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

SIEGE

He never believed that they could hold the northeast corner for a minute, so loud and unceasing was the uproar. Bullets spattered sharply along the wall and sang overhead, mixed now and then with an indescribable whistling and jingling. The angle was like the prow of a ship cutting forward into a gale. Yet Rudolph climbed, rejoicing, up the short bamboo ladder, to the platform which his coolies had built in such haste, so long ago, that afternoon.

His high spirits went before a fall. As he stood up, in the full glow from the burning go-down, somebody tackled him about the knees and threw him head first on the sand-bags.

“How many times must I give me orders?” barked the little sea-captain. “Under cover, under cover, and stay under cover, or I’ll send ye below, ye gallivanting Oh! it’s you, is it? Well, there’s your port-hole.” A stubby finger pointed in the obscurity. “There! and don’t ye fire till I say so!”

Thus made welcome, Rudolph crawled toward a chink among the bags, ran the muzzle of his gun into place, and lay ready for whatever might come out of the quaking lights and darknesses beyond.

Nothing came, however, except a swollen continuity of sound, a rolling cloud of noises, thick and sullen as the smell of burnt gunpowder. It was strange, thought Rudolph, how nothing happened from moment to moment. No yellow bodies came charging out of the hubbub. He himself lay there unhurt; his fellows joked, grumbled, shifted their legs on the platform. At times the heavier, duller sound, which had been the signal for the whole disorder, one ponderous beat, as on a huge and very slack bass-drum, told that the Black Dog from Rotterdam was not far off. Yet even then there followed no shock of round-shot battering at masonry, but only an access of the stormy whistling and jingling.

“Copper cash,” declared the voice of Heywood, in a lull. By the sound, he was standing on the rungs of the ladder, with his head at the level of the platform; also by the sound, he was enjoying himself inordinately. “What a jolly good piece of luck! Scrap metal and copper cash. Firing money at us like you, Captain. Just what we thought, too. Some unruly gang among them wouldn’t wait, and forced matters. Tonight was premature. The beggars have plenty of powder, and little else. So far.”

Rudolph listened in wonder. Here, in the thick of the fight, was a light-hearted, busy commander, drawing conclusions and extracting news from chaos.

“Look out for arrows,” continued the speaker, as he crawled to a loophole between Rudolph’s and the captain’s. “They’re shooting arrows up over. Killed one convert and wounded two, there by the water gate. They can’t get the elevation for you chaps here, though.” And again he added, cheerfully, “So far, at least.”

The little band behind the loopholes lay watching through the smoke, listening through the noise. The Black Dog barked again, and sent a shower of money clinking along the wall.

“How do you like it, Rudie?” chuckled his friend.

“It is terrible,” answered Rudolph, honestly.

“Terrible racket, yes. Fireworks, to frighten us. Wait till their ammunition comes; then you’ll see fun. Fireworks, all this.” Heywood turned to his other companion. “I say, Kneebone, what’s your idea? Sniping all night, will it be? or shall we get a fair chance at ’em?”

The captain, a small, white, recumbent spectre, lifted his head and appeared to sniff the smoke judicially.

“They get a chance at us, more like!” he grumbled. “My opinion, the blighters have shot and burnt themselves into a state o’ mind; bloomin’ delusion o’ grandeur, that’s what. Wildest of ’em will rush us to-night, once maybe twice. We stave ’em off, say: that case, they’ll settle down to starve us, right and proper.”

“Siege,” assented Heywood.

“Siege, like you read about.” The captain lay flat again. “Wish a man could smoke up here.”

Heywood laughed, and turned his head:

“How much do you know about sieges, old chap?”

“Nothing,” Rudolph confessed.

“Nor I, worse luck. Outside of school testudine facia, that sort of thing. However,” he went on cheerfully, “we shall before long” He broke off with a start. “Rudie! By Jove, I forgot! Did you find them? Where’s Bertha Forrester?”

“Gone,” said Rudolph, and struggling to explain, found his late adventure shrunk into the compass of a few words, far too small and bare to suggest the magnitude of his decision. “They went,” he began, “in a boat ”

He was saved the trouble; for suddenly Captain Kneebone cried in a voice of keen satisfaction, “Here they come! I told ye!” and fired his rifle.

Through a patch of firelight, down the gentle slope of the field, swept a ragged cohort of men, some bare-headed, some in their scarlet nightcaps, as though they had escaped from bed, and all yelling. One of the foremost, who met the captain’s bullet, was carried stumbling his own length before he sank underfoot; as the Mausers flashed from between the sand-bags, another and another man fell to his knees or toppled sidelong, tripping his fellows into a little knot or windrow of kicking arms and legs; but the main wave poured on, all the faster. Among and above them, like wreckage in that surf, tossed the shapes of scaling-ladders and notched bamboos. Two naked men, swinging between them a long cylinder or log, flashed through the bonfire space and on into the dark below the wall.

“Pung-dongs!” bawled the captain. “Look out for the pung-dong!”

