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Title: A Wind from the Wilderness Author: Mary Gaunt * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402381h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2014 Most recent update: July 2014 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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I HAVE to thank my friend Mrs. Lang for her severe criticism and her helpful suggestions. She has made ruthless use of the blue pencil, and her dictum that certain chapters were bad has stimulated me to fresh efforts. I gratefully acknowledge her help.
MARY HAVEN, NEW ELTHAM.
I.—ROSALIE'S STORY—A KANSU CLINIC
II.—MARTIN CONANT'S STORY—HIS UNPROFITABLE REFLECTIONS
III.—ROSALIE'S STORY—NOON PRAYER
IV.—ROSALIE'S STORY—ENTER CHUNG
V.—ROSALIE'S STORY—THE FLIGHT TO THE HILLS
VI.—ROSALIE'S STORY—THE BREAKING UP OF THE MISSION
VII.—MARTIN CONANT'S STORY—THE LOSING OF MACTAVISH
VIII.—SILAS CHAPMAN'S STORY—ORGANIZING A TOUR
IX.—ROSALIE'S STORY—THE SETTING OUT ON THE GREAT ADVENTURE
X.—MARTIN CONANT'S STORY—THE GODDESS OF MERCY
XI.—ROSALIE'S STORY—THE UNEXPLAINED TERROR
XII.—MARTIN CONANT'S STORY—THE CASTING OF LOTS
XIII.—ROSALIE'S STORY—THE MAN WHO WAS LEFT
XIV.—MARTIN CONANT'S STORY—THE PASSING OF MRS. WRIGHT
XV.—A FEW REFLECTIONS FROM STELLA CHAPMAN—TWO WOMEN AND A MAN
XVI.—ROSALIE'S STORY—CHUNG GIVES IT BEST
XVII.—ROSALIE'S STORY—THE GATHERING OF THE LAMAS
XVIII.—A FEW MORE REFLECTIONS FROM STELLA—A BUTTERFLY IN THE DESERT
XIX.—ROSALIE'S STORY—A FRIEND INDEED
XX.—MARTIN CONANT'S REFLECTIONS—AN ARTIC WILDERNESS
XXII.—ROSALIE'S STORY—ANOTHER DOCTOR
XXIII.—ROSALIE'S STORY—THE SORROW OF THE WORLD
XXIV.—MARTIN CONANT'S STORY—LONG DRAWN OUT
XXV.—STELLA CHAPMAN'S STORY—THE LAST OF KOKO NOR
XXVI.—ROSALIE'S STORY—THE EURASIAN
XXVII.—ROSALIE'S STORY—THE POWER OF LING
XXVIII.—MARTIN CONANT'S STORY—UN MARIAGE DE CONVENANCE
XXX.—ROSALIE'S STORY—THE TEMPLE OF EVERLASGING PEACE
XXXI.—MARTIN CONANT'S STORY—PHI LANG
XXXII.—STELLA'S STORY—HER JUSTIFICATIONS
XXXIII.—ROSALIE'S STORY—RAGGED ENDS
A KANSU CLINIC
"Seek Love in the pity of others' woes,
In the gentle relief of another's care,
In the darkness of night and the winter's snows,
With the naked and outcast—seek Love there."
"DEAR sir, i get the sower i by from yu for gods sake how the hell you twis weel. My man he cuss like devil to me how can sew wen weel he no twis. He holler like one clok becos sower he bruk. purty soon i send him back becos no can sew. i going to send peking for sewer quite proper.
p.s.—sin i rite yu the weel he twis rite.
p.s.s.—sin i rite you Pai Lang have burn dam sewer. wat the hell i going to do."
I felt it was unfortunate for Hop Sing. We had just negotiated the sale of the Mission's old sewing-machine to my friend Hop Sing because the mission had a new one, and an American mission is nothing if not practical. He wanted it to set up a tailor in Shou Yang, a little town thirty miles away, for Hop Sing is a man of wealth and enterprise.
He has travelled too, which is extraordinary for a Kansu man, and has been in San Francisco, and that explains why he prefers to write to me instead of to the minister. The minister, the Rev. Septimus Wright, would naturally expect a Chinaman to write to him in Chinese, and oh tell it not in Gath, but I don't believe my friend Hop Sing knows the Chinese characters any better than I do. Anyhow like a true Chinaman he saves his face.
But talk about a woman's letter having all the news in the postscript! Pai Lang in Kansu! What nonsense! The last time we heard of White Wolf he was in Hunan over 1,500 miles away. The ways of Chinamen are beyond me. Always will be I expect. That letter came in the middle of my morning clinic—the last clinic——
The fact of the matter is I want to put things down exactly as they happen and I find it mighty difficult. If you come to think of it it is always difficult to know exactly where a story does begin. I might begin in the middle of my morning clinic, but again I expect I might quite as reasonably go back to my great-grandparents. So many things want explaining. However——Before Hop Sing's letter was Martin Conant. But I'll never be able to explain Martin Conant. He's beyond me. What's wrong with him? Something I suppose.
He appears to have been at Oxford, to have taken a good degree, to have spent a year at Heidelberg to learn German, to have been in the Artillery, and yet here he is at seven and twenty a member of a little American Mission, not an Episcopal Mission by any means, a little one-horse mission run by a narrow little sect calling themselves The Brethren whose religion is the very worst thing about them. It is—I can't help saying it—the very devil. How on earth did such a conception of God ever originate in any kindly mind, for these people are tender-hearted, they are overflowing with love and pity, yet they believe in a God Who having created four hundred million people has condemned them to eternal pain—think of it, eternal, save for the sixty or seventy odd years they live upon this earth.
I know no Chinaman is ever converted. Oh yes, they are baptised and profess the faith. If I were as poor as a church mouse struggling to keep a wife and family on six dollars a year, and the average peasant in Kansu doesn't make six dollars a year, and someone offered me a nice easy billet as a Bible reader or a laundry man or something of that sort, why I'd believe in any God you chose to offer. It would only be sound business. And the Chinaman is a decent fellow too. Having taken up the Christian religion he acts up to it. But why, oh why are the missionaries, at least my particular brand of missionary, not only total abstainers but non-smokers as well? Think of the hard life the Chinese lead with so few pleasures, and this new God objects to smoking—makes a crime of it. Hang it all! why the lives of all the women and many of the men are a martyrdom already.
And this man, this strapping broad-shouldered fellow, the beau ideal of a soldier, has come out to be a missionary! And he does not believe, I know he does not. He has looked at me in a deprecating sort of way more than once when we have gone down on our knees and I've been prayed over. I don't like being prayed over. It is such shocking bad form. It makes me wince. Martin Conant gets prayed over too in his turn, and the Lord knows what he thinks about it. He takes it coolly enough. He's always rather silent, not the silence that has nothing to say but the silence that is taking in everything. He's dark, with keen grey eyes set rather deeply in his head, and when he listens to you he listens in such fashion that you end by believing you are brilliant. Again and again I've been taken in and had to pull myself together and remember that he has yet to explain himself. I, who know something of the world, cannot receive him at his own valuation as the missionaries do. Mrs. Wright says he "is not far from the Lord," but then Mrs. Wright is optimistic, she says that of me, and, goodness gracious me, no one in all this world, not even the Chinese women she preaches to, could be farther away, I hope, from her Lord than I am.
Then again I see my presence wants explaining in a mission station. I am Rosalie Grahame, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and I came to the little mission in Yang Cheng because Aunt Matty's nurse belonged to the Brethren—she's Mrs. Wright's sister, and she was always talking about the needs of the unfortunate Chinese women. They wanted medical attention, she said, and I thought it would be a good way to get some invaluable practice in surgery and also a chance to indulge that insatiable craving for adventurous travel which a small patrimony rather restricts.
At least—here I'm telling the truth—the real reason I came was because Randolph Lawson jilted me, chucked me over calmly after our wedding day had been fixed, and everybody knew and pitied me. It was awful. I'd have gone on any forlorn hope to get away, and I suppose my friends all thought the little one-horse mission at Yang Cheng something in the nature of a very forlorn hope indeed and pitied me all the more, but then I wasn't there to see their pity, so that was one score for me. The awful thing is—I lie awake at night and think of it, and I should die of shame if anyone knew—this is the second time I have been jilted. I thought I loved Willie Miller, I thought there was no one in the world like him, and I didn't mind a bit he was a duffer and never opened a book if he could help himself, and so we were secretly engaged. I'm afraid I was a little ass. I had led such a dull life in Aunt Matty's maiden household that when Willie came whispering all sorts of pretty things I swallowed them, and when he had got me to say there was no one in the world like him, he calmly cooled off, and for very shame I let him go. No one knew, at least I don't think that anyone knew, Virginia Clayton was suspiciously kind—but no, she couldn't have known. Randolph Lawson was her cousin. I met him first at her house, and I kept him at a distance for four years. All that time he courted me more or less, and it was lovely to find someone who read the same books as I did, who loved to discuss them as I did, who had the same religion—or perhaps I should say the same no religion—I felt how gorgeous it would be to go through life with so many interests in common. Virginia always said he was a little worm, but he was interesting, and—there—what's the good of writing about it? My life is finished at twenty-six. At that age I ought to be able to hope for a man's love, to have children to nestle in my arms, but how can I? No woman could possibly love three times, no decent woman. It's rather awful to have done it twice, but three times, I go hot all over when I think of such a thing! And anyhow, no one is going to fool me again. I shall treat all men as they deserve to be treated. One sees something of the way the average man treats the average woman here in China. Here the poorest peasant woman, whose life goodness knows is hard enough, has to undergo excruciating torture for at least four or five years, is always crippled, maimed and in pain, because—unless she so suffers no man will marry her.
Well, anyhow, thank God I'm spared that; I'm whole in body and mind, and I've got to make the best of things. Still, it is strange. Even old Aunt Matty, forty-one, and the dourest old maid ever anyone saw, actually found a man to love her, and it's because of that, because Phyllis appeared upon the scene, and had to have a nurse, that I am here in a Kansu clinic.
I'll never forget that morning. MacTavish was restless. MacTavish is my little black and white Japanese pug, the dearest, prettiest little man. I couldn't give him a Japanese name, so I called him by a Scottish one, as, though he is pretty nearly perfect, he lacks one thing, he has no sense of humour. Many dogs have a sense of humour, you know, but MacTavish is not one of them. He thinks too much of himself.
He loves me as no one in the world loves me, or ever has loved me. Perhaps my mother loved me, but she died when I was three months old, and I know my father cared precious little about me. I don't remember seeing him half a dozen times, but thank goodness he left me $1,000 a year, which is something to be grateful for. If your wants are not very great you can get along quite nicely on $1,000 a year, and, of course, presently I shall make a good deal more.
Well, MacTavish was restless, and kept coming off his black satin cushion in the corner, and I had to be very stern with him, and threaten him with the direst penalties if he didn't stay where he was put. The sun was streaming through the southern windows in all the blaze of glory that characterizes a North China winter. Outside it was bitter biting cold, with the thermometer away down below zero, but here inside the large room where I always saw the out-patients there was a soft warmth more in keeping with the brilliant sunshine, for labour, thank goodness—no, not thank goodness, I think it's bad—is cheap enough, and so it would have been a sin not to have such a comfort as central heating.
China ever since I arrived here has always presented itself to me as one huge sore aggravated by disease in all its most disgusting forms. The women and children waiting for me to attend to them were sitting all along one side of the room and the sunshine showed up all their dingy misery. Young girls hiding their eyes from the light, suffering all the tortures of ingrowing eyelashes; here in Yang Cheng they were so numerous I operated every Thursday; old women gasping with asthma; puling babies holding to life by the veriest thread; and sores, sores, sores, everywhere, such sores as I never saw in the West even among the poorest. They all wore quilted cotton garments, mostly old and dirty and torn; all the women who were not quite young were old, for life ages a Chinese woman quickly, and forty-five might easily pass for seventy in more favoured lands. Poor things! Poor, poor things! And I could do so little for them! All the conditions of life were against them, and yet they all tried to smile cheerfully. I believe most of them did it without an effort, for by nature they are cheerful, contented souls; and here was warmth, and I expect they hoped healing. I hoped so, too.
MacTavish, on sufferance in the corner, because I hated to leave the little chap alone, lifted up his pug nose and sniffed delicately. I was examining a woman whose mouth was closed by a huge sore, and who perforce lived by suction, and I quite agreed with MacTavish, and I told him so. It was a relief to talk to him; besides, he was the only person there who understood English.
"It is a tall smell, only it's my belief you rather like it!"
MacTavish intimated that he found life dull, and therefore it had its points, and I patted the old woman's shoulder in case she should think I was talking about her; besides, it's awful to have a mouth closed by a sore. Like the rest of them, the poor old thing had on an evil-smelling coat of quilted blue cotton, faded to dirt colour. Dirty wadding protruded here and there in patches; the top buttons were gone, and the coat open at the throat showed the unwashed neck, wrinkled and disgusting. Ah! it was horrible! But I saw such sights all day long. The old lady, poor old thing, in her anxiety, put out a claw-like hand armed with long and dirty talons, and laid it on my hand, and I caught a whiff of her foul breath, but there was desperate pleading in the little rheumy eyes—a pleading that would have gone straight to the most flinty heart. My Chinese is very colloquial at best, and sometimes I fear it is rather sketchy. I don't want to read their literature. I only want to make myself understood. I patted her shoulder, and said, "Poor old lady!" I'm sure she liked to be a Lao T'ai T'ai; "I will make you a new mouth." But to make quite sure I called up the trim little nurse beside me. "Tell her I will heal her sore, and she will have a new mouth, but she must come into the hospital for treatment."
There were three nurses, all with black hair neatly drawn back from their clean, rosy faces. I never think a woman looks really graceful without petticoats, but their dress was Chinese at its best, clean, bright, blue cotton smocks and trousers drawn tidily in at the ankle, with black satin bands, showing their neat little feet in white cotton stockings and black shoes. I don't suppose for one moment this collection of cripples leaning against the wall thought their feet were neat, for almost without exception those women, the poorest of the poor, had their feet bound in accordance with Chinese custom, and many of those feet were not more than four inches long. No wonder the room was crowded with broken bodies.
Kwang Su with an enamel ironware basin of warm water and a lump of wadding in her shapely little hand mopped softly the old woman's face, and taking her cue from me talked soothingly, but in a superior manner, which I hope isn't a copy of mine, of the delights that awaited her in the hospital, till the old woman turned and tottered back to her seat against the wall, nodding her bald head emphatically as if she were not unpleased at the prospect.
MacTavish called my attention to her but I could not agree with him. He mentioned that I ought to be pleased she was so happy, but I could only say, "I'm thankful, MacTavish, I'm not a Chinawoman. They all seem to go bald sooner or later. It's probably a sanitary measure on the part of the Almighty, though they don't take proper advantage of it. Still," and I had to beckon forward another nurse to wash my hands, "I shouldn't like to look forward to losing my hair." MacTavish is a very sympathetic listener. He understands lots of things that I could never dream of saying to the Chinese nurses or even to the missionaries. He certainly has been a godsend to me. He has taught me to be pitiful to all helpless things, even ugly old Chinese women. I know I was awfully hard before I had MacTavish.
But you've got to work while you talk in a Chinese clinic, and I sent the nurses bustling to look for the worst cases of bad feet. Bad feet in a clinic visited by Chinese women are the standing dish, and are always to be counted on. When I could spare time I made it my business to watch the nurses unwind the bandages of those presented, for I found that having abjured bound feet themselves they were apt to be a little harsh and rough with the unfortunates who suffered the pains and penalties that were the result of the binding. I have seen many feet, but one that came in this morning was as horrible as any, and that is saying a great deal. It was loathsome, disgusting. The woman, a strong young woman of five and twenty, already beginning to go bald, had her eyes screwed up in an endeavour to suppress all signs of pain, the dirty bandages, yards of them, lay on the floor, and the nurse held up for my inspection a maimed stump with the big toe protruding, the other toes were bent backwards on the sole, the heel was pressed forward to meet them, and the distance between the end of the big toe and the outside edge of the heel was barely four inches, for the sole had been pressed upwards against the instep, the bones had been crushed, the arch of the foot had been broken, and all underneath was a festering sore that smelt abominably and was one mass of pus and dirt. I didn't wonder that the patient screwed up her eyes and held her breath. I put my fingers on the thin white marble leg just below the knee. It did not pit as ordinary flesh would have done; it was, as it looked, hard as stone. Of course I was accustomed to the sight, every day feet like that came to the clinic; but the pity of it! the pity of it! Is it any wonder the Chinese seem to have paused on their path in the march of nations when they condemn their women to agony like this? Again and again I have seen it. The other foot was just as bad, and yet that woman had crawled to the hospital, and, did I allow it, would make shift to crawl back again.
"Why do they do it, Kwang Su? Why do they do it?" I asked the nurse, though it was foolishness, and I had asked her many times before.
"Before born," she said, "the men desire not a wife whose feet are unbound. The tiny feet walk into the heart."
"Damn! Damn! Damn!" I don't care if it is vulgar and unwomanly to swear. When I hear things like that I don't want to be womanly, I don't care if no man ever looks at me again. Men it seems were put into the world to make women suffer for their pleasure. Well, they've never made me suffer physically anyhow! But what's the good of thinking about all the wrongs in the world when you can't right them, can't help in the very smallest degree. All that is best—Oh damn!
