"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?"
"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.
This new danger, working below in the solid earth, had thrown Rudolph into a state of sullen resignation. What was the use now, he thought indignantly, of all their watching and fighting? The ground, at any moment, might heave, break, and spring up underfoot. He waited for his friend to speak out, and put the same thought roundly into words. Instead, to his surprise, he heard something quite contrary.
"Now we know!" said Heywood, in lively satisfaction. "Now we know what the beasts have up their sleeve. That's a comfort. Rather!"
He sat thinking, a white figure in the starlight, cross-legged like a Buddha.
"That's why they've all been lying doggo," he continued. "And then their bad marksmanship, with all this sniping—they don't care, you see, whether they pot us or not. They'd rather make one clean sweep, and 'blow us at the moon.' Eh? Cheer up, Rudie: so long as they're digging, they're not blowing. Are they?"
While he spoke, the din outside the walls wavered and sank, at last giving place to a shrill, tiny interlude of insect voices. In this diluted silence came now and then a tinkle of glass from the dark hospital room where Miss Drake was groping among her vials. Heywood listened.
"If it weren't for that," he said quietly, "I shouldn't much care. Except for the women, this would really be great larks." Then, as a shadow flitted past the orange grove, he roused himself to hail: "Ah Pat! Go catchee four piecee coolie-man!"
"Can do." The shadow passed, and after a time returned with four other shadows. They stood waiting, till Heywood raised his head from the dust.
"Those noises have stopped, down there," he said to Rudolph; and rising, gave his orders briefly. The coolies were to dig, strike into the sappers' tunnel, and report at once: "Chop-chop.—Meantime, Rudie, let's take a holiday. We can smoke in the courtyard."
A solitary candle burned in the far corner of the inclosure, and cast faint streamers of reflection along the wet flags, which, sluiced with water from the well, exhaled a slight but grateful coolness. Heywood stooped above the quivering flame, lighted a cigar, and sinking loosely into a chair, blew the smoke upward in slow content.
"Luxury!" he yawned. "Nothing to do, nothing to fret about, till the compradore reports. Wonderful—too good to be true."
For a long time, lying side by side, they might have been asleep. Through the dim light on the white walls dipped and swerved the drunken shadow of a bat, who now whirled as a flake of blackness across the stars, now swooped and set the humbler flame reeling. The flutter of his leathern wings, and the plash of water in the dark, where a coolie still drenched the flags, marked the sleepy, soothing measures in a nocturne, broken at strangely regular intervals by a shot, and the crack of a bullet somewhere above in the deserted chambers.
"Queer," mused Heywood, drowsily studying his watch. "The beggar puts one shot every five minutes through the same window.—I wonder what he's thinking about? Lying out there, firing at the Red-Bristled Ghosts. Odd! Wonder what they're all"—He put back his cigar, mumbling. "Handful of poor blackguards, all upset in their minds, and sweating round. And all the rest tranquil as ever, eh?—the whole country jogging on the same old way, or asleep and dreaming dreams, perhaps, same kind of dreams they had in Marco Polo's day."
The end of his cigar burned red again; and again, except for that, he might have been asleep. Rudolph made no answer, but lay thinking. This brief moment of rest in the cool, dim courtyard—merely to lie there and wait—seemed precious above all other gain or knowledge. Some quiet influence, a subtle and profound conviction, slowly was at work in him. It was patience, wonder, steady confidence,—all three, and more. He had felt it but this once, obscurely; might die without knowing it in clearer fashion; and yet could never lose it, or forget, or come to any later harm. With it the stars, above the dim vagaries of the bat, were brightly interwoven. For the present he had only to lie ready, and wait, a single comrade in a happy army.
Through a dark little door came Miss Drake, all in white, and moving quietly, like a symbolic figure of evening, or the genius of the place. Her hair shone duskily as she bent beside the candle, and with steady fingers tilted a vial, from which amber drops fell slowly into a glass. With dark eyes watching closely, she had the air of a young, beneficent Medea, intent on some white magic.
"Aren't you coming," called Heywood, "to sit with us awhile?"
"Can't, thanks," she replied, without looking up. "I'm too busy."
"That's no excuse. Rest a little."
She moved away, carrying her medicines, but paused in the door, smiled back at him as from a crypt, and said:—
"Have you been hurt?"
"Only my feelings."
"I've no time," she laughed, "for lazy able-bodied persons." And she was gone in the darkness, to sit by her wounded men.
With her went the interval of peace; for past the well-curb came another figure, scuffing slowly toward the light. The compradore, his robes lost in their background, appeared as an oily face and a hand beckoning with downward sweep. The two friends rose, and followed him down the courtyard. In passing out, they discovered the padre's wife lying exhausted in a low chair, of which she filled half the length and all the width. Heywood paused beside her with some friendly question, to which Rudolph caught the answer.
"Oh, quite composed." Her voice sounded fretful, her fan stirred weakly. "Yes, wonderfully composed. I feel quite ready to suffer for the faith."
"Dear Mrs. Earle," said the young man, gently, "there ought to be no need. Nobody shall suffer, if we can prevent. I think we can."
