Read CHAPTER XII - WAH LEE’S BOSS of Bert Wilson at Panama, free online book, by J. W. Duffield, on

The next few days were crowded with incident. The city was filling up with visitors, to be present at the ceremonies attending the opening of the Canal. Many of these were celebrities known all over the world. Soldiers, admirals, diplomats, men of affairs, brushed shoulders with thousands less famous, but quite as interested in the great event so soon to take place. The boys were constantly meeting someone whom they had known in the “States”; and, in the renewal of old friendships and the making of new ones, the time flew by as though on wings.

But, underneath all the hubbub and excitement, Bert was conscious of an uneasy premonition. He tried to analyze it, and, when unsuccessful in this, attempted to throw it off. Despite all his efforts, however, it persisted. Call it clairvoyance, call it telepathy, he felt aware of impending danger. Some “coming event” was casting “its shadow before.”

Again and again the words of Allison recurred to him. Not that he believed in them. Although they had stirred him at the time with a sense of vague foreboding, he had dismissed them as the utterance of an enthusiast, who felt a deep antipathy toward the Japanese, and magnified the danger to be feared from them. Of course, it was absurd that last remark of his that at that very moment a Japanese fleet might be on its way to attack the Pacific Slope. He laughed as he thought of it, but, somehow, the laugh did not ring true.

Wah Lee had kept his word, and frequently called to see his friends. But his serenity seemed to be disturbed. He appeared troubled and distrait. At times, he acted as though he were about to tell them something, but was himself in doubt as to the value of his information, and restrained himself. His all-embracing smile was conspicuous by its absence.

“What’s bothering the old chap, I wonder,” ruminated Tom.

“Search me,” laughed Dick. “Something on his conscience, maybe. Perhaps he hasn’t burned as many joss sticks before his particular idol as he feels he ought, and the failure worries him.”

“I’m going to get right down to brass tacks, the next time he comes,” said Bert, “and get it out of him.”

But the wily Celestial baffled all efforts to “pump” him, and the matter passed from their minds.

Two days later, however, Wah Lee shuffled past Bert, as the latter was sauntering down the main street of Colon, and, apparently by accident, touched his arm in passing. Bert looked up, and, recognizing the Chinaman, started to speak to him. But the latter only gave him a swift glance from his almond eyes, and kept on, his face as stolid and inscrutable as that of a graven image. In that fleeting look, however, Bert’s quick perception recognized that Wah Lee had some object in view, and wanted to talk with him. With a heightened pulse, but still retaining an indifferent air, he followed.

At the first turning, the Chinaman passed into a side street, Bert keeping a little way in the rear. The houses grew more infrequent and soon they came to the suburbs. Still on they went, until, at last, they were in the open country, and free from observation. Then, in a remote spot, where they could see for a long distance on every side, Wah Lee stood still, and Bert ranged alongside.

“Well, Wah Lee,” he asked, curiously, “what’s the game?”

In answer, the Chinaman drew from his pocket a crumpled sheet of paper, and handed it to Bert. He took it and smoothed it out. At first, it failed to convey any impression. The drawing was a rough one, and seemed to consist of a series of lines, punctured with dots. But gradually, as Bert gazed, his training in mechanics told him that it was a plan of some large structure. There were two rectangular outlines, that were perfectly similar, like two leaves of a table. No, they were gates. And then, like a flash, it came across him. They were the gates of the Gatun Locks! There was the wavy line, to indicate the water level, and, down below these, were the ominous dots. They seemed to be meant for holes, but his knowledge of the locks told him that they had no place in its structure. What did those holes mean?

A little shaken, he looked at Wah Lee for the key to the enigma.

“Where did you get this?” he asked.

“Found it,” answered the Chinaman. “Man drop it. Man come to see my bloß. My bloß kill clanal,” Wah Lee repeated.

For a moment, Bert’s head swam, and a thousand bells seemed to ring in his ears. Then he steadied himself, and plied the Chinaman with eager questions that sought to pluck the heart out of the mystery. Wah Lee’s knowledge of English was very limited, and it took a long time and infinite patience to get from him what he knew. Gradually, he pieced the bits together, until the whole thing became clear and coherent in his mind.