I'm afraid I did not realise I was talking loudly and impressively. I felt exactly that way.
"My dear!" said a voice softly remonstrant beside me, and I looked round to see that MacTavish had again forsaken his corner and was standing on his hind legs to greet Mrs. Wright, the minister's wife.
I pointed to the crippled foot. "Isn't it enough to make anybody say 'damn.' As if there wasn't enough unpreventable misery in the world without people doing terrible things like that just to please some men, some unknown man if you please, who will only treat her as a slave. It makes me wild. Oh, wild is a poor tame mild word to express what I feel."
"Your pretty brown eyes," said Mrs. Wright, "are just flashing fire."
Well, I'm human and I like my eyes to be admired, but for once I wasn't feeling that way, so I could only tell the nurses to unwind the other foot and bring the kerosene tins. What a godsend are kerosene tins! I never valued them at their full worth till I worked in a Chinese hospital. We filled the tins with hot water and soaked the poor feet well. Of course nothing could be done till they were clean. Poor things! Poor things! To know that this case and many thousands like it are past all human help!
"My dear," said the minister's wife, "your eyes look quite soft and they're full of tears."
"You said they were flashing just now," I reminded her, turning away. Who could help tears before so much patient misery?
"That was when you were swearing," she went on in her gentle level voice—no wonder her sister made a good nurse. "You should not swear. Your own soul——"
"Oh never mind my soul. I want to kill when I look at man's handiwork in this hospital. As if there wasn't enough for these poor women to bear without adding such a cross as this. And I can do nothing—nothing."
"Come to noon-day prayer," she suggested, still fondling MacTavish and speaking with a gentle detached air.
"And what possible good will that do these women?"
"Who knows the power of prayer?" she said gently.
"You know I don't believe as you do." I hate to sail under false colours; also, as I suppose is only natural, I hate to stand aside and not do as others do. It's so uncomfortable but as I invariably after protest went to midday prayer I was always afraid they might think they had really converted me. And yet I had tried to make it clear from the very beginning to these people at Yang Cheng that I was not of them and never would be. I gave them my services because I wanted to improve my knowledge of surgery, I was not amongst them from any religious motive, or from any motive of kindness. Of course I would do a kindness, I hope, if it came in my way, but really it was not kindness that moved me. I was always determined about that, more determined than ever since Martin Conant, unexplained, has come amongst us.
He does not belong to the farmer and small tradesman class from which the rest of the missionaries are drawn. Not that he ever says anything, but anyone who knows anything at all can hear Oxford in his leisurely speech, every action bespeaks not only a cultivated mind but the fact that he is drawn from the ruling class in England, a class that has never had necessity to make shift in any way. He has always had comfort and plenty, but he hardly seems to recognise that he is as far apart from the other members of the mission as are the wide prairies of the middle West from a little orchard farm in Kent. And, indeed, in a way his kindliness does bridge the distance.
I don't know why my mind went wandering to Martin Conant while I was watching those miserable feet being washed.
Mrs. Wright had MacTavish in her arms and he was bestowing an appreciative lick upon her chin. I like him to like her, but not too much. But I was not afraid of being cut out. He came scrambling gladly into my arms when I turned round.
"Come, my dear," she went on in her gentle voice, "come to prayers. You desire quite as much as anyone that all should be well in this compound. Is there any harm in saying so?"
Put that way, of course, I knew there wasn't, and I patted her withered cheek gently.
"I'll come, then. Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. Was it Felix or Festus said that? You see I had a Biblical education once."
"You are better than you think yourself," she murmured. She always persisted in treating me as if I were an angel from heaven, and when I fell away from grace, and even indulged in strong language, anybody who lived in the same compound with Sister Luella would sooner or later indulge in strong language—mine was mild to what it might have been—she always found excuses for me. Of course, I went to noon-day prayers. I'd have done anything I could for her. So when I had given my last orders to the nurses couched in very colloquial Chinese we turned to the door.
HIS UNPROFITABLE REFLECTIONS
"My thoughts hold mortal strife:
I do detest my life."
NOTHING is ever gained by haste. Of course, on occasion a decision must be made quickly, but in that case past experience comes to one's aid, and nine times out of ten all goes well.
That is what I have thought since I can remember giving such things thought at all. And I began rather young. I remember the Gov'nor asking me if I would like to go into the Navy because Tom was going into the Artillery, and he would like to have a son in both services. I must have reached the mature age of eleven, and I wanted to go to sea, but I took a week to think about it, and to his disgust I said "No." That was mother's fault. How she, the daughter of one New England missionary and the sister of another, came to marry an English soldier, heaven only knows. It is only a little less extraordinary than the fact that she made that soldier a devoted wife. And yet she hated war in all its forms, and always, with her tender goodness, her pleasant, kindly, laughing ways, she taught that everything may be dealt with without force. She was sure of it. An unkind word was never heard in our household; I had almost said an unkind thought was never conceived. Such is the influence of a good woman. She wanted me to be a missionary, to follow in the footsteps of her brother, my uncle Irwin. In her eyes and in mine, too, he was martyr and hero. I was never tired of hearing the story of his death in a Chinese rising; he showed the people his pistol and that he could use it, and then tossed it amongst them and let them bind him and lead him away, and on his way to death they met a man badly bleeding from a wound in his thigh, and he prevailed on his captors to allow him to bind it up.
I wanted to go into the Navy, but sailors must fight when occasion arises—my father said angrily that is what they were for, to guard England—and that settled it. I would not be a sailor. Those days will stand out clear in my mind all my life. Never before had I seen the peace of our household disturbed, but that day my father was furious and my mother sad. And the storm did not blow over. Not till she died, I think, when the Gov'nor was heart-broken. It took him months to recover, and afterwards all that my mother had wished was law to him. I believe he would even have made a missionary of Tom. But Tom was not willing, and reminded him that it had always been arranged he should go into the Army, and mother had acquiesced. She had. But she had said it was because she thought the time was come when there would be no more wars, and discipline was good. The Gov'nor agreed I should be a missionary and intended I should take Orders. I intended to, too, until I was about to take my Arts degree. Then I couldn't. There must be dozens of men who start with the intention of being ordained, who before they have taken their degree see a hundred reasons why they should not.
When I broke it to the Gov'nor that I did not intend to enter the Church I expected him to be angry, and he surpassed my expectations. So I stayed for a little with Cherry, my only sister.
Cherry has married a soldier, a veritable fire-eater, but such a good fellow that almost before I knew where I was I had taken the opportunity my Oxford training gave me, and was a soldier, too. It was the line of least resistance; a man must have a career, and all my people were pleased.
For a little this carried me on, and I honestly tried to find interest and purpose in the life.
But I wasn't content. My companions and I had nothing in common. I thought them empty-headed, and they thought me an arrogant young prig. Perhaps I was. Howell, Cherry's husband, would have felt the same probably if it hadn't been for his wife. Cherry is as sweet and lovable as her mother was before her. I discussed the matter at length with her and she agreed with me—never could force and violence mend the misery of the world, but she added she liked a fight because—there she stopped. She could not tell why she liked it; any more than I could tell what I wanted for a career. I was at a loss when it came into my head that I would go and investigate the missionary life for myself. I thought I wanted to right the wrongs of the world. Young fool! What I wanted was to feel myself of some importance. I made up my mind that I would go out to China and join one of the little American missions to which my uncle had belonged. All my family objected, even Cherry, who said it was pure waste, while the Gov'nor and Tom were furious. War threatened, but I could not believe England and Germany would fight; if they did, I preferred to be out of it.
I was wrong, but it took time to make me realise it, and with a heavy heart I defied them, went across to America and gradually made my way to Yang Cheng. This occupied a year, and all the time I have been awfully worried. With my convictions, ought I to have joined up! I ask myself the question every night. I wake in the morning asking the same question. I had answered it by coming away, and I am by no means satisfied with the answer. It has brought me no peace.
After I had been at Yang Cheng three months I asked myself what the missionaries are doing. This faith that they preach—well, I can no more accept it than I could accept the doctrines of the Church of England. On the contrary, there is a dignity about the Church of England that this faith lacks. Not that they are not good and earnest and self-sacrificing. Every one of these people at Yang Cheng, not excepting Henry Maitland, who is aggressively smug, are of the very best. It is the faith they preach that disillusioned me. They are so much better than their faith. Dr. Rosalie Grahame is as self-sacrificing, and she says she has no faith at all, she only came to improve her knowledge of medicine. That makes me smile. Exactly as Sister Luella spends herself for the souls of the people to whom she ministers, so does Rosalie Grahame spend herself for their broken bodies. She has a little stand-off air that is wondrously fetching. She is tall and slender, with her head gracefully set on her shoulders, she has pretty wavy brown hair and brown eyes that always seem to be saying, "Find out a way to make me nice to you. It will be good for both of us." Her complexion is of a clear pallor and her cheeks look whiter than they really are in contrast with her vivid red lips.
But perhaps her greatest charm is her radiant smile. It lights up her whole face. When I found what a wealth of love she expends on her little dog I knew she must be very lonely. I told her so and she only laughed at me mockingly.
"I am not lonely," she said, "only I've learned the value of other affections."
I said something, I forget what, and she turned on me sharply as if she felt it her duty to tell me.
"I was engaged once," and she said it without the ghost of a smile as if it were a matter of the most desperate importance.
"And you chucked him," I said. "Poor beggar!"
She did not smile.
"I beg your pardon. He chucked me!"
"By Jove! No! I don't believe it!"
She went crimson all over. Even her white neck showing at the "V" of her sailor collar was red.
"It is true," she said defiantly, and then why she went on I don't know. "What is more, I have been engaged twice. And each time it was the man who—who—oh, why am I such a fool as to tell you this?" and she made off towards the door. For a wonder we happened to be alone in the Wrights' sitting-room and I managed to stop her.
"No, don't run away, don't, don't. Let's investigate this. Really, Dr. Grahame, really Miss Rosalie, I'm not humbugging. I would have sworn a man would have been your devoted slave for ever and a day once he had kissed——"
She looked at me furiously.
"I hate——" she began, and then she thought better of it, flung herself out of the room and banged the door behind her, and I saw her walking across the compound to the hospital with MacTavish in her arms, and she evidently got some comfort out of kissing the top of his lucky little head.
But that's an amazing story. Twice engaged and each time the man failed her. And she is one of the most attractive women I have ever met—bar none. And yet I'm not in the least in love with her. I'm not the sort of man who falls in love easily. I'm critical and I'm therefore a good judge.
No sooner had she gone out than in came the funny Chinese postman in his funny livery of blue and white, very faded blue and very dirty white, and all, including the peaked cap, about three sizes too large for him. His wildest dreams could never have given him any hope of filling it. I wonder who designed the Chinese postal uniform. It is such a travesty of things European. He brought me a letter from the Gov'nor, and that letter—stung. I felt I must go home. I was mad to go home.
And these good kind people engaged in noon-day prayer!
"Wherever you are
Work for your soul's sake,
That all the clay of you, all of the dross of you
May yield to the fire of you."
ONE thing never ceases to astonish me, and that is the amazing tolerance of these Chinese we are for ever striving to convert to our own petty little cramped ways. Can you imagine the mayor of a town in New England, for instance, presenting to a foreign and alien faith a large piece of ground for their occupation, with leave to preach the faith which he himself looked upon with mild contempt? I must confess I can't, and yet that is exactly what the elders of the little city of Yang Cheng had done to the American mission which wished to establish itself in their midst. A dozen years before I came upon the scene they had presented to Mr. Wright, for whom they had a great respect, a goodly piece of ground, and the missionaries have erected half a dozen houses, a boys' school, a girls' school, a hospital and a church. The compound has been nicely planted with trees, and on this winter's day the sunshine turned it into fairyland. Through the night there had been heavy snow, but with the dawn had come a fall in the temperature, and now at noontide overhead was a cloudless blue sky, the crisp dry air crackled with frost, and the avenue of water chestnuts, which ran the whole length of the compound from one side of the encircling wall of grey brick to the other, sparkled in a dress of white and silver. Nowhere in the world I should think is winter more glorious than in Northern China. The brilliant sun streaming through the leafless branches caught the frost blossoms, and every little twig was laden with diamonds that reflected light from a thousand facets. On the pure white ground the interlaced branches cast intricate shadows only a little blurred by the faint mist that hung like a halo round each tree. It was entrancing beyond words. Even MacTavish came under the spell and he raced along ahead of us two muffled women, and every now and then flung himself joyfully into the heaped dry snow that the careful gardener had swept up along the borders of the bricked pathways, and however unsatisfactory I found the world, I couldn't help taking pleasure in his pleasure. However sorry I am for other people's troubles I cannot help enjoying myself when the means for enjoyment comes along. I haven't decided whether it's callousness or a merciful provision of providence. It's the same with my own troubles. Twice you'd think I'd been crushed to the ground, and yet whenever it got the chance there was something in me popping up and forgetting all about the slights and enjoying itself thoroughly. It does sound hard. There are those poor women suffering the agonies of the damned, millions of them, though I can only think of the few hundreds who have come my way, and yet here I was, as usual, forgetting all about them and enjoying the lovely day. Well, I'd done the best I could for them and I suppose the lovely day was meant to be enjoyed.
I can't understand—Oh hang! Those wretched women! And even the good looks that they set such store by don't last long. They're most of them bald, and the poor unfortunates try and disguise it with a black muslin patch fitted into the horn into which the scanty hairs are gathered, or worse still, by painting the bald surface with some sticky shiny black substance, for all the world like black enamel.
"And yet they like abundant hair, though they do pluck the bride's forehead," I found myself saying aloud, for I wanted to talk to Mrs. Wright, and she never by any chance originated a conversation.
"Opening the face," said the minister, joining us; "there you've gotten the reason for the baldness, if that's what's worritin' you. The rest of the hair kinder gets discouraged and gives it up as a bad job."
The other members of the mission trooped into prayers. There was Miss Lodham, a sensible middle-aged woman, Sister Luella Lawson, who had had charge of the hospital before I came on the scene; there was that promising evangelist, the widow of Luella's brother, and her little daughter Sadie. Henry Maitland, the men's evangelist and the teacher in the boys' school, was away the other side of the city, and I was thankful. Henry Maitland I never can stand. There is something unctuous about him that displeases me. Sister Luella and Sister Ednah are a bit trying. They are both so perturbed about the souls of the heathen around, that the needs, the very crying needs of this life are in great danger of being entirely overlooked. Sister Luella is a trained nurse and a very good trained nurse when her extraordinary religion does not clash with her duties, which unluckily it very often does. How can she expect a wretched woman suffering not only the pain of bound feet but the pain of all the other physical ills it brings in its train, to be happy, because Sister Luella tells her God loves her, loves her so much that, according to Sister Luella, if she does not love Him in return He will condemn her to everlasting punishment. Oh! it's a sweet faith! So rational and reasonable! When Sister Luella is a nurse, pure and simple, I love her for her efficiency; but when she is on the religious tack—oh, Lord!
How can Martin Conant associate himself with these people? How can he? And he has been here quite a long time. I should have thought the first week would have disillusioned him.
To-day the minute I entered the sitting-room I saw that something was the matter with him. He isn't generally occupied with himself. That isn't his trouble. He is given to thinking about others, about me sometimes, though it is in a detached impersonal way. In passing I put it on record I believe I like men not to be so impersonal.
He was disturbed. As we three entered the room he came forward holding a letter in his hand, and it was evident he was deeply moved.
"Mr. Wright! I must go back! At once! To-night! Where can I get pack-mules?"
"Pack-mules," repeated the minister, who has not always been a minister, but found religion late in life, after a career which seems to have embraced many walks in life, from captain of a Yankee sealing schooner in the Behring Sea to an omnibus driver in Piccadilly; "what the howling hyenas are you spouting about?" Only occasionally when he remembers his high office does he seek words that he considers suitable to his position.
"I must go—go," repeated Mr. Conant. "Good God! I've been here too long."
Of course he has. If it were my country that was fighting, right or wrong, and Britain is certainly right, do you think I would have come away and buried myself in a Chinese mission station? No, indeed! He has taken a long while to discover where his duty lies. Listening to his troubled words we gathered that he has had a letter from Colonel Conant, his father, and the letter was written in sorrow and shame.
"I must go," he said, and to my great surprise he brought his hand down upon the table and swore aloud. I looked at him. Oh, yes, I know I swear myself, but I don't belong to the missionary trade; a missionary, especially one like Martin Conant, hasn't a right to swear.
"Oh, choke off the hot air," said the minister serenely. "What's the hurry?"
"I must go to the war. I want to join up!"
"You sorter passed up that chance I guess," said Mr. Wright, still unmoved, "when you come up here."
We were all looking at him, and I'm afraid I was laughing a little.
"You are a man of peace," Sister Luella reminded him solemnly, and I began to feel more sympathetic; "what have you to do with wars and rumours of wars? You have laid hold of the skirt of——"
Mr. Conant interrupted her. He knew what was coming, and he didn't like it.