Under the orange trees, he laid an unsteady hand on Rudolph's arm, and halting, shook with quiet merriment.
"Poor dear lady!" he whispered, and went forward chuckling.
Loose earth underfoot warned them not to stumble over the new-raised mound beside the pit, which yawned slightly blacker than the night. Kempner's grave had not been quieter. The compradore stood whispering: they had found the tunnel empty, because, he thought, the sappers were gone out to eat their chow.
"We'll see, anyway," said Heywood, stripping off his coat. He climbed over the mound, grasped the edges, and promptly disappeared. In the long moment which followed, the earth might have closed on him. Once, as Rudolph bent listening over the shaft, there seemed to come a faint momentary gleam; but no sound, and no further sign, until the head and shoulders burrowed up again.
"Big enough hole down there," he reported, swinging clear, and sitting with his feet in the shaft. "Regular cave. Three sacks of powder stowed already, so we're none too soon.—One sack was leaky. I struck a match, and nearly blew myself to Casabianca." He paused, as if reflecting. "It gives us a plan, though. Rudie: are you game for something rather foolhardy? Be frank, now; for if you wouldn't really enjoy it, I'll give old Gilly Forrester his chance."
"No!" said Rudolph, stung as by some perfidy. "You make me—ashamed! This is all ours, this part, so!"
"Can do," laughed the other. "Get off your jacket. Give me half a moment start, so that you won't jump on my head." And he went wriggling down into the pit.
An unwholesome smell of wet earth, a damp, subterranean coolness, enveloped Rudolph as he slid down a flue of greasy clay, and stooping, crawled into the horizontal bore of the tunnel. Large enough, perhaps, for two or three men to pass on all fours, it ran level, roughly cut, through earth wet with seepage from the river, but packed into a smooth floor by many hands and bare knees. It widened suddenly before him. In the small chamber of the mine, choked with the smell of stale betel, he bumped Heywood's elbow.
"Some Fragrant Ones have been working here, I should say." The speaker patted the ground with quick palms, groping. "Phew! They've worked like steam. This explains old Wutz, and his broken arrow. I say, Rudie, feel about. I saw a coil of fuse lying somewhere.—At least, I thought it was. Ah, never mind: have-got!" He pulled something along the floor. "How's the old forearm I gave you? I forgot that. Equal to hauling a sack out? Good! Catch hold, here."
Sweeping his hand in the darkness, he captured Rudolph's, and guided it to where a powder-bag lay.
"Now, then, carry on," he commanded; and crawling into the tunnel, flung back fragments of explanation as he tugged at his own load. "Carry these out—far as we dare—touch 'em off, you see, and block the passage. Far out as possible, though. We can use this hole afterward, for listening in, if they try—"
He cut the sentence short. Their tunnel had begun to slope gently downward, with niches gouged here and there for the passing of burden-bearers. Rudolph, toiling after, suddenly found his head entangled between his leader's boots.
"Quiet," he heard him whisper. "Somebody coming."
An instant later, the boots withdrew quickly. An odd little squeak of surprise followed, a strange gurgling, and a succession of rapid shocks, as though some one were pummeling the earthen walls.
"Got the beggar," panted Heywood. "Only one of 'em. Roll clear, Rudie, and let us pass. Collar his legs, if you can, and shove."
Squeezing past Rudolph in his niche, there struggled a convulsive bulk, like some monstrous worm, too large for the bore, yet writhing. Bare feet kicked him in violent rebellion, and a muscular knee jarred squarely under his chin. He caught a pair of naked legs, and hugged them dearly.
"Not too hard," called Heywood, with a breathless laugh. "Poor devil—must think he ran foul of a genie."
Indeed, their prisoner had already given up the conflict, and lay under them with limbs dissolved and quaking.
"Pass him along," chuckled his captor. "Make him go ahead of us."
Prodded into action, the man stirred limply, and crawled past them toward the mine, while Heywood, at his heels, growled orders in the vernacular with a voice of dismal ferocity. In this order they gained the shaft, and wriggled up like ferrets into the night air. Rudolph, standing as in a well, heard a volley of questions and a few timid answers, before the returning legs of his comrade warned him to dodge back into the tunnel.
Again the two men crept forward on their expedition; and this time the leader talked without lowering his voice.
"That chap," he declared, "was fairly chattering with fright. Coolie, it seems, who came back to find his betel-box. The rest are all outside eating their rice. We have a clear track."
They stumbled on their powder-sacks, caught hold, and dragged them, at first easily down the incline, then over a short level, then arduously up a rising grade, till the work grew heavy and hot, and breath came hard in the stifled burrow.
"Far enough," said Heywood, puffing. "Pile yours here."
Rudolph, however, was not only drenched with sweat, but fired by a new spirit, a spirit of daring. He would try, down here in the bowels of the earth, to emulate his friend.
"But let us reconnoitre," he objected. "It will bring us to the clay-pit where I saw them digging. Let us go out to the end, and look."
"Well said, old mole!" Heywood snapped his fingers with delight. "I never thought of that." By his tone, he was proud of the amendment. "Come on, by all means. I say, I didn't really—I didn't want poor old Gilly down here, you know."