His friends were too busy firing into the crowded gloom below. Rudolph, fumbling at side-bolt and pulling trigger, felt the end of a ladder bump his forehead, saw turban and mediaeval halberd heave above him, and without time to think of firing, dashed the muzzle of his gun at the climber’s face. The shock was solid, the halberd rang on the platform, but the man vanished like a shade.

“Very neat,” growled Heywood, who in the same instant, with a great shove, managed to fling down the ladder. “Perfectly silly attack. We’ll hold ’em.”

While he spoke, however, something hurtled over their heads and thumped the platform. The queer log, or cylinder, lay there with a red coal sputtering at one end, a burning fuse. Heywood snatched at it and missed. Some one else caught up the long bulk, and springing to his feet, swung it aloft. Firelight showed the bristling moustache of Kempner, his long, thin arms poising a great bamboo case bound with rings of leather or metal. He threw it out with his utmost force, staggered as though to follow it; then, leaping back, straightened his tall body with a jerk, flung out one arm in a gesture of surprise, no sooner rigid than drooping; and even while he seemed inflated for another of his speeches, turned half-round and dove into the garden and the night. By the ending of it, he had redeemed a somewhat rancid life.

Before, the angle was alive with swarming heads. As he fell, it was empty, and the assault finished; for below, the bamboo tube burst with a sound that shook the wall; liquid flame, the Greek fire of stink-pot chemicals, squirted in jets that revealed a crowd torn asunder, saffron faces contorted in shouting, and men who leapt away with clothes afire and powder-horns bursting at their sides. Dim figures scampered off, up the rising ground.

“That’s over,” panted Heywood. “Thundering good lesson, Here, count noses. Rudie? Right-oh. Sturgeon, Teppich, Padre, Captain? Good! but look sharp, while I go inspect.” He whispered to Rudolph. “Come down, won’t you, and help me with you know.”

At the foot of the ladder, they met a man in white, with a white face in what might be the dawn, or the pallor of the late-risen moon.

“Is Hackh there?” He hailed them in a dry voice, and cleared his throat, “Where is she? Where’s my wife?”

It was here, accordingly, while Heywood stooped over a tumbled object on the ground, that Rudolph told her husband what Bertha Forrester had chosen. The words came harder than before, but at last he got rid of them. His questioner stood very still. It was like telling the news of an absent ghost to another present.

“This town was never a place,” said Gilly, with all his former steadiness, “never a place to bring a woman. And and of her age.”

All three men listened to the conflict of gongs and crackers, and to the shouting, now muffled and distant behind the knoll. All three, as it seemed to Rudolph, had consented to ignore something vile.

“That’s all I wanted to know,” said the older man, slowly. “I must get back to my post. You didn’t say, but She made no attempt to come here? Well, that’s that’s lucky. I’ll go back.”

For some time again they stood as though listening, till Heywood spoke:

“Holding your own, are you, by the water gate?”

“Oh, yes,” replied Forrester, rousing slightly. “All quiet there. No more arrows. Converts behaving splendidly. Two or three have begged for guns.”

“Give ’em this.” Heywood skipped up the ladder, to return with a rifle. “And this belt Kempner’s. Poor chap, he’ll never ask you to return them. Anything else?”

“No,” answered Gilly, taking the dead man’s weapon, and moving off into the darkness. “No, except “ He halted. “Except if we come to a pinch, and need a man for some tight place, then give me first chance. Won’t you? I could do better, now, than than you younger men. Oh, and Hackh; your efforts to-night Well, few men would have dared, and I feel immensely grateful.”

He disappeared among the orange trees, leaving Rudolph to think about such gratitude.

“Now, then,” called Heywood, and stooped to the white bundle at their feet. “Don’t stand looking. Can’t be helped. Trust old Gilly to take it like a man. Come bear a hand.”

And between them the two friends carried to the nunnery a tiresome theorist, who had acted once, and now, himself tired and limp, would offend no more by speaking.

When the dawn filled the compound with a deep blue twilight, and this in turn grew pale, the night-long menace of noise gradually faded also, like an orgy of evil spirits dispersing before cockcrow. To ears long deafened, the wide stillness had the effect of another sound, never heard before. Even when disturbed by the flutter of birds darting from top to dense green top of the orange trees, the air seemed hushed by some unholy constraint. Through the cool morning vapors, hot smoke from smouldering wreckage mounted thin and straight, toward where the pale disk of the moon dissolved in light. The convex field stood bare, except for a few overthrown scarecrows in naked yellow or dusty blue, and for a jagged strip of earthwork torn from the crest, over which the Black Dog thrust his round muzzle. In a truce of empty silence, the defenders slept by turns among the sand-bags.

The day came, and dragged by without incident. The sun blazed in the compound, swinging overhead, and slanting down through the afternoon. At the water gate, Rudolph, Heywood, and the padre, with a few forlorn Christians, driven in like sheep, at the last moment, were building a rough screen against the arrows that had flown in darkness, and that now lay scattered along the path. One of these a workman suddenly caught at, and with a grunt, held up before the padre.