"I tell you I must go," he said doggedly, and he addressed the minister, because I was sure he felt that if he looked at Sister Luella he would never be able to resist taking her by the shoulders and shaking her. I've felt the same way myself towards Henry Maitland. "I—must—go—to-night." And he emphasized every word.
"Bless you, don't worry," said the gentleman addressed, calmly; "if it's a scrimmage you're hankering after, you'll get it here if you hang on long enough. I've come through two risin's and three robber bands, an' the revolution, an' thinkin' on 'em sorter comforts me when I'm threatened with the Willies. Eh, Momma, don't it strike you that way?"
Mrs. Wright's little boy had died ten years ago, but she was still Momma to her husband. It used to irritate me at first. Afterwards when MacTavish had come into my possession, and I had learned to love him, I saw the pathos of it. That's the value of a little dog. Her answer was a foregone conclusion, because she always smiled gently and kindly under all circumstances, and never committed herself to words if they could be done without. She smiled now.
"But I tell you," went on Mr. Conant desperately, and he was gnawing his black moustache, and his level eyebrows met across his forehead, "it's a matter of patriotism. Every Englishman in the Empire has joined up, and I'm a shirker. I'll be branded a coward and a skulker."
"He was despised and rejected," began Sister Luella, and I could see Martin Conant prepared to abjure the Founder of the Faith as presented to him by one of His most ardent servants.
"Let's have midday prayers and talk it over afterwards," said Miss Lodham, with her sound common sense, and down she went on her knees.
"Gee whiz! I guess we'd better," said the minister. "I'm apt to lay myself open to be jolted on to a side track. We'll make it a matter of prayer. Sister Luella will open," and he, too, went down upon his knees.
I wanted to laugh. It was unkind I know, but I really did. Fancy having your martial ardour quenched in that way! I couldn't imagine any mind less attuned to midday prayer than that young man's at that moment. I expected to see him march out of the room and bang the door. But not a bit of it. By the time I was kneeling, there he was beside me, and we were both opposite the long French door looking out over the compound beautiful in its winter dress. I was wondering if he dreaded being prayed over as much as I do. It always seemed to me he must because such a procedure was so foreign to his entire upbringing.
Sister Luella began instructing the Almighty in the needs of the Tsai family. Tsai Ling, aged fifteen, had renounced her heathen name and been baptized Rosalie because I had made her eyelashes grow outwards in the way they were intended to and not inwards into her poor eyes, and now it appeared according to Luella she was troubled about the soul of her great-grandmother, Tsai Ling the elder, who is blind, and of course lame.
"Lord, Thou knowest the blindness of Thy humble servant," went on Luella earnestly. "Thou knowest the hold the heathen superstition——"
I admit the meeting of all workers for noontide prayer is a beautiful idea, but in most communities it must interfere dreadfully with the work on hand. It interfered badly with mine many a time. It was interfering now. Mr. Conant was fidgeting restlessly, and Sister Luella was dictating to the Almighty and had no intention of finishing till she had called the Deity's attention to the fact that she had done all that she could, and it was now up to Him to take a hand. I watched Martin Conant a little maliciously.
MacTavish whimpered, and I put out a restraining hand. He whimpered again, and as I drew him towards me I caught Mr. Conant's sombre eyes. But MacTavish wasn't easily quenched. He fluffed up his pretty little ears, tore himself away, put a little questioning white paw on the glass of the French window and ran back to me eagerly. The little dog was right.
Something unusual was happening at the main gate of the compound. The gatekeeper came into view, an old man in horn spectacles, and a long blue gown; then there was the jangling of mule bells, and through the archway came a gaily caparisoned white mule with bells round his neck and a big red tassel hanging down between his ears. He was in the shafts of a litter, and the arch of its wagon-like tilt just fitted under the archway of the gate. No one in the room moved save MacTavish, who made a wild dash round, and then with pretty black and white head held very high looked ostentatiously out of the window again with an air that said that he at least was on the alert and doing his duty. He took a good look as if to be sure that he was justified in his action, his front paws were wide apart and his little tip-tilted black nose was very emphatic. He was justified. And though like all Japanese pugs he is a silent dog as a rule, he rounded his little mouth and gave one full deep bark like a prolonged "O—o—o—oh!"
In came the whole litter, a big brown mule in the shafts behind, a Mongolian pony followed, and on it was a man who was manifestly a European from the crown of his grey wolf-skin cap to his riding breeches and spurred heels. Five pack-mules followed him, a small donkey and five Chinese attendants, and the whole company moved slowly along the brick pathway that ran under the fairy-like avenue, and as each animal wore a collar of bells, the jingling rang clear and loud on the frosty air.
And Luella prayed on oblivious and her voice rang in impassioned appeal. MacTavish turned to the company and gave another long-drawn protest, and Miss Lodham rose to her feet.
"Look here," she said, "if you people can pay attention to the spiritual needs of the Tsai family, I can't. I've always thought myself it was soap and water they needed most. Why! Good Heavens! Foreigners!"
MacTavish felt himself backed up and went round the company, some kneeling, some standing, with wild yelps expressive of the joy a Japanese pug always feels in the prospect of some change from the ordinary routine. Luella stopped dead and dropped her face in her hands, her sister-in-law looked at her thoughtfully, and then curiosity got the better of all other feelings and they both rose to their feet and joined the rest of us. We stood a second looking out of the window. Then I opened the door, much to MacTavish's relief, and all seizing wraps as we went, for the thermometer was far below zero, we swarmed out to meet the strangers.
The litter came to a full stop as if the white mule had made up his mind he would go no further, and a woman's head muffled to the eyes was thrust out. The foreigner—all white men in China are foreigners, irrespective of their nationality—came forward. He was big and bearded, with a fur cap like a Russian's drawn low on his forehead and a long coat of grey wolf-skin reached almost to his feet. He held out his hand in a knitted woollen glove.
"Good morning," said he, "this is the American mission at Yang Cheng?"
"Sure," said the minister coming forward with simple courtesy, "an' I'm boss." He always speaks hastily but occasionally tries to improve his language as he goes along. "I mean," he said, "I'm the Rev. Septimus Wright in charge. You are welcome. Come right in."
"Hold on a minute," said the newcomer, who looked a hard man, hard as nails, "you mayn't ante up when you realise who I am. I've been running the B.A.T. at Hein Chou. Pai Lang, White Wolf, you know, came down on the place and we've had the devil of a time getting away."
Now the Mission speak of smoking as if it were one of the seven deadly sins. As I have said, their unfortunate converts have to refrain from it and the British American Tobacco Company is their mortal enemy. Mr. Wright is not a tolerant man but he spoke simply and graciously.
"You bet your life," said he, "we'll help you if we can. But Chinese robbers are the cussedest—I mean," he added hastily, "I don't know that there is accommodation in the compound for your muleteers, but there's a very good inn just across the graveyard outside there, and for your personal servants and your wife—is it?"
"Thanks be," said the newcomer, "Mrs. Chapman. I'm Silas Chapman at your service;" and just for a moment he removed his cap showing a thick thatch of iron grey hair. He stepped up to the litter and lifted out a little bundle of furs. A pair of arms went round his neck and he stood for a moment with the woman in his arms.
"Inside," said Miss Lodham, "no good to get her feet cold," and he strode in through the open window and put her down in the nearest arm-chair.
The rest of us came crowding in after them, Mr. Conant last as if he could not tear his mind from his own affairs. He shut the door with a snap. We stood round that chair wondering, and the little figure lying back in it pushed the furs from her head, flung them open in front, showing a dress of white flowered voile, really a very unsuitable costume for travelling, held out a pair of little hands, such a pretty little pair of daintily kept hands, and burst into tears.
"Oh! Oh," she sobbed, "the relief! the relief! Three days and I thought it would never end! Oh it was hard! I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Forgive me. I know it's silly but I just can't help it."
She is very pretty. I have not seen anything so dainty since I came to the mission, and really she is a joy to look at. Even if she is only for ornament, what does it matter? I've come to the conclusion that too much of the utilitarian is almost, not quite, but almost as bad as too much of the ornamental. The four women who made up the mission are good and dear, you couldn't find better women anywhere, and Miss Lodham must have been very pretty when she was young, but not one of them gives the least attention to their personal appearance. I declare I am the only woman in the compound who tries to do her hair becomingly. They think it useless vanity, and when I looked at those women with their hair dragged straight back from their foreheads, and their shoulders enveloped in crocheted woollen shawls, pink and blue and grey and scarlet, bending over the dainty little person in unsuitable voile, I really felt that one way of worshipping the Almighty is by making the best of the looks He has given. A white voile was unsuitable for the occasion, but taken altogether Mrs. Chapman made the sweetest picture of femininity, and my heart went out to her. I understand what old women mean by saying a sight is good for sore eyes.
She is pink and white, with golden hair, with big blue eyes, dewy red lips and pearly white teeth, and there is a little quiver in her voice that goes straight to my heart. I daresay she is rather helpless, but, after all, in these modern times we are a bit overdoing the capable woman. I for one am glad occasionally to meet a woman one doesn't expect to do anything except look pretty. Martin Conant, in spite of his pre-occupation, was attracted, too. He came a little closer, and as he bent over the girl I could not help thinking what a splendid couple they made. I looked so long that that jealous little person, MacTavish, who seems to spend all his time watching his mistress, became aggrieved, and I had to take him up and fondle and soothe him. Strangely enough, the newcomer's husband, the very type of man I should have thought would have been held by such frail and delicate beauty, paid little attention to her. He is a dour, silent man, and once he had got her inside he seemed well content to leave her to others. Just like a man, wasn't it?
Miss Lodham looked at her and turned to the man. Miss Lodham loves beauty, but she always feels she must not waste time pandering to her own fancies. You can't but respect Miss Lodham, even though she does feel it her bounden duty to rule out of this life, in her enthusiasm for the life to come, much that goes to make the world delightful. Again and again she has made me furious because I feel it is so silly, and then she does something so kind and helpful I can't help loving her. After all, she is much harder on herself than on anyone else. She does try and make life good for those girls. And I wonder if anyone ever tried to make life pleasant for a Chinese girl in Yang Cheng before.
"Had any trouble?" she asked Mr. Chapman, who was shedding his furs.
"Pai Lang," he said tersely, and took off a cardigan jacket.
"Sufferin' scarecrows," said the minister, "Pai Lang ain't in these parts."
"Made us get a hustle on us last night," said Mr. Chapman as calmly as if he were not dropping a bomb in our midst.
"Comin' this way?" asked the minister.
"Eventually I should say so," said the newcomer, as if there was no more to be said.
"Well, I dunno if rescuin' missions is your strong suit," said the minister, "but you might let us know where the soldiers are."
"Given it up and gone East," was the cool answer.
Then I remembered my friend Hop Sing's letter, the letter I had paid so little attention to.
"He's got so far as Shou Yang," I said. "Hop Sing told me so, and I didn't believe him," and as Mrs. Chapman lay back with closed eyes I took her round little wrist in my hand and laid my finger on her pulse.
She looked up with such a wistful appeal in her pretty blue eyes. I didn't wonder that Martin Conant—detached Martin Conant—seemed for the moment to have forgotten his own particular trouble, but I was surprised that her husband was so casual. It must have been terribly trying fleeing in the depths of a Northern China winter before a Chinese robber. But MacTavish being put down on his own little legs again, promptly became frantically jealous and tried to take part in the proceedings by putting a gentle questioning paw on her skirts, and since that produced no result, he gathered some folds in his mouth and stood looking up defiantly.
The new young woman screamed, a delicate scream that somehow escaped being vulgar—I have always thought screaming so horrid—and kicked at the poor little chap with a neatly shod foot. MacTavish, who was always a welcome addition to any company on the mission compound, dropped the dress and barked at her in utter astonishment.
"Oh!" she cried, springing from her chair and making a little run towards Martin Conant, "it'll bite me! I know it'll bite me!"
There was a time before I had my little dog when I didn't like dogs myself, and I thought women who fussed over them were fools, so I had to forgive her. It was rather silly, of course, but her husband needn't have been so rough.
"Don't be an ass, Stella," was his contribution to her soothing.
"Stella." I have always thought of Stella as dark and rather regal, not a cuddlesome little thing, but I'll have to readjust my ideas. Anyhow, it's a pretty name.
"Oh, MacTavish!" I said. "Bad dog! How can you be so naughty? No, indeed, he won't bite you. He's really a good little dog. Come here, MacTavish, and make friends," and I picked him up and carried him towards her. Mr. Conant was putting her back in her chair again.
Her clinging hands let go of him reluctantly, and she looked anxiously at me and the little black and white dog. He was smiling amiably, for he is always at peace with the world when he is in my arms. I held him out to make friends. I didn't think anyone could resist MacTavish, but she shrank back.
"It's no good," she said apologetically. "I just can't help it. A dog gives me the shivers."
"Don't be an ass, Stella," said her husband again.
"I can't help it," she repeated. "I'm so afraid of hydrophobia in this country, and my nerves are all on edge after the awful time we've had," and she looked so attractively ashamed of herself that I had to forgive her slighting my treasure dog and trust to time to straighten things out.
"Stella," said her husband, "you let up on that yellow cur streak."
It sounded coarse, and I don't wonder that she wilted before him. He made me feel uncomfortable.
"It's all right," I said, "we'll soon show her that MacTavish is a good little dog. Did you have a very bad time?"
He answered quickly, as if he wanted to get his story in first.
"No," he said curtly, "normal."
"We did," asseverated his wife; "everything frozen hard, air cutting you like a knife if you lifted your face from your furs; inns with rooms like freezing chambers, and full of cold smoke from the k'ang fire—do you know how abominable cold smoke can be? the k'ang too hot to sit on, and the filth——"
Indeed I did know. I have been present at the undressing of many Chinese women, and I have often seen the Lawsons when they come back from an evangelistic tour among the people, and they slip out of their clothes hastily and comb their long hair carefully with a fine tooth comb. And they are sustained by the thought of their holy mission. It was hard for this girl to be subjected to such trials without the uplifting that comes to the Lawsons.
"Don't think about it any more," I advised. "What you want is rest."
"Ought to have freighted you back to 'Frisco," growled her husband unsympathetically.
Poor little thing, no wonder she looks wistful. Wasn't it just like a man? Tired of her already, I suppose.
"I told you Kansu was no place for a woman in winter, or in summer either for that matter," he went on. That is what she gets for loving her husband and sticking to him. He looked round the little company as if defying the women he saw before him to challenge his statement. We none of us did. I didn't think it was worth while and not one of the rest of them probably did consider the climate of China suitable for either man or woman. They all, with the exception of Martin Conant, belonged to the class which sees no beauty in a climate different from that in which it has been born and bred. The climate is nothing to them. They have come to China for a certain purpose—a purpose that they set before all else, and every discomfort or even every luxury is of no account weighed in the balance beside that purpose. I who don't believe in any missions save medical ones give these people all honour.
Mr. Conant seemed to have almost forgotten his own troubles in looking at the newcomer. It was natural enough. And the young woman knows she is attractive, she means to be attractive.
"Stella," said Mr. Chapman, "between the blankets is your place."
"Oh no," she begged, "when I do come in contact with some of my own kind and can exchange an idea it's too bad to send me to bed even if I am foolish and do cry more than I ought."
"Nevertheless," I said, "for exhausted nerves there is nothing like rest."
"It seems to me," said Mr. Conant, "that we're taking the matter of Pai Lang very calmly. I must get back to England and I'd like to know——"
"You bet your boots you ain't goin' to vamoose if that interestin' product Pai Lang's shakin' a leg," said the minister with conviction.
"Pooh!" said Miss Lodham hugging her grey shawl a little closer, "if we got unduly agitated over every rumour of unrest in China we might just as well make up our minds to quit right away."
"Pai Lang and his braves are darned solid fact," said Mr. Chapman. Mr. Conant interrupted him.
"Surely the missionaries," he began, and then to my dismay I caught his eye and he stopped short just as if I had said, "Do you call yourself a missionary?"—which is exactly what I thought—only I wouldn't for the world have said it to him at that moment, and the other man went on calmly. He was determined we should face it.
"Tobacco selling has its little difficulties," said he. "Not all confined to the missionary trade, but you get a pretty clear conception of your surroundings, and on the whole you hold the balance fair. White Wolf has stirred up the Society of the Elder Brethren and that means Anti-Foreign and Anti-Christian feeling in the country, and that means——"
"The President," began the minister, "banks on Christianity——"
The other looked at him.
"In Peking," said he. "Pai Lang's top dog here."
"We missionaries when we come out," said the minister simply, "go nap on it. We aren't supposed to go duckin' an' dodgin' an' side steppin' to save our miserable skins."
"It's a bit rough on you," said the trader. "Got a telegraph?"
"At Lan Chou. Six days away."
"About as useful as if it were in London. Thank you. Let's think of something else."
I couldn't help watching the new young woman. She said nothing, but one couldn't help feeling she was still in the middle of the picture. Every action seemed to proclaim, "Think of me. Do something for me. I am worth thinking about." That is the effect she has on me and I think on Mr. Conant too. You have to take her into consideration. She is such a helpless little thing to face all the horrors of a Chinese rebellion, and for me it does not take away her charm that she is quite aware of it. There is no doubt you get tired of women who are content to efface themselves eternally and put first some impersonal Lord whom you don't in the least realise. There is just the faintest touch of selfishness, a pleasant selfishness, about Stella Chapman which is quite refreshing. I should have thought that to every man she would have been irresistible, and yet her husband was looking at her with something like distaste. Before she was married Aunt Matty declared all men tired of a woman who belonged to them, and here was a case in point, for she is sweet and attractive and you'd have thought that at this time in especial he would have been tender. It is very evident he does not value the thing he has won.