They crawled on, with more speed but no less caution, up the strait little gallery, which now rose between smooth, soft walls of clay. Suddenly, as the incline once more became a level, they saw a glimmering square of dusky red, like the fluttering of a weak flame through scarlet cloth. This, while they shuffled toward it, grew higher and broader, until they lay prone in the very door of the hill,—a large, square-cut portal, deeply overhung by the edge of the clay-pit, and flanked with what seemed a bulkhead of sand-bags piled in orderly tiers. Between shadowy mounds of loose earth flickered the light of a fire, small and distant, round which wavered the inky silhouettes of men, and beyond which dimly shone a yellow face or two, a yellow fist clutched full of boiled rice like a snowball. Beyond these, in turn, gleamed other little fires, where other coolies were squatting at their supper.
"Rudie, look!" Heywood's voice trembled with joyful excitement. "Look, these bags; not sand-bags at all! It's powder, old chap, powder! Their whole supply. Wait a bit—oh, by Jove, wait a bit!"
He scurried back into the hill like a great rat, returned as quickly and swiftly, and with eager hands began to uncoil something on the clay threshold.
"Do you know enough to time a fuse?" he whispered. "Neither do I. Powder's bad, anyhow. We must guess at it. Here, quick, lend me a knife." He slashed open one of the lower sacks in the bulkhead by the door, stuffed in some kind of twisted cord, and, edging away, sat for an instant with his knife-blade gleaming in the ruddy twilight. "How long, Rudie, how long?" He smothered a groan. "Too long, or too short, spoils everything. Oh, well—here goes."
The blade moved.
"Now lie across," he ordered, "and shield the tandstickor." With a sudden fuff, the match blazed up to show his gray eyes bright and dancing, his face glossy with sweat; below, on the golden clay, the twisted, lumpy tail of the fuse, like the end of a dusty vine. Darkness followed, quick and blinding. A rosy, fitful coal sputtered, darting out short capillary lines and needles of fire.
"Cut sticks—go like the devil! If it blows up, and caves the earth on us—" Heywood ran on hands and knees, as if that were his natural way of going. Rudolph scrambled after, now urged by an ecstasy of apprehension, now clogged as by the weight of all the hill above them. If it should fall now, he thought, or now; and thus measuring as he crawled, found the tunnel endless.
When at last, however, they gained the bottom of the shaft, and were hoisted out among their coolies on the shelving mound, the evening stillness lay above and about them, undisturbed. The fuse could never have lasted all these minutes. Their whole enterprise was but labor lost. They listened, breathing short. No sound came.
"Gone out," said Heywood, gloomily. "Or else they saw it."
He climbed the bamboo scaffold, and stood looking over the wall. Rudolph perched beside him,—by the same anxious, futile instinct of curiosity, for they could see nothing but the night and the burning stars.
"Gone out. Underground again, Rudie, and try our first plan." Heywood turned to leap down. "The Sword-Pen looks to set off his mine to-morrow morning."
He clutched the wall in time to save himself, as the bamboo frame leapt underfoot. Outside, the crest of the slope ran black against a single burst of flame. The detonation came like the blow of a mallet on the ribs.
"Let him look! Let him look!" Heywood jumped to the ground, and in a pelting shower of clods, exulted:—
"He looked again, and saw it was The middle of next week!"
"Come on, brother mole. Spread the news!"
He ran off, laughing, in the wide hush of astonishment.
THE HAKKA BOAT
"Pretty fair," Captain Kneebone said. "But that ain't the end."
This grudging praise—in which, moreover, Heywood tamely acquiesced—was his only comment. On Rudolph it had singular effects: at first filling him with resentment, and almost making him suspect the little captain of jealousy; then amusing him, as chance words of no weight; but in the unreal days that followed, recurring to convince him with all the force of prompt and subtle fore-knowledge. It helped him to learn the cold, salutary lesson, that one exploit does not make a victory.
The springing of their countermine, he found, was no deliverance. It had two plain results, and no more: the crest of the high field, without, had changed its contour next morning as though a monster had bitten it; and when the day had burnt itself out in sullen darkness, there burst on all sides an attack of prolonged and furious exasperation. The fusillade now came not only from the landward sides, but from a long flotilla of boats in the river; and although these vanished at dawn, the fire never slackened, either from above the field, or from a distant wall, newly spotted with loopholes, beyond the ashes of the go-down. On the night following, the boats crept closer, and suddenly both gates resounded with the blows of battering-rams. These and later assaults were beaten off. By daylight, the nunnery walls were pitted as with small-pox; yet the little company remained untouched, except for Teppich, whose shaven head was trimmed still closer and redder by a bullet, and for Gilbert Forrester, who showed—with the grave smile of a man when fates are playful—two shots through his loose jacket.
He was the only man to smile; for the others, parched by days and sweltered by nights of battle, questioned each other with hollow eyes and sleepy voices. One at a time, in patches of hot shade, they lay tumbled for a moment of oblivion, their backs studded thickly with obstinate flies like the driven heads of nails. As thickly, in the dust, empty Mauser cartridges lay glistening.
