrating wire. Soon afterward, Wutzler came crawling through the huddled pottery.

“Lie still,” he whispered. “Your friends are hemmed in. You cannot get through.”

The smell of rancid oil choked them, yet they could breathe without coughing, and could rest their smarting eyes. In the midst of tumult and combustion, the hollow lay dark as a pool. Along its rim bristled a scrubby fringe of weeds, black against a rosy cloud.

After a time, something still blacker parted the weeds. In silhouette, a man’s head, his hand grasping a staff or the muzzle of a gun, remained there as still as though, crawling to the verge, he lay petrified in the act of spying.