The minister took his wife's hand and patted it.
"I thought the Lord was playing it mighty low down on us," he said, "when he took our little Jimmy, but it's a dead cert He allus romps in a winner."
I did want to smile. I had to remind myself that Septimus Wright does a good and helpful work among the Chinese, but I couldn't help looking at Mr. Conant. I'm quite sure he at least must have been feeling there is a good deal to be said for the dignified reserve of the Episcopal Church. They say every man has the God he deserves, so I suppose every man serves the Church that appeals to him most. This Church always makes me squirm.
"Nevertheless," said Miss Lodham, with her sound common sense, "I see no reason for not having dinner. I've been twice as near to robber bands at least ten times in the last fifteen years, and the bands never eventuated."
"This band," said Mr. Chapman, and he spoke as if stating a fact, "is going to eventuate. The elders at Hsin Chou have fled West and everybody's taking a hand at looting——"
"I know," said the minister, "reg'ler festive splurge."
Mr. Chapman nodded. "Too hot for me. At Ba Chuang my wife saw two dead men. I saw ten and we got out."
"Lightning conductor tour," suggested the minister, and again he nodded.
"All the more reason," said Miss Lodham, "that we should have dinner. I've run away before now and regretted the dinner I might have had."
Stella Chapman wrung her hands.
"How can you? How can you? Who could possibly eat?"
"Oh for God's sake, Stella," said her husband roughly, "Shut up."
Brutal of him.
"You must eat, you know," I said, "we can't afford to spoil that pretty complexion. It's a rarity in China. See, here's MacTavish asking you to cheer up. We're not going to let anything harm you if we can help it."
"You come to your room, my dear, and wash," said Mrs. Wright kindly.
"I'm frightened," she said shrinking up against me. "I'm frightened. You don't know what it's like on those roads."
"Now, my girl," said her husband, "you ought to be content. You've shaken up the mission."
She looked at him, rose up and put two trembling hands on my shoulders. I'm not very fond of being touched but I put my arm round her.
"She wants a little care," I said very distinctly, looking her husband straight in the face. He is rather good-looking, and strange to say the eyes he turned on me were certainly kind.
"Don't let her impose on you," he said in quite a friendly fashion. "You see I'm up to these little stunts. Now then, Stella, get it off your chest. What is it you want?"
"Who hath known the pain, the old pain of earth,
Or all the travail of the sea,
The many ways and waves, the birth
Fruitless, the labour nothing worth?
Who hath known, who knoweth, O gods? not we."
STELLA CHAPMAN dropped her head on to my shoulder, and, though I do detest public embraces, I couldn't repulse her. She had just come off a long journey in a litter, but she was so soft and warm and she smelt of violets, and she came to me so confidingly, as if she knew I would help her, that I wondered still more what made her husband so harsh with her. I suppose Aunt Matty was right, though she recanted quite angrily after she had married the professor; men do get tired of the most adorable woman. Well, it will be no hardship to stand alone.
"I want Chung," said Mrs. Chapman in a whisper, still with her head on my shoulder. Phyllis always asked for candy that way.
"Have you any objection?" said Mr. Chapman looking round. "Chung can always find all the things my wife has lost."
She lifted up her head then. Her hair on my shoulder was like spun silk.
"I haven't anything to lose," she protested with a pout.
He said nothing, only looked at her scornfully.
"But where is Chung?" I asked. He was much more civil to me. I couldn't help liking him when he turned to me, and yet on principle I hate a man who can't be civil to his wife.
"Sent him into the city," he said, and then, as if reluctant as he was to open his mouth, he felt that some explanation was due, he added, "He might find out how the land lies."
"If Chung's even an ordinary sort of a cuss," said the minister, "he could run round a little one-horse place like this in two shakes of a donkey's tail, an' if he ain't likin' what he's piped off I guess he's now makin' preparations——"
As he spoke, the door that led into the kitchen opened and Chung himself stepped into the room. He had divested himself of his outdoor wraps—in fact, he was very much indoor, for his head was freshly shaven, his pigtail was newly oiled, a neat little fringe stood up on end like a minute halo just where the hair and the newly shaved part met, and in front of his long, clean blue gown—a tribute to the warm house—was stuck a little fan of yellow paper. He took it out as he entered, and with his head on one side delicately fluttered it. The mission servants are dull, stolid peasants. This man looked as if he had stepped out of comic opera.
"Chung," said his mistress, raising her head, "wanchee shoe."
"By em by," said Chung serenely, "in bottom side litter," and by way of showing how truly amiably inclined he was, he stooped and picked one of MacTavish's white hairs from the front of my dress.
I couldn't help smiling.
"Never mind the dog's hairs," I said.
"Fezzers," he said emphatically and picked off another.
"I think not," I said. He was so extremely solemn about it. "My little dog's hairs."
"Fezzers," he said again, with a little flicker of his fan. "Missee have hairs, dogs and cats has fezzers."
"Oh, never mind whether they have hairs or feathers," said his mistress impatiently, "wanchee shoe, wanchee brush, wanchee clean dress."
"Bottom side mule litter," murmured Chung indifferently. "What the hell you stop here for? Pai Lang loot eastern suburb."
"No," said the minister, and "No," said Mr. Chapman, while the rest of us looked at one another.
"Mr. Maitland friend of yours?" asked Chung casually.
"Sure," said the minister, "but how does Henry Maitland butt in?"
"Oh, he no butt in," said Chung, throwing back his head and swinging his long pigtail from one shoulder to the other while he fanned himself delicately. "He dead." Clearly a foreigner more or less was nothing to him.
Awful things come to one, I find, so quietly, so unexpectedly. This man spoke exactly, and with quite as little emotion as if he had announced that he had broken a plate, and for the moment I hardly realised what had happened. Something inside me kept repeating "Henry Maitland is dead. Henry Maitland is dead, and you always thought him unctuous and horrid."
"He can't know anything about it," said Mr. Conant, and you can't think what a relief it was to hear him. "He's only just come."
Mr. Chapman lifted his hand quietly and I felt as if my heart had stopped beating. He thought Chung was right then.
"You bet," said that gentleman answering for himself, and he fluttered his fan at the company. "He dead. Got no head."
And we said nothing. Involuntarily we drew closer together, and then Stella Chapman who had stood forward for a moment turned round and clutched me again. A man had died. I could not have shown any emotion to save my life, but I think it was a relief that she did. I wonder if my medical training has made me a little callous. Under no circumstances can I fancy myself making a fuss, and yet I was glad she was paying this tribute to a man she had never seen. There was danger, too.
Her husband turned on her almost savagely.
"You keep that low bred yellow-livered cur streak in check," he said.
She shrank against me and I could only hold her closer and look at him. Would he be angry with her if danger threatened? I hated him for being angry, and yet it gave me confidence. Poor little MacTavish was jealous because someone had taken his place, and he began scraping my dress with his little white paw in order to draw my attention to the fact that I was forgetting him. It was foolish for two strong young women to stand clinging together, so I put Stella Chapman gently down into the easy chair and picked him up.
"There, there, dear," I was saying, exactly as if she had been little Phyllis. "We'll take care of you, I must take up my poor little MacTavish. I shouldn't like him to think his mistress neglected him now."
It was the simple truth.
"How can you? A dog!" and she spoke quite reproachfully.
Well, I suppose she did not understand. There was a time when I would have laughed at the idea of anyone finding comfort in a little dog or considering the dog had any feelings at all. But were we really facing death? I had never thought it would be like this.
"I've heard bluffs like that before," said the minister, putting his hand on Chung's shoulder, "Are you sure Henry's got the call?"
"He dead—bet your life—dead as skinned cat—got no head—shaved off one clean cut," and he returned the minister's familiarity by making a ghastly motion with his hands under his chin. It was graphic, horrible.
Something cold seemed applied to my back; my hands were like ice, and I was glad to hold my little dog close. The minister was holding his wife's hand. Sister Ednah was clasping her child in her arms, but Mr. Chapman made no motion to come near his wife, and she, evidently desperately in need of some strong arm to lean upon, clutched piteously at my skirts. I managed to free one arm and put it round her shoulders. I'd rather have kept it round MacTavish, but I was sorry for her.
"Don't be frightened," I said. But it seemed there was a good deal of which to be frightened.
"Oh, buck up, Stella," said her husband, and there was a contemptuous ring in his voice. "If this young lady can be so plucky——"
Me! Plucky! Well, I was glad it struck him that way.
"If poor Henry Maitland is gone," began Miss Lodham, and I remembered she was the one amongst us who had refused to believe in danger.
"Damn sure thing," asserted Chung with conviction.
"The fifty school girls are——"
"Damn good invite," again remarked the same gentleman, not with meaning, but just as if he were stating a fact that must be plain to all of us.
Poor Miss Lodham! She had done so much for that school! All her waking hours were filled with thoughts of it. Now she just stared at him and then dropped to a seat with her arms straight down beside her and her hands hanging palms upwards. It was a simple confession of failure. Mr. Conant stepped across and laid a hand on her shoulder. He looked as if he were about to speak, but he did not. They were all taking it so quietly. And we were over a thousand miles from Peking, and there was no help nearer.
"What can we do?" asked Sister Luella. "Lord! what can we do?"
Tragedy was walking in our midst, and yet I kept saying to myself, "So far have I come, and what next? What next?"
Mrs. Wright answered me.
"We can pray to the good God," she said simply.
I managed to shake off the curious numbness that had settled upon me and said, "I think we'd better pray while we work then. If Pai Lang is in the eastern suburb there isn't much time. We'd better make for the hills. In a farm-house or a cave——"
"I lift up mine eyes to the hills," said the minister, "whence cometh my help." I think the quotation comforted him.
"In December," said Mr. Chapman, and the two words meant a great deal. Perhaps he felt it himself, for he added hastily, "I haven't got a better offer. Pai Lang holds a full house as far as I'm concerned."
"What about ponies?" asked Martin Conant, with his hand still on Miss Lodham's shoulder, and he shot an encouraging look at me.
"Nary a one between here and Mongolia," said the minister. "It's shanks' mare for us, you bet."
"But," protested Mrs. Chapman, and there was shrinking in her tones, "I simply can't walk."
He flicked his fingers just as if it were all one to him, and Miss Lodham sat up, her hands on the table, and spoke deliberately.
"There are twenty girls at least here I can't send to their people even if I can arrange for the safety of the others. We can't take twenty girls into the hills."
If you only knew Chinese schoolgirls! A more irresponsible crowd it would be impossible to imagine. The maddest, naughtiest schoolgirl in America is staid and solemn and reliable beside the best of them. Even under the circumstances I couldn't help smiling. There is no sense in a Chinese schoolgirl, at least, not in far west Kansu. Nobody else said anything, so I did.
"We certainly can't," I said.
"Then, of course," said the schoolmistress, "I shall stay. I can't very well leave these girls."
"But how on earth can your staying help them?" asked Mr Conant.
Our only salvation seemed to lie in getting away.
"I undertook their care," said Miss Lodham, and she spoke quite simply, and something of peace came into her troubled face. "No, I can't go. I guess I've gotten my place."
Martin Conant looked round as if questioning each person in turn.
"Sally," said the minister, "I take it we ain't doin' a get away leavin' Chrissie Lodham to hustle for herself."
His wife smiled and clasped his arm. "God is good," she said, and it seemed to be answer enough for him and Miss Lodham; though making every allowance I don't see how it applied.
"Oh, you go," she urged, "you go. But you see I must stay."
"No. I guess we'll stop. We can't have the congregation chantin' 'O ye of little faith'!"
"Out of the depths! Oh Lord! Out of the depths!" cried Luella Lawson. "Shall we put from our lips the cup He has set us to drink?"
Sister Ednah paused a moment. I remembered, as we do remember things, as if two things were going on at once in my mind, that once she had said to me, that whenever she looked at little Sadie she said to herself, "How could the martyrs rejoice!" I suppose she was saying it now and thinking how wicked she was.
"My little girl! My Sadie!" she cried pitifully, and her poor plain face was all white and strained. And then she made up her mind, "Amen! Amen!" she said soberly. "And Lang Hsu needs me," she added practically.
That was the worst of it. Lang Hsu needed me a great deal more. Sister Ednah was thinking about her soul. I don't know if she had a soul; it really, when you knew Lang Hsu, seemed improbable, but her poor broken body certainly needed the attention I could give it. She would suffer agony if she were not attended to every few hours, but it made me shiver all over to think of staying. Martin Conant looked at me and then his eyes wandered to Stella Chapman, who was leaning forward moaning a little.
Of my own free will I had come to look after the women in the hospital. I had promised Lang Hsu and another woman if they would let me operate, I would look after them and care for them, and if I deserted them when they needed me most—— Those two would certainly die if I left them now. I hadn't ever promised to risk my life—but if those two women died in agony because I—and then I heard my own voice just pitched a little high saying:
"Since you're all so faithful, I'll stay, too. I haven't your religion, but Lang Hsu and that other woman must be attended to or they'll die, and I shouldn't like to have their deaths on my conscience. It might be worse than dying myself."
They all looked at me so gravely that I went on perhaps a little flippantly, "Without troubling at all about the Lord, we'll stick to our job, won't we, MacTavish," and MacTavish turned his pretty little head and looked round the company and then back at his missis as if saying that whatever she chose to do had his heartiest approval.
Suddenly Mrs. Wright left her husband and crossing to me kissed me. It took me by surprise, for Mrs. Wright is undemonstrative.
"A wind from the wilderness," she said. "My dear, you are only blind. The Lord is walking close beside you. If you only lean you will feel His sheltering arm."
Goodness knows never did I need sheltering more.
"It's a simple matter of decency," I said, a little uncomfortably. "If you can look after your jobs I can surely look after mine."
"By gum!" said Chung, with a flourish of his fan.
"Get your guns," said Mr. Chapman tersely.
"There isn't even a popgun," said Martin Conant.
"If Pai Lang blows in here," said the minister, "I guess we'll be directed how to deal with him"—I rather thought it was he who would deal with us—"but ours is a peace stunt, an' it's just as well. If we had guns I'd be some worried keepin' my claws off 'em."
"Then," said Mr. Chapman thoughtfully, "it's scoot. And no litter."
"Crikey, Jim!" said Chung, with feeling. "Missie go for die for sure. He mighty beastly cold in hills."
I heard a sob and saw Stella Chapman looking up at me with pitiful eyes.
"Why can't we keep the litter?" she asked as a child might have done.
The litter was there in the snow, its tilt a little rakishly on one side.
"Because," said her husband quite coolly, "those muleteers only undertook to bring us to Ba Chuang, and it was only at the point of the pistol I made them come on here. Now they're being absorbed inconspicuously into the population. I don't know that I blame them."
"Oh, but you'll come with us," she said, and I don't know whether she was appealing to Mr. Conant or me. She was certainly not thinking of Silas Chapman.
"Dear," I said, "I can't possibly come with you. You must see I can't leave these women."
"I don't see why not," she said with wide open innocent eyes. "They're only Chinese and they're among their own people. Oh, you must come. And you'll come," and she turned beseechingly to Mr. Conant, "then we'll be all right."
He looked at her and then at me and then round at the others as if he were debating where his duty lay. Only a quarter of an hour ago—it seemed years and years, ages—he had been keen to set out for England.
"If the others are staying my place is here; but I can help you a little on your way."
"By gum!" said Chung, again fluttering his fan, and it was as if he were weighing us up, and was a little surprised. I wonder what he had thought we would do.
I looked at the woman sitting all crouched up in the chair in which I had put her. So did her husband.
"Scoot, Stella," said he. "Scoot's the word. You'll have to do it on your own little flat feet."
She looked forlorn enough, but she rose obediently. She made me feel capable. A little of the benumbing fear slipped from me. You haven't time to be afraid when you're busy.
"Come along," I said as cheerfully as I could, "and I'll help you. MacTavish and I'll go across to the dispensary and put up a few trifles that may be useful," and I helped her to her feet.
She came reluctantly. Evidently she didn't like trusting herself to a woman.
"I can't walk," she complained. "I feel as if weights were hanging on my feet. Chung! Chung!"
Chung pranced forward, head on one side, fluttering his fan.
"No good, Missie, no good for my! My makee die in hills," and having expressed his opinion thus tersely on the hopelessness of the situation, like a true Chinaman, he went backwards, only he danced where an ordinary servant would have walked till he reached the door. It was opened from behind by unseen hands, and with his head still on one side insinuatingly and his little yellow fan still fluttering, he was swallowed up, and the door softly closed behind him.
Mrs. Chapman looked on in dismay.
"And I've always heard Chinese servants are so faithful," she said, and there was real surprise in her tones.
"My girl," said her husband, "Chung's had experience of you with a litter, and he funks it without. I can hardly blame him. Now, young lady," he turned to me, "if you can help us——" and his voice was pleasant and kindly.
Why on earth couldn't he speak to his wife as he spoke to me?