"And I bought food," mourned the captain, chafing the untidy stubble on his cheeks, and staring gloomily down at the worthless brass. "I bought chow, when all Saigong was full o' cartridges!"
The sight of the spent ammunition at their feet gave them more trouble than the swarming flies, or the heat, or the noises tearing and splitting the heat. Even Heywood went about with a hang-dog air, speaking few words, and those more and more surly. Once he laughed, when at broad noonday a line of queer heads popped up from the earthwork on the knoll, and stuck there, tilted at odd angles, as though peering quizzically. Both his laugh, however, and his one stare of scrutiny were filled with a savage contempt,—contempt not only for the stratagem, but for himself, the situation, all things.
"Dummies—lay figures, to draw our fire. What a childish trick! Maskee!" he added, wearily "we couldn't waste a shot at 'em now even if they were real."
His grimy hearers nodded mechanically. They knew, without being told, that they should fire no more until at close quarters in some final rush.
"Only a few more rounds apiece," he continued. "Our friends outside must have run nearly as short, according to the coolie we took prisoner in the tunnel. But they'll get more supplies, he says, in a day or two. What's worse, his Generalissimo Fang expects big reinforcement, any day, from up country. He told me that a moment ago."
"Perhaps he's lying," said Captain Kneebone, drowsily.
"Wish he were," snapped Heywood. "No such luck. Too stupid."
"That case," grumbled the captain, "we'd better signal your Hakka boat, and clear out."
Again their hollow eyes questioned each other in discouragement. It was plain that he had spoken their general thought; but they were all too hot and sleepy to debate even a point of safety. Thus, in stupor or doubt, they watched another afternoon burn low by invisible degrees, like a great fire dying. Another breathless evening settled over all—at first with a dusty, copper light, widespread, as though sky and land were seen through smoked glass; another dusk, of deep, sad blue; and when this had given place to night, another mysterious lull.
Midnight drew on, and no further change had come. Prowlers, made bold by the long silence in the nunnery, came and went under the very walls of the compound. In the court, beside a candle, Ah Pat the compradore sat with a bundle of halberds and a whetstone, sharpening edge after edge, placidly, against the time when there should be no more cartridges. Heywood and Rudolph stood near the water gate, and argued with Gilbert Forrester, who would not quit his post for either of them.
"But I'm not sleepy," he repeated, with perverse, irritating serenity. "I'm not, I assure you. And that river full of their boats?—Go away."
While they reasoned and wrangled, something scraped the edge of the wall. They could barely detect a small, stealthy movement above them, as if a man, climbing, had lifted his head over the top. Suddenly, beside it, flared a surprising torch, rags burning greasily at the end of a long bamboo. The smoky, dripping flame showed no man there, but only another long bamboo, impaling what might be another ball of rags. The two poles swayed, inclined toward each other; for one incredible instant the ball, beside its glowing fellow, shone pale and took on human features. Black shadows filled the eye-sockets, and gave to the face an uncertain, cavernous look, as though it saw and pondered.
How long the apparition stayed, the three men could not tell; for even after it vanished, and the torch fell hissing in the river, they stood below the wall, dumb and sick, knowing only that they had seen the head of Wutzler.
Heywood was the first to make a sound—a broken, hypnotic sound, without emphasis or inflection, as though his lips were frozen, or the words torn from him by ventriloquy.
"We must get the women—out of here."
Afterward, when he was no longer with them, his two friends recalled that he never spoke again that night, but came and went in a kind of silent rage, ordering coolies by dumb-show, and carrying armful after armful of supplies to the water gate. He would neither pause nor answer.
The word passed, or a listless, tacit understanding, that every one must hold himself ready to go aboard so soon after daylight as the hostile boats should leave the river. "If," said Gilly to Rudolph, while they stood thinking under the stars, "if his boat is still there, now that he—after what we saw."
At dawn they could see the ragged flotilla of sampans stealing up-river on the early flood; but of the masts that huddled in vapors by the farther bank, they had no certainty until sunrise, when the green rag and the rice-measure appeared still dangling above the Hakka boat.
Even then it was not certain—as Captain Kneebone sourly pointed out—that her sailors would keep their agreement. And when he had piled, on the river-steps, the dry wood for their signal fire, a new difficulty rose. One of the wounded converts was up, and hobbling with a stick; but the other would never be ferried down any stream known to man. He lay dying, and the padre could not leave him.
All the others waited, ready and anxious; but no one grumbled because death, never punctual, now kept them waiting. The flutter of birds, among the orange trees, gradually ceased; the sun came slanting over the eastern wall; the gray floor of the compound turned white and blurred through the dancing heat. A torrid westerly breeze came fitfully, rose, died away, rose again, and made Captain Kneebone curse.
"A fair wind lost," he muttered. "Next we'll lose the ebb, too, be 'anged."
Noon passed, and mid-afternoon, before the padre came out from the courtyard, covering his white head with his ungainly helmet.
"We may go now," he said gravely, "in a few minutes."