The head was blunt. About the shaft, wound tightly with silk thread, ran a thin roll of Chinese paper.

Dr. Earle nodded, took the arrow, and slitting with a pocket-knife, freed and flattened out a painted scroll of complex characters. His keen old eyes ran down the columns. His face, always cloudy now, grew darker with perplexity.

“A message,” he declared slowly. “I think a serious message.” He sat down on a pile of sacks, and spread the paper on his knee. “But the characters are so elaborate I can’t make head or tail.”

He beckoned Heywood, and together they scowled at the intricate and meaningless symbols.

“All alike,” complained the younger man. “Maddening.” Then his face lighted. “No, see here lower left hand.”

The last stroke of the brush, down in the corner, formed a loose “O. W.”

“From Wutzler. Must mean something.”

For all that, the painted lines remained a stubborn puzzle.

“Something, yes. But what?” The padre pulled out a cigar, and smoking at top speed, spaced off each character with his thumb. “They are all alike, and yet” He clutched his white hair with big knuckles, and tugged; replaced his mushroom helmet; held the paper at a new focus. “Ah!” he said doubtfully; and at last, “Yes.” For some time he read to himself, nodding. “A Triad cipher.”

“Well?” resumed Heywood, patiently.

The reader pointed with his cigar.

“Take only the left half of that word, and what have you?”

“‘Lightning,’” read Heywood.

“The right half?”

“‘Boat.’”

“Take,” the padre ordered, “this one; left half?”

“‘Lightning,’” repeated his pupil. “The right half might be ‘rice-scoop,’ But that’s nonsense.”

“No,” said the padre. “You have the secret. It’s good Triad writing. Subtract this twisted character ‘Lightning’ from each, and we’ve made the crooked straight. The writer was afraid of being caught. Here’s the sense of his message, I take it.” And he read off, slowly:

“A Hakka boat on opposite shore; a green flag and a rice-scoop hoisted at her mast; light a fire on the water-gate steps, and she will come quickly, day or night. O.W.”

Heywood took the news coldly. He shook his head, and stood thinking.

“That won’t help,” he said curtly. “Never in the world.”

With the aid of a convert, he unbarred the ponderous gate, and ventured out on the highest slab of the landing-steps. Across the river, to be sure, there lay between a local junk and a stray papico from the north the high-nosed Hakka boat, her deck roofed with tawny basket-work, and at her masthead a wooden rice-measure dangling below a green rag. Aft, by the great steering-paddle, perched a man, motionless, yet seeming to watch. Heywood turned, however, and pointed downstream to where, at the bend of the river, a little spit of mud ran out from the marsh. On the spit, from among tussocks, a man in a round hat sprang up like a thin black toadstool. He waved an arm, and gave a shrill cry, summoning help from further inland. Other hats presently came bobbing toward him, low down among the marsh. Puffs of white spurted out from the mud. And as Heywood dodged back through the gate, and Nesbit’s rifle answered from his little fort on the pony-shed, the distant crack of the muskets joined with a spattering of ooze and a chipping of stone on the river-stairs.

“Covered, you see,” said Heywood, replacing the bar. “Last resort, perhaps, that way. Still, we may as well keep a bundle of firewood ready here.”

The shots from the marsh, though trivial and scattering, were like a signal; for all about the nunnery, from a ring of hiding-places, the noise of last night broke out afresh. The sun lowered through a brown, burnt haze, the night sped up from the ocean, covering the sky with sudden darkness, in which stars appeared, many and cool, above the torrid earth and the insensate turmoil. So, without change but from pause to outbreak, outbreak to pause, nights and days went by in the siege.

Nothing happened. One morning, indeed, the fragments of another blunt arrow came to light, broken underfoot and trampled into the dust. The paper scroll, in tatters, held only a few marks legible through dirt and heel-prints: “Listen work fast many bags watch closely.” And still nothing happened to explain the warning.

That night Heywood even made a sortie, and stealing from the main gate with four coolies, removed to the river certain relics that lay close under the wall, and would soon become intolerable. He had returned safely, with an ancient musket, a bag of bullets, a petroleum squirt, and a small bundle of pole-axes, and was making his tour of the defenses, when he stumbled over Rudolph, who knelt on the ground under what in old days had been the chapel, and near what now was Kempner’s grave.

He was not kneeling in devotion, for he took Heywood by the arm, and made him stoop.

“I was coming,” he said, “to find you. The first night, I saw coolies working in the clay-pit. Bend, a moment over. Put now the ear close.”

Heywood laid his cheek in the dust.

“They’re keeping such a racket outside,” he muttered; and then, half to himself: “It certainly is. Rudie, it’s it’s as if poor Kempner were waking up.” He listened again. “You’re right. They are digging.”

The two friends sat up, and eyed each other in the starlight.