THE FLIGHT TO THE HILLS
"Far are those tranquil hills
Dyed with fair evening's rose
On urgent secret errand bent
A traveller goes."
MR. CONANT and I helped a couple of the mission servants to carry the Chapmans' things to the hills, but, of course, we could not take a quarter of what they had on the mules. Mrs. Chapman prepared for the road was sweet. Her hood of white Mongolian cat-skin suited her pretty blue eyes and her rosebud mouth with the gleam of pearly teeth. She evidently thought more of Mr. Conant's power to help her than of mine. Her attitude towards the rest of us was that of a child to its guardians. She spoke as if because of our greater strength the same danger did not threaten us, as if she only needed pity.
"I've been telling Silas," said she with a little watery smile, "I won't be any more trouble than I can possibly help, but I'm not accustomed to walking on rough roads like this."
The roads are certainly terrible. We came through the western suburb of the town, and the little street was mud-trampled and trodden and churned by the passing of men and beasts bearing burdens, and when it had become thoroughly impassable it had frozen hard. It was weary walking even for me in a pair of stout leather boots which reached to the bottom of my utilitarian skirts half-way to my knee. Mrs. Chapman's skirts were fairly short, but she had on thin silk stockings and high-heeled shoes with paste buckles, very dainty and pretty, but extremely unsuitable for the work in hand.
"This arduous life is not at all suited to your style, is it?" said Mr. Conant, and his voice, to my surprise, was unsympathetic.
Her husband did not take the faintest notice of her, so we each gave her an arm and trudged her along through the frost-bound streets with the houses on either hand hermetically sealed and apparently empty.
But those houses were not empty. I knew they were full of people withdrawing themselves from contact with the foreigner and all his ways. I have spent close on two years in the country, and it is not likely this sinister development would be lost upon us. Ordinarily they would all run out to lay their ailments before me and see if they could not get a little cheap advice. True it only cost them one cash at the hospital, and not that if they took the trouble to prove they had not got it, but still in Kansu a cash is a cash, and if they thought they could get advice for nothing on the spot they had always tried for it. Therefore this drawing away was suspicious, and I had to set my teeth and try to act up to the advice I was so free with for the benefit of Stella Chapman. MacTavish trotted along cheerfully ahead as if the whole expedition had been got up for his benefit, and Stella stumbled along between us until she gave a sharp cry, and if we hadn't held her would have fallen. Her husband went stolidly on, but to be sure his hands were full.
Luckily it was a contingency I had foreseen, and I dropped the bundle I was carrying, and putting my hand on her shoulder managed to seat her on the snowy step of a shut-up house, a high stone step with two little carved lions standing up on each side of it. She looked as if she were going to resent my masterfulness, and I must admit, though I was sorry for her, I wanted to shake her, for time was precious. I drew from my pocket my trump card, a stout pair of woollen stockings and a pair of quilted slippers, such as are worn by the Chinese women who have unbound their feet.
But my trump card, I regret to say, was not appreciated, though how she would have got on without it heaven only knows.
Even at that moment she made a wry face.
"Stella, don't be a damned ass," said her husband harshly, and I melted before his wrath. "Take off those silly shoes."
An abominable way to address a wife, even though it was senseless waste of time discussing different sorts of shoes in the midst of those silent, sinister watching houses. And Mr. Conant was actually smiling as if he held the key to this man's conduct. I could have smacked all three with joy.
"I know you're kind," said she plaintively, as I hastily pulled on the stout stockings, "very kind. I know it's silly to have such aggravating flesh, but that wool, even through the silk——"
"March!" said Mr. Conant. It was his only contribution towards the situation. I scrambled to my feet and picked up her bundle, and she, too, got up and slipped a coaxing hand under my arm.
"You're not cross, are you?" she said.
I know I don't make allowances enough. A woman once told me, and she was fond of me, too, that I was hard, that I would be kind enough in a real trouble, but had no sympathy for fancies. I don't believe I have. It does seem so stupid to make trouble.
We who had eyes to see saw enough to worry us on that road.
On either side were now stalls with merchandise upon them, the mean little stalls of a poor little suburb of a small town, but such as they were they were the sole possessions of the people. Every stall we passed was mysteriously empty, though in the distance we had seen the owner and his men busy about it. And they were canny, those small Eastern shopkeepers. They did not leave the stalls bare, they just left a little of the poorest of the stock spread out as advantageously as possible. A bundle of the thinnest cotton of a rich dark blue shade artistically draped a stall given over to the sale of cottons, as if the owner were making the very best of his wares, thirty cents' worth of coarsest household crockery was displayed ostentatiously on another stall; the butcher had the well-picked backbone of a mule hung from the rafters, and the leg of a very lean dog on his boards; but the money-changer had the best of it, for where thirteen hundred cash go to the Mexican dollar, quite a big show can be made with the coin of the country in neat little piles, though the aggregate does not reach half a dollar in value.
But for once there was no desire on the part of perhaps the poorest population in the world to earn a little money. No one came near us. Mr. Conant commented on it.
"I thought we'd certainly get someone to help with the loads here," he said, as a rickety door closed in the back of a money-changer's stall, leaving at least a dollar's worth of cash entirely at our mercy.
"Bad," said Mr. Chapman beneath his breath, and he thought I did not hear.
"What can we——" began Mr. Conant, but the other man threw up his head and said "Damn!" as if the matter were beyond discussion.
When we had passed through the western suburb I looked back. The walls of the town stood up grey and square against the eastern skyline. At the north and south the neatly rounded corners were topped by little turrets with roofs with curled-up eaves, and in the very centre stood the many-roofed gatehouse and the westering sun caught a glint of gorgeous gold and red in it. The ground fell away from where we stood and then rose again towards the city, so that all that was graceful and picturesque and beautiful showed up in the afternoon light, while the mean little suburb lay half-hidden in the hollow between, but even it and all the fields round were covered by the glittering white snow. All the shabbiness of the miserable hovels by which we had passed were mercifully veiled in this soft and tender mantle. Not that we had any time for looking back; ahead of us were the hills, and here, just where the pathway passed by the last humble dwelling-place, the couple of mission servants who had been carrying some of the Chapmans' things had laid down their burdens.
They turned to me as the one who would understand them best, and they said very humbly, but with a note of determination in their voices, that their work needed them at the mission station and they could not go on. MacTavish sat down in the snow and contemplated them and gave an emphatic little whimper as if to accent the matter.
"But they must go on," urged Stella Chapman. "We have no one to carry our things. They must go on."
Her husband looked at her contemptuously. I believe jeering at her relieved the tension for him, and when I felt like being angry with her, for she was foolish, I had only to listen to him and my wrath vanished.
"Scoot's the order of the day, my dear," he said, with a scornful little laugh, as he watched the stubborn backs of the two servants trudging stolidly back on their tracks empty-handed!
"But if we can't get anyone to carry our things," she said; "if we can't, Silas."
He merely threw back his head. I could have hit him, and I would if he had been my husband, but she merely mourned,
"Silas, we can't carry them, we can't. I can hardly walk myself. Oh, Silas, if I wasn't so weak. I can't help it, can I?" and her wistful voice quivered off into a sob.
We were close now to the range of steep and rugged hills that lay to the north-west of the town. And they were steep, so steep that in many places, in spite of the heavy fall of snow of the night before, much of their slope was bare earth and rock. In that direction there was not a house in sight. There were no trees, no farms, nothing but the forbidding inhospitable hills, all rocks and snow and ice. The thermometer was below zero, the sun was drawing to the west, and when night fell the cold would be gripping. It seemed madness to go on. I turned to Mr. Chapman.
"You had better come back with us."
"My girl," he said simply, and when he spoke so I liked him, "you can tell what I think of your chances when I tell you I'm going on. If anybody's going to change it had better be you."
We had thrashed that out before, and I had made up my mind. So I laughed. Not because I saw any mirth in the situation, for his words made the cold hand grip at my heart again, but because, I suspect, that, at bottom, our emotions were the same, and what made Stella Chapman cry forced me in desperation to laugh. She did not see it at all in the same light.
She stopped crying and looked at me reproachfully.
"How can you! How can you!"
"I hate to hustle you," I heard myself saying, "but I'm so afraid of them shutting the gates before I can get back."
"Then we'll keep you," she said, stretching out her hands.
"Stella!" her husband cut her short sharply.
But I could stop to listen no longer. I snatched up the biggest bundle I could manage, and with MacTavish trotting gaily along ahead I ran into the hills. Before I had found the little turning Mr. Chapman was beside me.
"It's good of you to help us," he said. "Don't think I'm ungrateful." And it seemed impossible to connect him with the man who spoke so harshly to his wife.
"This way," I said. "Come along. But where's your wife? How will she——"
"My dear young lady," he interrupted, "if she doesn't get over that young man to carry her, she'll worry it out on her own."
It was harshly spoken, but before we had done I found he could be kind enough. We turned round a cliff and came into a little hollow of the hills, snow-clad and open to the sky. But it was going to be a fine night, and on all sides the rocks rose round and kept off the wind.
I quickly set about arranging the rugs we had brought to make a warm couch, and MacTavish setting himself to help me, I trod on his poor little paw, and Mr. Chapman, the man who, it seemed, could never speak kindly to his wife, picked him up and petted him.
"He isn't hurt," he said, "only his feelings got a knock." Then we heard the others coming, and we leaned over, and there below was Mr. Conant staggering along under a heavy burden with Mrs. Chapman clinging to him.
Without waiting to turn the corner and come up the long way he dropped his bundle, picked up the lady in his arms and handed her up to her husband, who with little ceremony dragged her over the top of the cliff. The bundle followed, and Mr. Conant came scrambling up after just as Stella settled herself down on the couch I had made and began quietly crying. She had shed quite a lot of tears since we had made her acquaintance.
But I could not do anything more for her.
"You'll have to try and look upon it as a picnic," I said, but the suggestion fell flat.
She turned on me reproachful eyes swimming in tears, and then looked at Mr. Conant.
"I am so sorry I've been such a trouble," she said.
We discussed the matter as we two and MacTavish sped back to the city gates.
"That little woman's going to make things hard for herself," said he. "If she would only exercise a little common sense."
"With Pai Lang at your heels," I said, "there doesn't seem much chance of exercising any sense at all."
He laughed. "It's just as bad for you, and you're taking it coolly enough."
I wasn't taking it coolly inside, but I liked him for thinking of me.
"You see, I haven't a husband reminding me every two minutes I'm a silly ass."
And again he laughed a little queerly.
"It's wonderful the difference in women," he said.
"Yes. I know that Luella Lawson and her sister are just as much to be pitied, poor dears."
"They certainly don't appeal to the aesthetic side," said he whimsically.
"If only they weren't on such intimate terms with the Lord!"
"It's a matter for thankfulness to me," he said, "to think they find comfort and consolation——"
"Where you do not look for it yourself." I don't know what on earth made me say that. I suppose because I felt the need of comfort and consolation. I picked up MacTavish because I do not like him to walk where there is danger of his being bitten by wonks, and always when I felt lonely his little warm body pressing against me gave me comfort.
Martin Conant did not answer. He paused a moment and the last rays of the setting sun fell full on the western gate towards which we were making, and it was a glory of crimson and gold.
"Do you know," he said, "I'm afraid it's only of late I have given true thought to religion. I accepted my mother's teaching, which was very sweet and lovable, but I have never gone beyond the thoughts of a boy of fourteen."
"And yet you came out here?"
"Of course," he smiled, "don't you think it is exactly what a boy of fourteen would do?"
"But you were not fourteen."
"About as unstable."
"When did you grow up?" I asked wonderingly.
"When I came here."
"Oh come!" I couldn't help laughing.
"If you only think, you'll see I'm right," he said. "Don't you see that human nature is steadily advancing, each generation wants something better, wider, broader than the one that went before it. My mother had advanced beyond the hard Calvinism in which she was brought up and had evolved for herself a very tender faith, a God in Heaven Who loves all the earth, and there—"he paused and went on, "she was right. There must be some Power for good behind all. And when I came here——"
"Now don't tell me," I had to say it and yet I am very fond of the missionaries among whom I have lived so long, "that the people here have converted you."
"But," he said, "that is exactly what they have done. And yet their faith's the worst part of them. As they preach it, it is rigid and hard and cruel, and they in the kindness of their hearts are trying to impose it upon a kindly honest people who want, not religion, but someone to take them in hand and give them a chance of living more comfortably in this world."
"Indeed they do, poor things," I could agree with him there most heartily, "if you only saw the sights I see."
"I know," he said. "The suffering is the part I can't explain away in that Power over all."
"And yet, a world without pain—if we always had fair weather——" but I stopped because I had reached the crucial point where we all stop.
"Perhaps," he said, "it is well we should not see too clearly. But," we were close below the frowning gates now and could see in the dusty entrance the two upright white stones that marked the width of the axle that could pass along the narrow streets of the city, "do you understand we are up against things now?"
I could only hug MacTavish a little closer.
"I can't believe it."
"You know the people better than I do—that man behind there in the hills didn't seem to think——" He stopped.
"He thought there was a mighty poor chance in the hills," I said, "and yet he wanted us to stay. Why didn't you stay? You're not a missionary."
"And you're not a missionary."
We were walking through the streets of the town now and there was no one visible. The houses were silent, sinister, watching as they had been in the suburb. Only in the distance could we see any sign of life.
"It's like walking in the shadow of death," I said.
"They'll be glad enough to see you at the hospital," he comforted.
When we reached the mission compound the minister met us at the gate. It was evident he was troubled.
"They've made a clean bolt of it," said he. "There's not a solitary galoot left in the hospital."
I stood still. It is disconcerting, to say the least of it, to have your self-sacrifice tossed back in your face.
"Lang Hsu," I faltered, for I knew that Lang Hsu would be in agony if she were not attended to every few hours, and it was the thought of the woman's suffering that had made me stay.
"They've cut and run," said the minister as if he sought but could not find some way to break the matter to me more gently, "didn't the cook tell you? I sent him to say you had better stay with those people—it wasn't worth while coming back."
"We've not seen him," said Martin Conant looking round as if perchance we might have overlooked such a trifle as the tall cook. "Missed us, I expect. Suppose we all go back."
"Too late," said the Rev. Septimus, "already they're shutting the city gates. We'll have to wait and see what the day brings forth."
THE BREAKING UP OF THE MISSION
"All the bright lights of heaven
Thou hast made dark over us;
One night has been as seven,
That its skirt might cover us;
Thou hast sent on our strong men a sword,
On our remnant a rod;
We know that Thou are the Lord,
O Lord our God."
IT is always difficult to wait. Henry Maitland did not return and it seemed he must be dead. The servants had all fled, and the Prefect, who was friendly, sent an old-fashioned soldier in a quilted blue cotton coat that made his arms stand out stiffly like an automaton's to tell us on no account to leave the compound. There was nothing to do but wait. Luella Lawson cooked us a meal and we all gathered together in the minister's house and tried to eat it, but it was only a pretence. Little Sadie Lawson sang her grace.
"Every day, every day," the sweet little voice sang happily, "we bless Thee, we bless Thee, we praise Thee, we praise Thee, for ever and for ever."
She was very sure God was going to take care of her, but whether the others were quite as happy in their faith I do not know. Except for Sadie Luella's nice biscuit was wasted. The evening dragged on, and at last at the minister's suggestion we went to bed. They managed some sort of shake-down for Mr. Conant and the Lawsons, but Miss Lodham went back to be among her girls, and I went to my own room.
We always slept outside even in the winter. I'm a great believer in fresh air, and luckily the minister backed me up. There was no roof to my little porch and I lay and looked up at the bright stars—the stars in Northern China in winter are like newly washed silver—and tired though I was I could not go to sleep. I tossed and turned. Ordinarily I let MacTavish sleep by himself in the warm bedroom because my little camp-bed was narrow, but I couldn't part with him to-night. I was afraid lest if anything happened I wouldn't be able to get to him in time.
As the dawn came I dozed, and I was awakened by Mr. Conant standing over me.
"They are coming," he said. "The others are in the dining-room."
"Singing hymns," I said, and it made me feel cross, "I wish they wouldn't. I'll be with you in a minute."
And I had not reached them before the mob were battering at the gates.
The minister snatched up a stool and whirled it round his head.
"Gee!" he said, "Chrissie! Come, Momma!" and as if it had been a signal, we all ran towards the courtyard, where Miss Lodham was among her girls, MacTavish in a state of wild delight as if the whole thing had been arranged for his amusement, but Mrs. Wright stopped.
"Poppa," she said, "I'd as lief stop at home. You bring Chrissie!" and she and the Lawsons turned back, but MacTavish was ahead and I ran on with Mr. Conant and the minister. We reached the gate of the little courtyard just as a wild burst of raucous yells broke over the wall.
"Sha! Sha! Kill! Kill!" came the voice of the mob, a Chinese mob, decadent, ruthless, merciless, and above the sounds of the mob came the shrill sweet sound of children singing.
In the night I had pictured this coming of the mob, and I had thought how terribly afraid I would be. Instead, I was thinking bitterly that if it had not been for those women—poor wretches, how they must have suffered—we should have been safe in the hills. I hated the Chinese. How could they sing hymns!