By the merest accident, Wah Lee had heard enough to know that the Japanese who employed him was engaged in a plot to destroy the Canal. How or when it was to be done, he did not know. It was doubtful if he could have grasped the details, even if he had heard them, so full they were of technical matters that conveyed to him no meaning. But he knew that the plot existed, and dimly understood that this would bring pain and suffering to Bert. As far as he himself was concerned, a dozen canals might be destroyed, without affecting him in the least. But he held, the boys in strong affection for having saved his life, and he knew that he could pay his debt, at least in part, by letting them know what was brewing.

As regarded the paper, Wah Lee knew nothing, except that a white man, who spoke English, was a frequent visitor to his master, with whom he held long conferences. Only yesterday, on leaving the house after dark, he had accidentally dropped the plan, and Wah Lee, hovering near, had picked it up. A vague idea that it might be of value to Bert and prompted him to bring it to him.

This was the sum of the Chinaman’s knowledge. He simply knew that his “bloß” was engaged in some kind of a plan to kill the Canal.

But Bert must know more than this the nature of the plan, the people involved in it, the methods employed for it, the time set for its execution. Then, only, could the proper steps be taken to thwart it. How could this knowledge be obtained? Not by Wah Lee. He had accidentally stumbled upon it, and while this, of course, was an inestimable service, abler minds than his must unravel the details.

Whatever was to be done must be done quickly. Time was a factor of prime importance. Bert looked up at the sky. The sun was near its setting. Night would come on suddenly.

With the rapid resolution that was one of his chief characteristics, Bert made up his mind.

“Make tracks for home, Wah Lee,” he said. “I’m coming with you.”

The Chinaman made no demur and expressed no surprise. He led the way and Bert followed, racking his brain for the best thing to do. His plans took shape quickly. By the time they drew near the grounds, darkness had enveloped them like a blanket. He halted the Chinaman and talked to him in whispers.

He must get into the house, without being seen. Where did the talks with the white man take place? In the library. Very well. Was there any place where he, Bert, could be concealed and hear what went on?

But here the Oriental departed from his wonted calm. There was too much risk. Bert would be killed. His master had men in the house who obeyed him absolutely. If he merely lifted his finger, they would kill one man or twenty men.

But Bert was not to be deterred from his purpose. He had embarked on this venture, and, live or die, he would see it through to a finish. He cut short the protestations of the frightened Celestial and commanded him to show him the nearest way to the library.

There was no way, Wah Lee averred. The house swarmed with servants, and detection would be certain. Every window and every room in the mansion was ablaze with light. Unless he could make himself invisible, the attempt was hopeless.

Circling about the house, in the shadow of the shrubbery, Bert studied the location of the room that the Chinaman had pointed out as the library. It was on the second floor, and a broad veranda surrounded the house, about two feet beneath the window. Near by, a giant tree upreared its branches. With a parting word of caution, Bert shied up the tree with the agility of a cat. He ensconced himself firmly on a projecting branch, and peered through the heavy foliage.

The room into which he looked was a spacious one and furnished with all the sumptuousness of Eastern luxury. Exquisite tapestries draped the walls, and priceless jades and porcelains bespoke the taste as well as the wealth of the owner. Quaint weapons and suits of armor, doubtless worn at some time by a shogun or samurai ancestor gave a touch of grimness to a beauty and delicacy of ornament that might otherwise have been excessive.

At a magnificent library table of ebony, inlaid with pearl, a man was seated with his head on his hand, in an attitude of profound thought. His left hand, playing with the ivory handle of a dagger that lay on the desk, betrayed a certain restlessness, as though he were waiting for someone. From time to time he raised his head, as if listening. At last he threw himself back in his chair with a gesture of impatience, and, with unseeing eyes, looked out of the window. And now, Bert, from his leafy covert, could study his face at leisure.