No more were needed, for the loose clods in the old shaft of their counter-mine were quickly handled, and the necessary words soon uttered. Captain Kneebone had slipped out through the water gate, beforehand, and lighted the fire on the steps. But not one of the burial party turned his head, to watch the success or failure of their signal, so long as the padre's resonant bass continued.
When it ceased, however, they returned quickly through the little grove. The captain opened the great gate, and looked out eagerly, craning to see through the smoke that poured into his face.
"The wasters!" he cried bitterly. "She's gone."
The Hakka boat had, indeed, vanished from her moorings. On the bronze current, nothing moved but three fishing-boats drifting down, with the smoke, toward the marsh and the bend of the river, and a small junk that toiled up against wind and tide, a cluster of naked sailors tugging and shoving at her heavy sweep, which chafed its rigging of dry rope, and gave out a high, complaining note like the cry of a sea-gull.
"She's gone," repeated Captain Kneebone. "No boat for us."
But the compradore, dragging his bundle of sharp halberds, poked an inquisitive head out past the captain's, and peered on all sides through the smoke, with comical thoroughness. He dodged back, grinning and ducking amiably.
"Moh bettah look-see," he chuckled; "dat coolie come-back, he too muchee waitee, b'long one piecee foolo-man."
He was wrong. Whoever handled the Hakka boat was no fool, but by working upstream on the opposite shore, crossing above, and dropping down with the ebb, had craftily brought her along the shallow, so close beneath the river-wall, that not till now did even the little captain spy her. The high prow, the mast, now bare, and her round midships roof, bright golden-thatched with leaves of the edible bamboo, came moving quiet as some enchanted boat in a calm. The fugitives by the gate still thought themselves abandoned, when her beak, six feet in air, stole past them, and her lean boatmen, prodding the river-bed with their poles, stopped her as easily as a gondola. The yellow steersman grinned, straining at the pivot of his gigantic paddle.
"Good boy, lowdah!" called Kneebone. "Remember you in my will, too!" And the grinning lowdah nodded, as though he understood.
They had now only to pitch their supplies through the smoke, down on the loose boards of her deck. Then—Rudolph and the captain kicking the bonfire off the stairs—the whole company hurried down and safely over her gunwale: first the two women, then the few huddling converts, the white men next, the compradore still hugging his pole-axes, and last of all, Heywood, still in strange apathy, with haggard face and downcast eyes. He stumbled aboard as though drunk, his rifle askew under one arm, and in the crook of the other, Flounce, the fox-terrier, dangling, nervous and wide awake.
He looked to neither right nor left, met nobody's eye. The rest of the company crowded into the house amidships, and flung themselves down wearily in the grateful dusk, where vivid paintings and mysteries of rude carving writhed on the fir bulkheads. But Heywood, with his dog and the captain and Rudolph, sat in the hot sun, staring down at the ramshackle deck, through the gaps in which rose all the stinks of the sweating hold.
The boatmen climbed the high slant of the bow, planted their stout bamboos against their shoulders, and came slowly down, head first, like straining acrobats. As slowly, the boat began to glide past the stairs.
Thus far, though the fire lay scattered in the mud, the smoke drifted still before them and obscured their silent, headlong transaction. Now, thinning as they dropped below the corner of the wall, it left them naked to their enemies on the knoll. At the same instant, from the marsh ahead, the sentinel in the round hat sprang up again, like an instantaneous mushroom. He shouted, and waved to his fellows inland.
They had no time, however, to leave the high ground; for the whole chance of the adventure took a sudden and amazing turn.
Heywood sprang out of his stupor, and stood pointing.
"Look there!" he snarled. "Those—oh!"
He ended with a groan. The face of his friend, by torchlight above the wall, had struck him dumb. Now that he spoke, his companions saw, exposed in the field to the view of the nunnery, a white body lying on a framework as on a bier. Near the foot stood a rough sort of windlass. Above, on the crest of the field, where a band of men had begun to scramble at the sentinel's halloo, there sat on a white pony the bright-robed figure of the tall fanatic, Fang the Sword-Pen.
"He did it!" Heywood's hands opened and shut rapidly, like things out of control. "Oh, Wutz, how did they—Saint Somebody—the martyrdom— Poussin's picture in the Vatican.—I can't stand this, you chaps!"
He snatched blindly at his gun, caught instead one of the compradore's halberds, and without pause or warning, jumped out into the shallow water. He ran splashing toward the bank, turned, and seemed to waver, staring with wild eyes at the strange Tudor weapon in his hand. Then shaking it savagely,—
"This will do!" he cried. "Good-by, everybody. Good-by!"
He wheeled again, staggered to his feet on dry ground, and ran swiftly along the eastern wall, up the rising field, straight toward his mark.
Of the men on the knoll, a few fired and missed, the others, neutrals to their will, stood fixed in wonder. Four or five, as the runner neared, sprang out to intercept, but flew apart like ninepins. The watchers in the boat saw the halberd flash high in the late afternoon sun, the frightened pony swerve, and his rider go down with the one sweep of that Homeric blow.