"Well, Chrissie is a cucumber!" said the minister admiringly, and even as he spoke the gate gave, and the assaulters came tumbling into the compound. In the clear bright daylight we saw them, a ragged filthy mob, the dregs and sediment of the population. There were about fifty of them in quilted blue cotton, with little round caps on their heads, and they all wore pigtails—unkempt, untidy, deplorable pigtails. I couldn't help thinking of Mrs. Chapman's late servant, Chung, and his neat well-oiled queue. Why should one think of such things at such a moment? They were armed with long knives and choppers and the hoes they used for tilling the fields, and they spread out a blot on the immaculate snow of the compound. Filthy they were! Filthy! To have death come in such a form!
"Pai Lang's braves," said Martin Conant, and he put his hand on my arm. He will never know how his kind touch helped me!
"No," said the minister, "the riff-raff of the city on the bust, and they mean cold straight business. God help us!"
And then the mob saw us and swept down upon us. We gave before it, of course—mortal man could do no less—and the next few minutes I pieced out afterwards. After all I was not as afraid as I thought I should be. It is the waiting for things to happen that is hard. Mr. Conant pushed me behind him. The minister whirled the stool threateningly above his head, then, true to his stern faith of non-resistance, dropped it. Mr. Conant swore an angry oath, and in a flash I had that stool and thrust it into his hands.
"Good girl," he said, getting in front of me again, and he parried a blow with a knife and hit his assailant across the face. I saw the blood start and the man fall back. The minister was under a pile of struggling men, and I could see Miss Lodham leaning up against a wall with half a dozen terrified schoolgirls clinging round her, and all about them were the mob, shouting, yelling, tearing down the woodwork, feeding a fire already begun with tables, desks, papers, books, while others darted into rooms and came out bearing piles of bedding, for the girls had straw mattresses on their k'angs. It was only afterwards I realised I had been so intensely interested I actually forgot to be afraid.
They were a leaderless mob, and tore from one thing to another with no settled plan, but they were bent on destruction.
"Now," said Mr. Conant, and his voice sounded quite cheerful and triumphant, "the gate's clear. Hang on to me like a good girl and we'll make for it."
But I had seen Miss Lodham. She and the girls were between the brick wall and the flames, and the schoolmistress's face was all bloody, and her grey fair hair, usually so neat, was all tumbled about her shoulders.
"They're going to burn her," I cried, and I actually dropped MacTavish and catching up the leg of a broken chair made a dash for her.
But Mr. Conant was ahead of me, and he brought down his weapon upon the head of a filthy brute from a butcher's shop who was flinging a great armful of straw upon the fire.
The minister got his head free and sat up for a moment, and I saw his poor white strained face, and then to my surprise he made a remark in Chinese, and though I could not catch it in the din it was evidently funny, it made his assailants laugh, and they took him by the arms and ran him out of the courtyard. Another man came at us with frothing lips and clutching hands, and my guardian went for him, using the heavy stool as a flail, and swept right and left with strong, capable hands. I remembered then that he had rowed on the Thames and won renown at footer at Oxford. I managed to keep my place beside him, and I felt gladly I was doing my share dealing shrewd blows with the leg of the chair. Afraid! I was too desperately excited! I forgot to think! I just lived for the moment! Even when the point of a knife struck my arm and the blood spouted I looked at it in surprise. It never hurt me! I was only troubled because I could not reach Miss Lodham, and because MacTavish at my feet was yelping and crying, for the burning straw stung his poor little paws.
"Can't we help Miss Lodham?" I said. "She's trying to help the girls who've had their feet unbound. They can't walk."
"My dear," he said—it sounded so natural somehow—"we can't help ourselves," and he raised his stool for another blow, when, to the surprise of both of us, the man he threatened looked up at him and distinctly winked.
Mr. Conant stopped, stool in mid-air.
He was a very ragged man, but his cap had fallen off and his neat pigtail was tidily wound round his head.
"Why the hell you no go down?" he said in English, and suiting the action to the word he dropped on his knees and grabbed Mr. Conant's leg. The snow was frozen hard and slippery as a schoolboy's slide, and to my dismay he came down with a shock that for the moment knocked his senses out of him. Miss Lodham was being carried out, her hands and feet tied together like a pig slung from a pole.
The man who had pulled my companion down looked up at me with a grin.
"Oppugnation dam foolishness," he said, and before I could resist he had me on my knees beside Mr. Conant. I bent forward to rescue MacTavish, who was whining and licking his sore paws, but the Chinaman was between us, and before I could reach him to my great surprise he was gathered up and thrust into my arms. It was one of the moments of my life. God knows what I was bracing myself to bear, and here I was hugging MacTavish. Mr. Conant stirred dizzily, and I bent over him and pushed him down again. It seemed best not to attract attention.
"Lie still," I cried, "lie still. He gave me back MacTavish. I believe this man's a friend."
"Sure thing," croaked our assailant, "you treat me rite."
But Mr. Conant was still dazed. Evidently he didn't know what was happening. I felt we had found a friend, a strange friend truly.
The mob was all around us still; but apparently they were intent on gathering up the schoolgirls. Perhaps they would have no time for us unless their attention was directly called to us. This man had abused me vilely—in Chinese—but he had saved the little whimpering dog. He tossed his head, and, his pigtail coming down, he swung it from one shoulder to the other.
"Why, it's Chung!" I said, and I was so surprised I spoke in a whisper.
"Lie still," he said, "mus' lie still. No be long now."
Indeed the wretched courtyard was clearing. I saw the last man carrying out of it one of the girls whose feet had been unbound only the day before. Evidently she was his share of the booty. She made no resistance, and I couldn't help noticing it even at that moment had an air of virtuous self-consciousness that would have done credit to an early Victorian bride. I suppose if you have never spoken to any man in your life but the old school coolie, one-eyed, bent and lame, any stalwart individual would be much the same to you.
And then I saw with a great rush of thankfulness Mr. Conant was coming round.
"Be quiet," I said, bending over him, "be quiet," and it was all I could do to keep from bursting out crying. But he wasn't sensible enough to understand.
All the little rooms round the courtyard were gutted, everything that was movable had been thrown outside and broken up or burnt, smoke from smouldering fires came out of the doorways, and in some places the carved artistic woodwork of the windows was still burning, all the paper was long ago torn up or burnt and pieces of women's clothing mingled with broken crockery, books and kitchen utensils were distributed over the place. There had not been much to loot, but everything had been smashed or rendered useless by the blind fury of the reckless mob. But because it had been a leaderless mob it had no method, had had no intention apparently beyond blind destruction, and having destroyed the spate had passed on, leaving behind in the dismantled courtyard only us two and our captor.
Mr. Conant was rubbing his eyes and sat up bewildered.
"What? Where?" he asked.
Sitting back on his heels Chung passed his hand over his shaven head as if to feel if the neat little fringe of coarse black hair, his halo, was still in place. Then he relaxed after his desperate exertions. Even though he had an evil-looking knife slung at his waist he did not look the fierce bandit. He picked up a cap that was lying on the ground—his, I suppose—and tossed it on the point of his knife to MacTavish's openly expressed delight, and he remarked amiably,
"Mus' get hills."
And then Mr. Conant's senses came back with a rush. He swept out his arms, and poor Chung was lying prostrate, and he was standing over him.
"It's Chung!" I cried. "It's Chung!" and he stepped back and looked at me in bewilderment.
"Miss Lodham! I must go——" he made a half step across the yard—but I was at his side—and Chung took the opportunity to scramble to his feet.
"Don't, don't," I said. "They may be safer working it out by themselves."
"But I must fight," he said, and I felt myself laughing and crying at once, his conversion was so sincere and he was so unconscious of it, "we've got to help them."
"Oh, we can't," I said desperately. "You can't do anything. They're too many."
"But? What? Where? I don't understand."
"Neither do I. We'll have to get Chung to help us."
Chung, having picked himself up, was feeling himself over carefully. Apparently he was satisfied with the investigation, and he bore no malice, for he remarked again,
"Mus' get hills!"
Get to the hills! Out of this courtyard! I could have laughed, and this was the man who only yesterday had carefully explained how forlorn a refuge he thought the hills!
"Can pay monies?" he asked us shrewdly. Mr. Conant still seemed uncertain whether he ought not to rush to Miss Lodham's rescue, and then he saw the blood on my wrist, and taking out his handkerchief began to bind it up, and while he was doing it I tried to bring my two years' knowledge of the Chinese to bear upon the situation. But Mr. Conant was struck with Chung as a rescuer.
"I knew," said he, "and God forgive me, I forgot that there are brave and kindly men in all countries and among all faiths."
He seemed so satisfied with his own penetration that I could not help laughing.
"I do hate," I said, "to shatter such a beautiful theory if you are applying it to Mr. Chung."
"Velly good," said the gentleman, airily swinging his pigtail and rocking himself backwards and forwards.
I didn't want to take away from any virtue that might be his, and truly he had come to our help cleverly enough, but it was only common sense to recognise the fact that his trade was that of a foreigner's servant. He had got adrift in the west here, and the only comfortable livelihood for a man of his class was to be found with foreigners. His salvation lay in sticking to us. Why he had given up the Chapmans, who had plenty of money, I could not imagine.
I tried to make this plain to Mr. Conant, who stared at me, and Chung nodded his head amiably as if I had hit the nail exactly on the head.
"Mus' pay some monies," he repeated with emphasis, and then there broke on the air once more the sound of a missionary hymn. There was no mistaking it, it was a very favourite hymn and I had heard it on all sorts of occasions, but never, I think, on one less appropriate than this. Really those dear good people have no sense of humour. Early in the morning, late at night that overworked hymn rang out, and now after all the racket and storm and stress it burst on the air and Sadie Lawson's sweet little childish treble rang clear above the other voices, above the shouting of the mob, and the distant hum of sound that came from the seething city beyond the compound walls.
"All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,
Then praise the Lord, then praise the Lord, for all His love.
Saved! Could they possibly be saved? We scrambled to our feet and still clutching MacTavish I ran alongside Mr. Conant to the gates of the school courtyard. Most of them had gone to feed the fire in the centre, only a splintered post or two remained, but before we had reached the opening Chung was before us pushing us back. He evidently understood more clearly than we did the ways of the mission people. He knew they would rejoice long before they had any material victory that outside eyes could discover.
"White Wolf's men give you a hell of a time," he remarked explanatorily.
But leaning over his shoulder and sheltering as much as I could behind the little wall I saw that the mob had reached the minister's house and taken the women hiding there. The two Lawsons were walking one on each side of Mrs. Wright, surrounded by at least twenty or thirty people, a filthy ragged crowd, odoriferous and disgusting, who were yelling and shouting abusive epithets, but on the face of the captives was a rapt look as if they had forgotten their surroundings and were absorbed in the song of praise. Even the mother who had feared so for her little child—and I knew how she had feared—was calm, and that little child was being carried by a stalwart Chinaman nearly six feet high, unclean and ragged, but his face was not unkindly. The little girl had one arm round his neck, while with a little red gloved hand she beat the time of her paean of praise upon his grimy cheek.
"Well I'm——" Mr. Conant used an expression that, however unobjectionable it may have been at Oxford, was no more suitable to a would-be missionary than the mob's behaviour came up to my expectations of what an out-of-hand Chinese mob would do. Then MacTavish, unfortunately for himself, put his little black and white head up to see what was going on, and not quite approving, said so in a loud voice and so called attention to his presence.
He is very good-looking, and on his round forehead is the "V" shaped mark that makes him valuable. Once or twice he had been stolen from the compound, and brought back after rewards varying in value from 1,000 to 10,000 cash had been offered by his distracted mistress. I was never anxious to call attention to his perfections, and I quenched his ardour by suddenly popping his head under my arm and withdrawing into the courtyard.
Too late. The triumphant singing passed on, but a man stepped out from the following mob and came running to the courtyard to investigate.
Then there was a torrent of Chinese both from Chung and the newcomer, and I turned shivering with my face to the wall and hid my little dog in my arms.
"What's the matter?" asked Mr. Conant, for his Chinese was not equal to the babble that was pouring out round him.
The man wanted MacTavish. He said it was only fair. Evidently we were to be ransomed, and he seemed to think I might be worth 30 dollars, while MacTavish was certainly worth 15,000 cash, and he knew of a purchaser, a Lao T'ai T'ai, the other side of the city. Oh, my little treasure dog! I tried to explain to Mr. Conant.
"Our lives are surely cheap," he began. I think he was going to say at the cost of a dog, but he stopped, and I suppose he saw that I loved MacTavish. I do. I just felt as if I could not give him up. Too well I know how the Chinese treat dogs. I have had some bad moments in my life. And that was one of them.
THE LOSING OF MACTAVISH.
"From all thy lovers that love thee
I, God, will sunder thee;
I will make darkness above thee,
And thick darkness under thee.
Before me goeth a light,
Behind me a sword,
Shall a remnant find grace in my sight?
I am the Lord."
OF all the plucky women—if ever I'm in a tight place again I hope I have a woman like Rosalie Grahame by my side. I wonder if there is another like her. But no, Providence doesn't make two women of her sort. The way she aided and abetted in the fight in the courtyard.
It was beastly luck just when we were beginning to think we were out of the wood that wretched little dog should have called attention to himself. I was beginning to think that Dr. Grahame was her old self again. There was a very mocking little devil in those bright eyes of hers when she pointed out to me that Chung's salvation lay in identifying himself with us, and then it went out with a flash and there was shrinking and dread when that coolie reached across and demanded her dog.
"Oh my little dog!" she said, "I can't part with him! To a Chinese! My little dog! He'll be miserable!" and she held him passionately against her.
Chung, the polite Chung, bent over and snatched him from her. He held him up by the neck and the little chap whined piteously.
"It is a matter for argument," said Chung sententiously, in Chinese. "The division is fair. The gown to me, the cap and shoes to thee," and he handed the little dog to the claimant.
"Oh!" cried the girl, "Oh, my little dog!" and MacTavish heard the loved voice and promptly bit the hands that held him, and being promptly dropped raced over to the mistress he knew would defend him. She gathered him in her arms, but Chung turned on her reproachfully.
"You don't treat me rite," he said, and stretched out a hand to recapture him. But MacTavish evidently understood the situation, and showed his sharp little teeth. He did not like the Chinese at any time.
"Lend me your knife," Rosalie Grahame turned to Chung. "He shan't suffer. I'll kill him."
Her face was strained.
"I'll do it," I said, "if it's necessary. But the little dog is valuable. They'll treat him well. Besides," and it was a consideration, "we can't afford to offend these people."
"You needn't tell me," she snapped, holding him fast. "I know how Chinese treat dogs, fondled and over-fed one day, starved for a week, kicked out to die when they are ill and old. My little dog! I'd rather he was dead. I'd rather die myself."
"We have no choice, I'm afraid," I said reluctantly, and then I had a bright idea.
"Tell him," I said to Chung, "Missie will give 30,000 cash for him by and by."
She looked at me, and, upon my word, sparkling, mocking brown eyes can express gratitude far better than blue ones.
"Not thilty dollar one time," warned Chung, "take it tief her again." There's a good deal of nous about our Chung.
"Tell him not to sell to the Lao T'ai T'ai," I said. "Tell him to keep him and when the country's quiet he shall have thirty dollars if the dog's well and fat."
"He couldn't afford to keep a dog," muttered Dr. Grahame. "They are so poor. MacTavish is a rich man's dog."
But Chung tossed his head knowingly.
"Sell her to Lao T'ai T'ai," was his solution of the difficulty. "Allee same, Missee shall have. Can tief her. Missie give thilty dollar," he asked insinuatingly.
Poor girl. She clasped more closely the little quivering creature that nestled against her and watched as if he knew his fate was in the balance. I saw "More, more," trembling on her white lips. And her lips were so red usually. But my thrifty New England ancestry got the better of me.
"Thirty dollars," I said definitely. "Missie no can give more. Can get plenty like him ten dollar. By and bye she remember." And she looked at me as if there could not possibly be another dog like MacTavish. But there was nothing to be gained by putting an absurd price upon him. Thirty dollars is a lot to these people. And the argument had weight with Chung. He gauged Missie's love for the little dog at about thirty dollars. But more—I really don't believe Chung thought that anyone would give more for a dog.
"All litee," he said, and stretched out his hand for the dog.
The little thing looked up in his mistress's face, as if asking if she would really give him up, and she put her face down against his cold little nose and rubbed his ears against her cheek. He hates and fears the Chinese.
"My little dog! My little dog!" and she turned holding him loosely so that the man might take him if he wanted to. He made a snatch, and the little chap growled, so she put him into his arms and said in Chinese, with a little quiver in her pretty voice,
"Kindness should be practised and he will reward with great love."
But the dog whimpered and struggled at the sound of her voice, and the man cuffed him as he turned away, and she covered her face, but I knew she was biting her lips to keep back the tears.
"I don't think you need worry," I exhorted her. "They will keep him safe for the promise of thirty dollars."
"Sure thing," said Chung, snapping his fingers. "Tief her by em by," and he squatted down on his heels again and spread his hands out soothingly over the snow.
"Missie," he said solemnly, "wantchee go for hills?" He looked up at her a little knowingly, and yet with the proper amount of respect she might expect from a Chinese servant, "want boy, wantchee velly good boy?"