It was a typical Japanese face, with the high cheekbones and slanting eyes that marked his race. But nothing could hide the proofs of breeding and culture that were revealed in every feature. It was the face of a statesman, a scholar, a warrior, a prince. The habit of command was stamped upon it, and in his eyes glowed a spirit of resolution that almost reached fanaticism. Bert felt instinctively that here was a foeman worthy of any man’s steel, a formidable enemy who would sweep away like chaff anything that stood between him and the accomplishment of his purpose.

Once or twice, Bert had seen him in Colon, a notable figure even in a town at that time filled with notables. No one seemed to know much about him. Three years ago, he had appeared in Panama and purchased a large landed estate. He had spent enormous sums in developing it, until it had become famous throughout the Isthmus for its extent and beauty. That the owner was fabulously wealthy could not be doubted. But beyond this, all was conjecture. He had no official position or diplomatic mission. No breath of suspicion had ever been attached to him of being in any sense hostile to American interests. His suavity, his courtesy, his unquestioned wealth and standing had won for him universal respect. And yet, if Bert’s suspicions proved true, the accomplished Japanese gentleman into whose eyes he was looking, was the most dangerous foe that America had in the whole wide world.

A door opened and another Japanese entered the room. He was older than the man seated at the desk, and his face was creased with the deep lines of wisdom and long experience. He might have been, and probably was, one of the “elder statesmen” that august body, that, at home and abroad, guided the destinies of the nation. He saluted ceremoniously the owner of the house, and they were soon engaged in an animated conversation.

Then a man of a different type was ushered in by an obsequious servant. He was dressed in American fashion, but his face indicated a Spanish origin. He was a Cuban who had been educated as a civil engineer in one of the scientific schools of the United States. His features were alert and intelligent, but there was a certain shiftiness in his eyes, and something about him gave an indefinable air of dissipation. He had been employed for a time in harbor work at Vera Cruz, but had killed a man in a brawl and been forced to flee the country. On the Canal, there were eighty-seven distinct nationalities engaged in the work, and, in view of the great demand for labor, he had no difficulty in securing employment, the more easily as he was an expert in his profession. He had been assigned to the Gatun section of the work, with his quarters in the city of Colon.

The Japanese secret service, in its search for a suitable tool, had become possessed of the facts regarding the murder for which the man, Ofirio, by name, was wanted by the Mexican authorities. With infinite caution and by slow degrees, they had approached and sounded him. They appealed to his fears and his avarice. As regards the first, they could betray him to his pursuers. For the second, they promised him an amount of money greater than he could expect to earn in the course of his natural life, and a safe refuge in Japan. Under the stress of these two primal emotions, he had yielded, and, for a year past, had been in the power and the pay of Namoto, the Japanese, in whose library he was at that moment standing. He it was who had dropped the paper that Wah Lee had so fortunately retrieved and which had given Bert the first hint of the appalling disaster that threatened his country.

Bert noticed the subtle something in the air of Namoto a mixture of power, disdain, and condescension as he motioned the engineer to a seat. From a stray word or two that came to him, he noted that they were talking in English, which both understood, while neither could speak the native language of the other.

And now it became imperative that Bert should hear the conference that concerned him so tremendously. From where he was, he could see perfectly, but could hear nothing but an occasional disconnected word. He must leave his safe retreat, take his life in his hands and reach the veranda that ran beneath the open window.

Silently, he removed his shoes, and, tying them together by the laces, hung them over the branch. Then he crept out on the heavy bough that reached within three feet of the porch. Holding on by his hands, he let himself down, swung back and forth once or twice to get the proper momentum, and then letting himself go, landed as lightly as a lynx upon the veranda. A moment he swayed trying to keep his nearly lost balance, while he looked anxiously to see if the conspirators had heard. They showed no sign of disturbance, however, and, with a muttered prayer of thankfulness, Bert dropped on his hands and knees and crept beneath the sill. And there, safe for the instant, with every faculty strained to its utmost, he became a fourth, if unseen, member of the group.