The last they saw of Heywood, he went leaping from sight over the crest, that swarmed with figures racing and stumbling after.
The unheeded sentinel in the marsh fled, losing his great hat, as the boat drifted round the point into midstream.
THE DRAGON'S SHADOW
The lowdah would have set his dirty sails without delay, for the fair wind was already drooping; but at the first motion he found himself deposed, and a usurper in command, at the big steering-paddle. Captain Kneebone, his cheeks white and suddenly old beneath the untidy stubble of his beard, had taken charge. In momentary danger of being cut off downstream, or overtaken from above, he kept the boat waiting along the oozy shore. Puckering his eyes, he watched now the land, and now the river, silent, furtive, and keenly perplexed, his head on a swivel, as though he steered by some nightmare chart, or expected some instant and transforming sight.
Not until the sun touched the western hills, and long shadows from the bank stole out and turned the stream from bright copper to vague iron-gray, did he give over his watch. He left the tiller, with a hopeless fling of the arm.
"Do as ye please," he growled, and cast himself down on deck by the thatched house. "Go on.—I'll never see him again.—The heat, and all—By the head, he was—Go on. That's all. Finish."
He sat looking straight before him, with dull eyes that never moved; nor did he stir at the dry rustle and scrape of the matting sail, slowly hoisted above him. The quaggy banks, now darkening, slid more rapidly astern; while the steersman and his mates in the high bow invoked the wind with alternate chant, plaintive, mysterious, and half musical:—
To the listeners, huddled in silence, the familiar cry became a long, monotonous accompaniment to sad thoughts. Through the rhythm, presently, broke a sound of small-arms,—a few shots, quick but softened by distance, from far inland. The stillness of evening followed.
The captain stirred, listened, dropped his head, and sat like stone. To Rudolph, near him, the brief disturbance called up another evening—his first on this same river, when from the grassy brink, above, he had first heard of his friend. Now, at the same place, and by the same light, they had heard the last. It was intolerable: he turned his back on the captain. Inside, in the gloom of the painted cabin, the padre's wife began suddenly to cry. After a time, the deep voice of her husband, speaking very low, and to her alone, became dimly audible:—
"'All this is come upon us; yet have we not—Our heart is not turned back, neither have our steps declined—Though thou hast sore broken us in the place of dragons, and covered us with the shadow of death.'"
The little captain groaned, and rolled aside from the doorway.
"All very fine," he muttered, his head wrapped in his arms. "But that's no good to me. I can't stand it."
Whether she heard him, or by chance, Miss Drake came quietly from within, and found a place between him and the gunwale. He did not rouse; she neither glanced nor spoke, but leaned against the ribs of smooth-worn fir, as though calmly waiting.
When at last he looked up, to see her face and posture, he gave an angry start.
"And I thought," he blurted, "be 'anged if sometimes I didn't think you liked him!"
Her dark eyes met the captain's with a great and steadfast clearness.
"No," she whispered; "it was more than that."
The captain sat bolt upright, but no longer in condemnation. For a long time he watched her, marveling; and when finally he spoke, his sharp, domineering voice was lowered, almost gentle.
"Always talked too much," he said. "Don't mind me, my dear. I never meant—Don't ye mind a rough old beggar, that don't know that hasn't one thing more between him and the grave. Not a thing—but money. And that, now—I wish't was at the bottom o' this bloomin' river!"
They said no more, but rested side by side, like old friends joined closer by new grief. Flounce, the terrier, snuffing disconsolately about the deck, and scratching the boards in her zeal to explore the shallow hold, at last grew weary, and came to snuggle down between the two silent companions. Not till then did the girl turn aside her face, as though studying the shore, which now melted in a soft, half-liquid band as black as coal-tar, above the luminous indigo of the river.
Suddenly Rudolph got upon his feet, and craning outboard from gunwale and thatched eaves, looked steadily forward into the dusk. A chatter of angry voices came stealing up, in the pauses of the wind. He watched and listened, then quickly drew in his head.
"Sit quiet," he said. "A boat full of men. I do not like their looks."
Two or three of the voices hailed together, raucously. The steersman, leaning on the loom of his paddle, made neither stir nor answer. They hailed again, this time close aboard, and as it seemed, in rage. Glancing contemptuously to starboard, the lowdah made some negligent reply, about a cargo of human hair. His indifference appeared so real, that for a moment Rudolph suspected him: perhaps he had been bought over, and this meeting arranged. The thought, however, was unjust. The voices began to drop astern, and to come in louder confusion with the breeze.
But at this point Flounce, the terrier, spoiled all by whipping up beside the lowdah, and furiously barking. Hers was no pariah's yelp: she barked with spirit, in the King's English.
For answer, there came a shout, a sharp report, and a bullet that ripped through the matting sail. The steersman ducked, but clung bravely to his paddle. Men tumbled out from the cabin, rifles in hand, to join Rudolph and the captain.
Astern, dangerously near, they saw the hostile craft, small, but listed heavily with crowding ruffians, packed so close that their great wicker hats hung along the gunwale to save room, and shone dim in the obscurity like golden shields of vikings. A squat, burly fellow, shouting, jammed the yulow hard to bring her about.