The tears were still on her cheeks. She shot a glance at me.
China is a strange place. Tragedy is always mixed up with what may be called comic relief. Many a time has the missionary found the men who have avowedly come to kill him end by playing dolls with his children, and yet the sentence of death is not annulled. It may be carried out later on. Somewhat to my surprise, Dr. Grahame played up to the man on the ground.
"You no go Missie Chapman?" she asked.
Chung puffed out his cheeks and let his breath come out in a slow and thoughtful whistle.
"Missie Chapman," he said spreading out his hands and patting the snow again, "not wantchee velly good boy," and he looked up under his eyelids with a comical air of taking her into his confidence. There were certain things he seemed to say were understood between intimates and need not be put into words. I am by no means given to rushing things, but this leisurely way of going on was a little too much for me. We had only just escaped death, and here we were discussing whether Dr. Grahame wanted a servant. At any moment the mob might come back.
"We ought to be making preparations for getting away," I said.
"We are," said Dr. Grahame, coolly and she was evidently herself again. Unselfish too, though I did not realise at first what she was driving at.
"No monies got," said she with a little air as if that disposed of the matter; but her tone said there was still room for a suggestion.
"Plenty monies got at T'ai Yuan Fu?" asked Chung insinuatingly.
"Poor woman," announced Dr. Grahame, and I could not help wondering how she could play so calmly with her chances of life. "My brother," and she indicated me much to my surprise, and I found I was not quite pleased with the relationship, "poor man. Missionaries no have got much monies!"
I couldn't make out why she was bargaining like this. We were neither of us rich, but we were rolling in wealth as wealth goes in Kansu. A hundred Mexican dollars or so could make no difference to us. I would have said so, but with a quick look she silenced me.
"Got little monies," insinuated Chung, "velly good boy tweny dollar a mont'."
She fell back against the wall. The rejection was complete. Chung picked up the snow in little bits with his bare hands, and she sighed just a little but with ostentation.
"Sleventeen dollar," said Chung still insinuatingly, but the girl put her hand before her face, and through her fingers I saw a pair of eyes that sternly bade me restrain myself and have patience. Her attitude still indicated despair, and Chung came down.
There was an air of finality about him this time.
Dr. Grahame took her hand from her face.
"Missionary very poor," she reiterated.
"Flifteen dollar," asseverated Chung stonily and yet with perfect courtesy. He might still be taken as a servant for his manners were all that could be wished.
Then she turned to me and her eyes implored me to follow her lead.
"Missionaries are so poor," she said with emphasis, "can we manage fifteen dollars a month? It is just as important, you know," and this I recognised was for Chung's benefit, "for Chung to have a good place as for us to have a good servant. If we are dead we can't help Chung."
"Flifteen dollar," repeated Chung with stolid respect.
"Mrs. Wright get cook—good cook, eight dollar," and then I tumbled to it. If it was a question of ransom she did not want the missionaries to have to pay too heavily. If the people got the idea they had plenty of money they might even put them to torture to get it. A brave woman and a thoughtful woman is Rosalie Grahame. I should have let them in.
"We have an uncle not a missionary," I said, entering into the game with zest. I didn't believe Chung would come down any more. "We could pay when we reach Peking. Yes, sure when we reach Peking."
"Sure thing," said Chung, relaxing with an air of relief. I doubt if of late his lines had lain in pleasant places.
I looked at Dr. Grahame and read acquiescence in her face.
"Sure thing," I said taking upon myself the relationship to which I objected, "Chung Missie boy, fifteen dollar a month. Pay at Peking."
Chung danced his hands about cheerily and tossed his head till his pigtail fell first on one shoulder and then on the other, and then he accepted the situation, and like a good servant began enumerating our needs upon his taper fingers.
"Mus' get clo," said he, "Mus' get chow," and we two looked at one another. There were tears in the brave brown eyes.
"My tink more better go minister," said Chung.
He surprised me, and Dr. Grahame gave a little cry that told me what she thought.
"The minister dead," I said.
"My tink not," said Chung gently reproving me. "Makee laugh." And then he went on to state his reasons for his belief. Even a Chinese mob, merciless and reckless, has trading instincts, and once the first fury of the attack was passed, Chung was of opinion that the minister, if he had been spared by his captors, would be traded to well-wishers for value received. About the women he was not so sure. He was distinctly sceptical about the value of Mrs. Wright and the two Lawsons. Miss Lodham, being a teacher, might have a chance, but the others were only so many mouths to feed. Henry Maitland had been killed, but Henry Maitland from what he had heard could not "makee laugh."
I looked at Dr. Grahame. There was nothing to be done but to drift with the tide.
"We shall be all right, I think," she said. "But, oh, my poor little dog!" and the pinched look came into her face again. "He will think I've given him to the Chinese!"
I put my hand on her shoulder.
"Cheer up! I believe he'll be all right too!"
ORGANIZING A TOUR.
"I have seen the desire of mine eyes.
The beginning of love,
The season of kisses and sighs
And the end thereof."
THESE young people think I am a dour unfeeling sort of chap, but after all a man can't be for ever explaining himself. The young fellow is honest, tho' God only knows why he is a missionary. The girl is a good one, one of your thoroughbreds, and I admit I got a jolt when she looked as if she were shocked at the way I treated my wife. The fact of the matter is, Stella is one of those that, once you see through, your affection for them dissolves away like sugar in a glass of water. Not even a kindly feeling is left behind. Perhaps it's the way I'm built; can't sort of make allowances. And now her beauty gets me in the neck, and her little ways—damn it all. On the whole it's lucky I'm a silent man.
Here we were stuck down in this hollow, and any ordinary woman would have known that the wisest thing to do was to slip away quietly and quickly. But do you think I could stir Stella? Passive resistance was her lay. She stopped me by the simple method of lying quite still. I have always got her what she wants because it saves trouble in the end, and I suppose she reckoned if she held on long enough I'd evolve mules out of nothingness. I couldn't—so I curled up in the rugs and watched her brush her hair. She led me by that beautiful hair once, and, faith, she deliberately threw me away. She thinks more of a strand of that yellow hair than of my whole body. Now she was brushing it and groaning because it's a hefty job to brush long thick hair in a heavy fur coat, and she only did it because she firmly believed if she neglected it in this dry air she'd soon be as bald as a newly laid egg.
"It's enough to kill me," she said, and she looked up into the bright blue sky and down into the white snow-covered hollow. I kept an eye upon her, because I am never quite sure what foolishness she'll be up to next. She is cunning; she hadn't started on it till she was convinced it was too late for us to take the road. I was reconciled to stopping, because it was a pretty forlorn hope anyway. I might just as well stay and if any of the missionaries got through they would join us. Stella kept speculating as to what had become of them, so I told her they were probably dead. Then she told me I was a brute, and I forgot my promise to myself to stand her provoking way and cursed her for a fool, and that gave her something to think about, and took her thoughts off the situation. I followed it up by telling her I thought I'd leave her there, and she was by no means sure I wasn't capable of carrying out my threat, so she sat down and cried quietly, and it gave me a chance to steal up to a little vantage point and look over the road occasionally. I could see it winding among the graves and fields down through the ramshackle suburb and up again to the walls of the city, but on the road came nothing and no one save some lads with small donkeys evidently seeking fuel. Early in the morning those little beasts go out into the hills, and towards evening back they come, bundles of fagots hiding everything but four staggering legs. Other wants the town apparently had none, and the farming folk round must have heard how things were and were lying low. Beyond those bundles of fuel not a living thing stirred on that rough frozen road. It was bitter cold, and the day stretched out; there were hundreds of square miles of that day and seemingly never an end to them, but at last the shadows lengthened.
"Oh, the sun is setting," sobbed Stella, as if she saw her last friend disappearing. "As long as the sun was up I could bear it."
He was. He pays no attention to the desires of pretty women, but shines or ceases to shine on the pretty and plain with an equitableness which she certainly had not often found imitated in mere man. The cold took an edge on it when he went.
I tucked Stella up, and maybe I was a bit grim. It was the only way to stop her grousing. So she lay still and sobbed silently. I was glad that young doctor was not there to hear her; but, anyhow, she did lie still, and I crept up every now and then and listened over the road. If any of these sky pilots had got away I thought in all probability they would come along about now. And I wouldn't put it past some of them to get away. You never know where you are with the Chinese.
At last, somewhere about nine o'clock there was a distinct sound of some one clambering up the hillside.
And then that little fool let go.
"Oh!" she shrieked, "they're coming to kill me!" Never anybody but herself.
I couldn't have that. Suppose it wasn't the sky pilots. I got my hand over her mouth. But I thought I heard shod feet.
"That you, Conant?"
"Yes," came the answer, and Stella let out a squeal fit to rouse the city, but she only got one in. I strangled the other at birth, only there was a choked gurgle that gave me away, and as I let her go she ran forward and flung herself into the pretty young doctor's arms, doing the welcoming trick to perfection. I guessed I knew what that girl was thinking of me.
"Oh, my dear, my dear. I'm thankful to see you again. I couldn't sleep for thinking of you all night long," and the doctor was kissed again and again. The little liar. She'd snuggled down and slept the night through, all the better because of the exercise she'd had. Much she'd trouble about anybody else so long as she was comfortable. I wonder if that young doctor reckons she's got a genuine pal or if she guesses just how much she's expected to carry. Of course, the young man will get the glad eye. Only these two and a Chinaman behind 'em. The doctor was sensible. I thought she would be.
Stella was half laughing and half crying, and behaving altogether abominably.
"Sit down," said the other young woman. She spoke kindly, but if I know anything about it, that won't last, "It won't do to get too excited."
"My missus," I told her, "wants a firm hand. And—hallo, Chung!"
I never thought Chung would have come back. I thought Stella had settled him. There was no moon, but the stars in a winter night in Northern China count. Their light reflected from the white snow showed up the newcomers, and there was Mr. Chung trying to make himself small behind the young doctor. I was mighty pleased to see him again.
"Loved us so much you couldn't keep away?" I asked, but the pleasure was evidently not reciprocal.
"Ga Taifu wantchee velly good boy," he said, and wheeling round with his thumb over his shoulder he pointed at Dr. Grahame, and that was the way he intimated that he no longer served the Chapman family.
Well, I don't know that I blamed Chung. Dr. Grahame tried to explain, but what did it matter? We were throwing in our lots together, and if my missus don't get all she wants I don't know her, that's all. Chung'll earn double wages and I guess he won't complain.
I'd got enough whiskey to give 'em a tot apiece. I guess it was the first Dr. Grahame had ever had, and it was a mighty long day since young Conant had had any either. The whiskey loosened their tongues and they couldn't get over the fact that they were both alive, and apparently the only man who had really suffered was the man whose death had set us all on the go.
Chinese have their own little ways, easy enough to understand 'em once you've got the right end of the stick.
"This morning a raging mob was apparently thirsting for our blood," said young Conant. "The hospital had walked itself away in terror, the school was distributed among the mob. I thought I was fighting for our lives, and finally I was captured by this peaceable-looking person who was your servant Chung," and he seemed quite cut up about it.
"Allee same," said Chung, who was stage-managing this bit of business, "put up plenty good fight."
"But how did you get away? How did you get away?" asked Stella at her very best. The charming interested friend stop turned on now.
Well it was an anti-climax, of course. They just walked away, went along to some people who were themselves hiding from White Wolf, spent the day in the solid, can't-cut-it-with-a-knife atmosphere of a Chinese house, and when night came walked out over a gap in the wall where the rain had got in last summer and the bricks had fallen out.
"It was not comfortable but it was quite easy," said Dr. Grahame, and she gave a sad little laugh. Evidently she wanted cheering up.
"Don't you worry," I told her. "There are difficulties ahead still."
Of course Stella shrieked—I knew she would—but Dr. Grahame was thinking about the others.
"They're not dead," she said, "except for Henry Maitland they're all right, and Chung seems to think they can be bought."
"Sure thing," said that gentleman. The Chinese are a commercial people, thank goodness, and there's no doubt they're not tumbling over each other quite so eager to murder the foreigner as they were in 1900. They got a lesson then. And well, of course, the B.A.T.'s been at work a good few years, now. Missionaries—don't tell me. The Chinaman's looking out for a business proposition and the B.A.T. sinks in on that lay. He soon sees there's a lot of good and never a scrap of harm in the foreigner, and once you get that well rammed in, the victory's there all along the lines. The Chinaman understands a bargain. But it wasn't any good telling these sky pilots that. I just mentioned to Conant that there might even be a chance of his taking up the missionary business again, but he smiled gently and wasn't taking any.
"I've done with it," he said. "I see the good, of course, but I can't help feeling there's a lot of power wasted."
Power wasted! That's the conclusion he'd come to! I wonder what he is concluding to do with that power now he's got it in hand.
But evidently he struck a chord in the doctor's mind.
"If I hadn't gone back to help those women," she mourned, and she spoke half to herself, "I should have brought my little MacTavish here safely."
Then Chung took a hand.
"Wantchee small dog," said he, swaying himself backward and forward on his haunches, and even in that dim light I reckoned he was avoiding my missus's eagle eye. After all, a small dog was neither here nor there—what we really wanted was some loose cash. Loose cash is always handy, but the situation was crying out for it now. Of course none of us foreigners could go into the city. It would be too disturbed, but all the more on that account I reckoned if one of the bankers or merchants could be got hold of they'd be glad enough to lend hard cash to the B.A.T. Return it with good interest, say 7% in six months—I began to buck up and I laid the case before the others, and that young doctor—give me a sensible woman with a trained mind—she tumbled to it at once.
"Hop Sing," said she, and began explaining to Chung where the particular thief she knew by that name hung out.
"Can do," said that gentleman swinging his pigtail around from front to back and back again, "can do," and then she got up and stood over him. Give me a practical woman any day of the week.
"Now, Chung," said she, "you bring Hop Sing chop-chop."
Well, to make a long story short, not only was Hop Sing brought in a couple of hours, but before morning the minister and his wife, a frail, tired, sick-looking woman, were safe in the little hollow in the hills.
There was another woman with them—a long-waisted, giraffe-necked young person the others called Luella Lawson.
"I," she said, "am a messenger from Miss Lodham. She is one of the Lord's anointed."
The young doctor took her up quick.
"I hope," said she, "she's not going to take up her position on the staff at once."
In the dim light Sister Luella peered at her and she repented. She is that sort. She wouldn't be funny if it hurt anyone's feelings.
"I mean, I hope she isn't going to die," she said. "Shall I come back and look after her?"
"No," said the other, evidently that wasn't her trouble. She'd get it off her chest in time, I knew, if they gave her rope enough. "Her legs and arms are strained, but she says herself she's all right, and the Tsai family are lovely to her, just lovely. She sent me to say she can't travel, she couldn't walk as far as here, and she takes it as a sign that the Lord has need of her."
When the Lord wants me to stop along in one particular place I do trust he won't need to sling me on a pole like a Chinese pig to bring the fact home to me. Giraffe-neck didn't see anything to snigger at. "The way will be made clear for her," said she. "Ednah and I and Sadie will stay with her."
"I allus knew Chrissie had an eighteen-carat heart on her," said the minister with fervour. "I'd stop myself——"
"The Society of the Elder Brethren," said his wife quickly—and evidently she was one of your silent ones, for the others all looked at her surprised to hear her speak—"have made a proclamation against the foreigner. It's pasted up in the streets——"
"It is," said the minister. "You're about right, Ma. It's a dippy move on their part. 'No foreign man to be in the city.' Don't say anything about the women. I guess they think they don't count."
"P'raps I ought to stay," mused Mrs. Wright, stealing a trembling hand out to her husband's coat sleeve. "Septimus——"
It always fetches me when I see husband and wife on those sort of terms. I always hoped—but there—Stella isn't the sort. I ought to have known that when I married her.
"You're right where you are, Ma," said her husband cheerily. "I'm almighty obligated to you, gentlemen. I understand from my friend, Hop Sing, you Mr. Chapman; and you Martin Conant, advanced money to buy me out."
Of course we had. I'd have pledged the B.A.T. to that, only young Conant waltzed in and said he'd do his share, and then came the doctor clamouring to help. After all it must be a bit humiliating to work at the missionary job for twelve long years and finally be bought out, wife and all, for 50,000 cash! Twenty-five dollars! Poor old chap! I think he rather felt going so cheap.
"I guess," said he, "it got you some worried trying to get the dollars. The mission's bust up."
"The credit of the B.A.T.," I said, "still appears to be excellent," and he wilted, poor chap.
"Gee!" said he, picking up a bit. "The wicked shall flourish like a green bay tree," and I hadn't the heart to point out to him it was lucky for him we were flourishing, if by the wicked he meant the B.A.T. "What's to become of a floater like me," he went on, "if the mission's bust up?"
"I reckon," I said, "you'd better come along with us. We're collecting the touring party now. There's me and my wife, the original members, and Dr. Grahame and Mr. Conant here, new recruits, and you and your missus and Miss—er—Miss——"
Giraffe-neck looked up gravely. She was in Chinese dress, with many furs and swathings round her head.
"You can count me out," she said. "I'm going back. The Lord's work is still to do in the city."
"Now, Luelly," said the minister, "I guess after a trying day you didn't come cavortin' out here in the night to tell us that."