"Save your fire," called Captain Kneebone. "No shots to waste. Sit tight."
As he spoke, however, an active form bounced up beside the squat man at the sweep,—a plump, muscular little barefoot woman in blue. She tore the fellow's hands away, and took command, keeping the boat's nose pointed up-river, and squalling ferocious orders to all on board.
"The Pretty Lily!" cried Rudolph. This small, nimble, capable creature could be no one but Mrs. Wu, their friend and gossip of that morning, long ago....
The squat man gave an angry shout, and turned on her to wrest away the handle. He failed, at once and for all. With great violence, yet with a neat economy of motion, the Pretty Lily took one hand from her tiller, long enough to topple him overboard with a sounding splash.
Her passengers, at so prompt and visual a joke, burst into shrill, cackling laughter. Yet more shrill, before their mood could alter, the Pretty Lily scourged them with the tongue of a humorous woman. She held her course, moreover; the two boats drifted so quickly apart that when she turned, to fling a comic farewell after the white men, they could no more than descry her face, alert and comely, and the whiteness of her teeth. Her laughing cry still rang, the overthrown leader still floundered in the water, when the picture blurred and vanished. Down the wind came her words, high, voluble, quelling all further mutiny aboard that craft of hers.
"We owe this to you." The tall padre eyed Rudolph with sudden interest, and laid his big hand on the young man's shoulder. "Did you catch what she said? You made a good friend there."
"No," answered Rudolph, and shook his head, sadly. "We owe that to—some one else."
Later, while they drifted down to meet the sea and the night, he told the story, to which all listened with profound attention, wondering at the turns of fortune, and at this last service, rendered by a friend they should see no more.
They murmured awhile, by twos and threes huddled in corners; then lay silent, exhausted in body and spirit. The river melted with the shore into a common blackness, faintly hovered over by the hot, brown, sullen evening. Unchallenged, the Hakka boat flitted past the lights of a war-junk, so close that the curved lantern-ribs flickered thin and sharp against a smoky gleam, and tawny faces wavered, thick of lip and stolid of eye, round the supper fire. A greasy, bitter smell of cooking floated after. Then no change or break in the darkness, except a dim lantern or two creeping low in a sampan, with a fragment of talk from unseen passers; until, as the stars multiplied overhead, the night of the land rolled heavily astern and away from another, wider night, the stink of the marshes failed, and by a blind sense of greater buoyancy and sea-room, the voyagers knew that they had gained the roadstead. Ahead, far off and lustrous, a new field of stars hung scarce higher than their gunwale, above the rim of the world.
The lowdah showed no light; and presently none was needed, for—as the shallows gave place to deeps—the ocean boiled with the hoary, green-gold magic of phosphorus, that heaved alongside in soft explosions of witch-fire, and sent uncertain smoky tremors playing through the darkness on deck. Rudolph, watching this tropic miracle, could make out the white figure of the captain, asleep near by, under the faint semicircle of the deck-house; and across from him, Miss Drake, still sitting upright, as though waiting, with Flounce at her side. Landward, against the last sage-green vapor of daylight, ran the dim range of the hills, in long undulations broken by sharper crests, like the finny back of leviathan basking.
Over there, thought Rudolph, beyond that black shape as beyond its guarding dragon, lay the whole mysterious and peaceful empire, with uncounted lives going on, ending, beginning, as though he, and his sore loss, and his heart vacant of all but grief, belonged to some unheard-of, alien process, to Nature's most unworthy trifling. This boatload of men and women—so huge a part of his own experience—was like the tiniest barnacle chafed from the side of that dark, serene monster.
Rudolph stared long at the hills, and as they faded, hung his head. From that dragon he had learned much; yet now all learning was but loss.
Of a sudden the girl spoke, in a clear yet guarded voice, too low to reach the sleepers.
"What are you thinking of?" she said. "Come tell me. It will be good for both of us."
Rudolph crossed silently, and stood leaning on the gunwale beside her.
"I thought only," he answered, "how much the hills looked so—as a dragon."
"How strange." The trembling phosphorus half-revealed her face, pale and still. "I was thinking of that, in a way. It reminded me of what he said, once—when we were walking together."
To their great relief, they found themselves talking of Heywood, sadly, but freely, and as it were in a sudden calm. Their friendship seemed, for the moment, a thing as long established as the dragon hills. Years afterward, Rudolph recalled her words, plainer than the fiery wonder that spread and burst round their little vessel, or the long play of heat-lightning which now, from time to time, wavered instantly along the eastern sea-line.
"You are right," she declared once. "To go on with life, even when we are alone—You will go on, I know. Bravely." And again she said: "Yes, such men as he are—a sort of Happy Warrior." And later, in her slow and level voice: "You learned something, you say. Isn't that—what I call—being invulnerable? When a man's greater than anything that happens to him—"
So they talked, their speech bare and simple, but the pauses and longer silences filled with deep understanding, solemnized by the time and the place, as though their two lonely spirits caught wisdom from the night, scope from the silent ocean, light from the flickering East.
The flashes, meanwhile, came faster and prolonged their glory, running behind a thin, dead screen of scalloped clouds, piercing the tropic sky with summer blue, and ripping out the lost horizon like a long black fibre from pulp. The two friends watched in silence, when Rudolph rose, and moved cautiously aft.
"Good-night," he whispered. "You must sleep now."
That was not, however, the reason. So long as the boiling witch-fire turned their wake to golden vapor, he could not be sure; but whenever the heat-lightning ran, and through the sere, phantasmal sail, the lookout in the bow flashed like a sharp silhouette through wire gauze,—then it seemed to Rudolph that another small black shape leapt out astern, and vanished. He stood by the lowdah, watching anxiously.
Time and again the ocean flickered into view, like the floor of a measureless cavern; and still he could not tell. But at last the lowdah also turned his head, and murmured. Their boat creaked monotonously, drifting to leeward in a riot of golden mist; yet now another creaking disturbed the night, in a different cadence. Another boat followed them, rowing fast and gaining. In a brighter flash, her black sail fluttered, unmistakable.
Rudolph reached for his gun, but waited silently. He would not call out. Some chance fisherman, it might be, or any small craft holding the same course along the coast. Still, he did not like the hurry of the sweeps, which presently groaned louder and threw up nebulous fire. The stranger's bow became an arrowhead of running gold.
And here was Flounce, ready to misbehave once more. Before he could catch her, the small white body of the terrier whipped by him, and past the steersman. This time, however, as though cowed, she began to whimper, and then maintained a long, trembling whine.
Beside Rudolph, the compradore's head bobbed up.
"Allo same she mastah come." And in his native tongue, Ah Pat grumbled something about ghosts.
A harsh voice hailed, from the boat astern; the lowdah answered; and so rapidly slid the deceptive glimmer of her bow, that before Rudolph knew whether to wake his friends, or could recover, next, from the shock and ecstasy of unbelief, a tall white figure jumped or swarmed over the side.
"By Jove, my dream!" sounded the voice of Heywood, gravely. With fingers that dripped gold, he tried to pat the bounding terrier. She flew up at him, and tumbled back, in the liveliest danger of falling overboard. "Old girl,—my dream!"
The figure rose.
"Hallo, Rudie." In a daze, Rudolph gripped the wet and shining hands, and heard the same quiet voice: "Rest all asleep, I suppose? Don't wake 'em. To-morrow will do.—Have you any money on you? Toss that fisherman—whatever you think I'm worth. He really rowed like steam, you know."
Rudolph flung his purse into the other boat. When he turned, this man restored from the sea had disappeared. But he had only stolen forward, dog in arms, to sit beside Miss Drake. So quietly had all happened, that none of the sleepers, not even the captain, was aware. Rudolph drew near the two murmuring voices.
"—Couldn't help it, honestly," said Heywood. "Can't describe, or explain. Just something—went black inside my head, you know." He paused. "No: don't recall seeing a thing, really, until I pitched away the—what happened to be in my hands. A blank, all that. Losing your head, I suppose they call it. Most extraordinary."
The girl's question recalled him from his puzzle.
"Do? Oh!" He disposed of the subject easily. "I ran, that's all.—Oh, yes, but I ran faster.—Not half so many as you'd suppose. Most of 'em were away, burning your hospital. Saw the smoke, as I ran. All gone but a handful. Hence those stuffed hats, Rudie, in the trench.—Only three of the lot could run. I merely scuttled into the next bamboo, and kept on scuttling. No: they weren't half loaded. Oh, yes, arrow in the shoulder—scratch. Of course, when it came dark, I stopped running, and made for the nearest fisherman. That's all."
"But," protested Rudolph, wondering, "we heard shots."
"Yes, I had my Webley in my belt. Fortunately. I told you: three of them could run." The speaker patted the terrier in his lap. "My dream, eh, little dog? You were the only one to know."
"No," said the girl: "I knew—all the time, that—"
Whatever she meant, Rudolph could only guess; but it was true, he thought, that she had never once spoken as though the present meeting were not possible, here or somewhere. Recalling this, he suddenly but quietly stepped away aft, to sit beside the steersman, and smile in the darkness.
The two voices flowed on. He did not listen, but watched the phosphorus welling soft and turbulent in the wake, and far off, in glimpses of the tropic light, the great Dragon weltering on the face of the waters. The shape glimmered forth, died away, like a prodigy. How ran the verse?
"Ich lieg' und besitze. Lass mich schlafen."
"And yet," thought the young man, "I have one pearl from his hoard." That girl was right: like Siegfried tempered in the grisly flood, the raw boy was turning into a man, seasoned and invulnerable.
Heywood was calling to him:—
"You must go Home with us. Do you hear? I've made a wonderful plan—with the captain's fortune! Dear old Kneebone."
A small white heap across the deck began to rise.
"How often," complained a voice blurred with sleep, "how often must I tell ye—wake me, unless the ship—chart's all—Good God!"
At the captain's cry, those who lay in darkness under the thatched roof began to mutter, to rise, and grope out into the trembling light, with sleepy cries of joy.