"Thank the Lord," said Luelly, "I can go back to the Tsai cousin's house in the northern suburb."
"G'wan," said the minister, "an' I reckon you didn't come along to spring that on us either."
"Miss Lodham," hesitated Luella, and she put her hand to her face, "I told her we ought to trust in the Lord," said she, "and," she added with conviction, "I guess I've got to go back and tell her so again."
"I guess, Luelly," said the minister, "Chrissy was putting it that if there was a little currency about loose, her price 'ud come in mighty handy for oiling the wheels. I reckon a real slap-up school marm with a buddin' doctor an' a full-blown evangelist in goin' order chucked in, ought to make a stagger at it on 20 dollars. Gentlemen——" he looked up wistfully at the monied men who could borrow money—"I haven't a red cent, but our mission's mighty generous. I know once I get a chance to put it to our folks at home I could raise 20 dollars for them, and it's mighty hard to live entirely on charity in a Chinese family. Not that they ain't generous, but the Christians among us——"
"But, of course, we'll give them enough," said the young doctor.
"Hold hard a moment," I said. "I don't want to check your generous impulses, but let's get a working basis to go upon. Our friend, Hop Sing, seems to think all ways to the east and Peking are cut off, so we must go west or north, and as we can only raise 1,000 Mexican dollars I'm afraid it won't take us very far. Now in justice to the rest of us I really don't see we dare leave those ladies more than 100 dollars."
"If they can borrow more tell them I will pay," cried that impulsive young woman eagerly, "and if they would make enquiries about MacTavish——"
"The Lord will bless you," burst out Sister Luella fervently. And I saw young Conant and the doctor look at one another. They weren't full-blown missionaries, and there was a sort of bond between 'em anyway, though I don't believe they knew it themselves. And now each of them put a friendly hand on Sister Luelly's shoulder to show their good will, aye, and I guess their admiration, too, for you bet she would have gone back and faced a Chinese winter without a penny.
The minister wiped his eyes.
"It seems some as if I was quittin' my post," said he.
"Go on," said I, "your post's quitted you. You buck up. It isn't free soup and salvation we'll find in the wilderness. Where's Chung? He ought to be getting a move on him about breakfast."
It was broad daylight now, but no Chung was to be seen. He had vanished after escorting Hop Sing to the hollow.
"Stay a minute," said the doctor feverishly, her arm through Luelly's, "I know Chung knows where MacTavish is." She evidently sets great store by the little dog. Well, the ways of women are beyond me. And she is a good plucked one, too. "If you could get the little chap, or be kind to him sometimes——" but her voice trailed away.
It was a broken reed she was leaning on. Luelly is not the sort to waste her time over little dogs when there are Chinese souls to be roped in, I reckon—no, no. I could see the doctor knew it was no go. She got another idea then. She is fond of that lucky little beast.
"I wonder," she said, "if I went back. There doesn't seem to be any danger for a woman."
I don't know but what she would have gone, but Stella interrupted. She had an eye to her breakfast.
"There's Chung," said she. And Chung came into the hollow, a bland smile on his imperturbable face.
He held something hidden under his quilted cotton coat, and presently there was a small eruption and a blamed whirlwind was let loose amongst us. My missus gave a shriek—trust her to make a fuss, and a very ratty-looking little blue dog with a long thin ropy tail tore round and round and flung himself upon the doctor with yelps of joy.
"Mad dog! Mad dog!" shrieked Stella. Her opportunity had arrived. It wasn't going to be the glad eye this time. She was going to give a nice young man a chance to protect a beautiful lady, and she flew behind Conant and seized both his arms. But the doctor gave a cry, a cry that had more gratitude in it than all Sister Luella's "praise the Lords!" and dropped down on the snow.
"MacTavish! MacTavish! My little dog! My little, little dog!" and her voice broke as she caught the joyous little cuss in her arms.
Chung rocked himself on his heels, flinging his pigtail from one shoulder to the other, and snorted like a porker mighty pleased with himself.
"Velly good boy," said he. "Missie say velly good boy!"
"Very good boy," declared the doctor, and the tears were on her cheeks.
"But," said the minister, "that animal ain't MacTavish. That's a foreign variety that ain't listed frequent, cos there ain't no demand."
"It's MacTavish! MacTavish!" said his mistress. "They've shaved him," and she gathered him under her fur coat.
"Tief her from Lao T'ai T'ai," declared Chung, with smug self-satisfaction. "Cut off fezzers an' put her in dye pot so no can tell."
"And they put him in a blue pot," said the doctor half-laughing. And she pressed her own face to the funny little face poking out from among her furs.
And then, of course, my missus took a hand. It didn't strike her the way it did the rest of us. It wouldn't. She thought the doctor was a fool, and very nearly said so.
"But it's so ugly now," said she. "You're never going to bring an ugly little beast like that along with us."
"But he's my MacTavish," said the doctor, and she was so overjoyed she forgot to think the other was rude. "He'll be pretty again presently. And even if he isn't, he's my own little dog. I can stand anything now. I know I can walk through Tibet."
"And I wouldn't put it past us. We may have to do that yet," I said.
She smiled and her eyes looked straight into mine. Well, of one thing I can take my oath, if that journey is in any way manageable, Rosalie Grahame, M.D., is the woman to go through with it.
THE SETTING OUT ON THE GREAT ADVENTURE
"Call now if there be any that will answer thee;
and to which of the saints will thou turn?"
IT is wonderful how things settle themselves.
"The Lord's guiding hand," said the minister.
Perhaps after all we do mean the same, the minister and I, when he talks about the "dear Lord," and I of the "Power that is behind all," only mine's the more dignified way of putting it. I couldn't talk out loud like they did at Yang Cheng, but I prayed all the time "Oh God, give me back MacTavish, or if you can't give him back make it easy for the poor little man."
And I've got him and I'm grateful. But exuberant parade of gratitude is in some way unseemly. God, if there is a God, will understand. I remember a kind old Catholic priest talking to me about God once, and I said I didn't like to think of God always with His eye upon me.
"My dear girl," said he, "God is a gentleman!"
Now that hits it. These people are dear and good, but their God is not a gentleman.
How I slept once MacTavish was brought back to me. I felt as if nothing would keep my eyes open, and as for being afraid, there didn't seem anything to be afraid of. Whatever the city was doing, White Wolf or the Society of the Elder Brethren, or whoever was arranging the little row that upset us, was well satisfied with what had been accomplished and was not looking round for stray foreigners. As for my friend, Hop Sing, he was only too thankful to lend money on good security, the sewing machine, it appeared, was gone beyond repair, and his idea was to get as much money as possible out of the way till the country had settled down again. We were a godsend to Hop Sing. The question of supplies simplified itself. He was glad enough to sell us a couple of mules—all he had—he'd have sold us forty if he'd had them—a large bag of puffed rice, tea, sugar, flour, and enough fur coats and padded cotton quilts to keep out the bitter cold, and then he suggested we should borrow again the money we'd paid for them.
That suggestion comforted me. He evidently thought we'd come through, and I have a great opinion of my friend Hop Sing's wisdom. Of course he said it was taking risks, but he was taking risks anyway with Pai Lang on the war path. The poor minister's feelings were terribly hurt by finding he actually put more faith in the B.A.T. than in the friends of the missionaries. Hop Sing explained that he had often tried the B.A.T. and found them trustworthy, faithfully carrying out the agreements of their servants, whereas he was not quite sure of the unknown God in whom the minister put his trust. And the more he explained that he meant no disrespect, only that he did not know, the more the unlucky man felt that he had failed in his mission.
All the next day when I could keep my eyes open, we discussed the question of which way we should go. It was a most important question, and at any other time I think I should have been awfully dismayed at finding we were cut off from Lan Chou, which is the capital of Kansu, and the town which lies on the high road to Peking. As it was I had had so much excitement, we had come through so much, that our future route seemed of minor importance. Yang Cheng is almost on the borders of Tibet, a compact little city in a valley west of Sining and not very far from the grass country. The country here was a series of hills and valleys stretching down from the great plateau, the beginning of the great mountain system that stretches right across the heart of Asia. That is the big way of talking about it. What we saw was a series of hills and dales, and roughly if we went west we got into the grass country and the hills of Tibet where there were robber tribes who might be worse than Pai Lang, while to go east led us into the valley of the Hoang Ho. But Lan Chou, the great city of that valley, was held by Pai Lang.
The thing was then to get to the river east of Lan Chou and then drift down it through Mongolia till it entered China again as the boundary between Shansi and Shensi. There were missionary stations in Northern Shansi where we should be quite safe could we reach them. The thing was to strike the river beyond Pai Lang. To do that we must take a journey of at least a couple of hundred miles.
They were discussing the matter when I went to sleep in the early morning, the long day wore away, and when I wakened from the most delightful sleep I have ever had in my life with MacTavish nestling close beside me they were still at it.
"We'll be guided, we'll be guided," said the minister.
"I've always found," said Mr. Chapman coolly, "that making up one's mind assists the guiding considerably. There's nothing for it that I see but that tramp, and with these helpless women——" he stopped and looked at me thoughtfully.
"Now what have I done," I said, "to be called helpless?"
"I've eyes," said he quite kindly, and indeed he was right. I believe I could get along as well almost as one of the men, for I always hold that the average woman, young and strong, can endure hardship quite as well, or even better than the average man, but neither Mrs. Wright nor his wife were normal. Stella Chapman would have been all right if she could have got over her early Victorian training. Unluckily I believe she thought helplessness added to her charm. As for poor Mrs. Wright that was a different matter. She is old, I daresay she may be forty-seven or forty-eight, she was always frail and sick, and now she is terribly shaken. She looked up with a faint smile.
"I reckon I'll be helped," said she. "Many a time I've wickedly wearied an' lost faith, but the help has always come."
"It's the Mongols I'm thinking about," said the minister.
"Good-natured," said Mr. Chapman—he never wasted words—"and awful cowards."
"Mebbe," said the minister, "but when the Mongol's top dog I hear he goes nap as a bouncer. He's the chestiest, cockiest rooster——"
"We've sampled the Chinaman," said Mr. Chapman—"we're between the devil and the deep sea."
And that settled it.
It was two hours after sunset that the great adventure began. We scrambled down from our hiding place into the road that led up the valley a little north. Hop Sing had been as good as his word, and two mules in charge of a muleteer and all the things we had ordered came up as we slipped down. The muleteer was frightened, a Chinaman hates travelling by night, and Chung took him in hand with soothing words and presently the loads were rearranged so that on one was a pile of bedding and a place where one person might ride. It was very clear only one could ride, and it was equally clear that one must be Mrs. Wright.
"You put her up, Mr. Conant," I said, for the minister was only a little man. Then in the darkness, for we only had the light of the stars, I heard a sob beside me, and I found that Stella Chapman was crying. What on earth was she crying about? I couldn't imagine. Everything was going so smoothly.
"Why, my dear!" I said, rather sharply I'm afraid. "What's the matter?" I was tingling all over with the excitement of the thing, exhilarated, but it evidently didn't take her that way. It was bitter cold, and the air was crackling with frost, but luckily there was no wind. If we'd ordered the night it couldn't have been better.
"I'm trying to be brave," came her quivering voice. "Oh, I'm trying to be brave."
Possibly she was afraid of her husband.
"I'm sure you are," I said. "But I don't think there's anything to be afraid of yet."
"You see, I can't walk," she sobbed, "and it will be so lonely to be left alone. It will be a long time before one can die."
"But my goodness!" I said, "who's talking about leaving you? We're going very slowly, just as slowly as you like. Cheer up!"
Then she explained.
"Oh, I know you're kind, but I'm not expecting you to stay for me. Of course I shouldn't think of such a thing."
"For God's sake don't be a fool, Stella!" said her husband roughly.
Thank goodness I haven't a husband.
She took it much more nicely than I should have done.
"I'm not complaining, Silas," she said. "It isn't my fault if I'm weak and helpless. It's only just saying good-bye is a little hard," and she drooped her head.
I think Stella is inclined to overdo the pathetic note. I felt rather inclined to try what a good shaking would do.
"Don't be silly," I said. "Come along. You never know what you can do till you try. Mr. Conant and your husband will give you a hand." And I couldn't help feeling it would add considerably to our difficulties if at every awkward corner Mrs. Chapman was going to be on the verge of collapse.
She might have read my thoughts.
"I don't want to be a burden to anybody," she said.
We were all silent for a minute. Then Mrs. Wright spoke.
"My dear," she said, "I never could abide a mule. I'm thinking if I can ketch holt of Septimus' arm I can manage right well, an' it ain't fair for me an' Septimus to butt in an' take the mule."
But that was more than I could agree to.
"Can't we get another mule?" I asked Mr. Chapman.
"Not the tail of a donkey," he said angrily, "and we can't stand barneying here. Buck up, Stella, you little fool!"
It certainly didn't encourage her.
"I know I can't walk," she asserted patiently. "Leave me some bedding and I'll go back to the hollow."
And then to my dismay Mrs. Wright settled it. She slipped her hand under her husband's arm and turned down the rough road. I knew he was smiling fondly by the sound of his voice.
"Sallie and me," said he, "reckon we're comin' out strong in the toddlin' line. We ain't purfessionals, but we sorter reckon we can hold our own end up. We'd be kind of annoyed if we couldn't make good," and without another word the pair set out and vanished in the gloom of the overhanging hills. Mr. Conant picked up Stella Chapman and lifted her on to the pack saddle.
"I'd rather stay behind," she sobbed. "I hate to take the mule."
"I wish you'd try to walk," I couldn't help saying. "Mrs. Wright is ill. I'm not sure she isn't very ill."
"I will stay behind," she protested, but she made no movement to get down, and Mr. Chapman began stuffing quilted "comforts" round her to keep out the cold.
I could have cried, but it seemed likely Stella Chapman would provide the company with plenty of tears.
"Don't you worry," said Mr. Conant. "You see things will settle down as we go on. Besides, we're sure to raise another mule."
The first night was certainly trying. We crawled on slowly, our pace made by Mrs. Wright, and it was lucky indeed it was mostly down hill. When the minister and his wife sat down we all halted and rested by the wayside for a couple of hours. Mrs. Chapman still rode. She seemed to take it as a matter of course. Not that she was very comfortable. She was perched up on the bedding with her feet hanging down each side of the animal's neck. She had nothing to hold on to except the bedding, no means of guiding the mule, and whenever he stumbled, which he did very often, for the road was rough and full of holes, she shrieked. Her husband walked alongside to see that she did not fall, I presume, and whenever she shrieked he cursed her openly for a fool. I picked up MacTavish because now he was all one dark colour in the gloom I could not see him, and Mr. Conant protested.
"You've enough to carry without the extra weight," for we each carried some of our possessions hung round us, and it was so cold the heavy clothing we were obliged to wear was in itself a load.
"I suppose it does seem silly to you," I said, "but it's such a comfort to feel him in my arms."
"No, it doesn't seem silly," he said. "I sometimes wonder," he went on, "if I haven't missed something. I don't believe I have ever felt as badly about anything as you did about MacTavish the other day."
I wondered. It was very pleasant having Mr. Conant talk to me like a good comrade. I said:
"You spoil things when you love too much."
Dimly in the darkness I saw him looking at me curiously.
"Have you loved too much?" he asked.
I remembered that I had been engaged twice—twice—but now I came to think of it, I don't believe I had loved at all. I certainly never loved either of those men as I love MacTavish.
"No, I certainly haven't loved too much," I said, and I found I wasn't even bitter any more.
"And I——" began Mr. Conant.
Stella Chapman's voice interrupted him.
"I can't stand it any longer. I'm just aching all over."
"After all, you're better off than Mrs. Wright," I said.
"It can't be far to the next village," said Mr. Conant, "but perhaps we'd better halt till daylight."
It was rather a miserable little company that crouched against the steep cliff side waiting for the dawn. Stella Chapman nestled against me. She was half afraid lest I should be cross with her for taking the mule.
"I know it was mean of me," she said, "but I wasn't brave enough to stop behind. If you're going to hate me I shall wish I had. You're my only comfort."
I soothed her, and with the bedding we made a place where she and Mrs. Wright could lie down on the ground, and the rest of us sat down round them. Luckily the nights are not long even in December south of 38°, and by half-past six the stars began to pale and the jagged tops of the purple mountains to the east were outlined against a rosy sky. It was lovely, and it was still more lovely when beneath the rose came a band of gold that stretched from mountain top to mountain top, and then long streamers of gold, rays from the sun god himself, streamed upwards to the zenith.
"If we only had some tea," sighed Stella.
We all looked at Chung, who squatting on his haunches, with his eyes fixed on the sunrise, was slowly tipping himself first on to his toes and then back to his heels again.
"No can," he said without the ghost of a smile, "Missie no have sat on," and he went to the mule load and produced a bottle which he held out to Mr. Conant.
"Have floze," said he.
"No wonder I was wretched," said Stella indignantly. "Where is this village?"
"The village isn't far," said Mr. Conant. "The minister has been there and he says they were lovely to him."
You'd have thought he didn't know the minister when he drew comfort from that statement. However the village proved to be only three miles off and if the people weren't exactly what I should call "lovely," at least they were not unfriendly. It was only a small mountain village with hills on either side, and the people were interested to see so many foreigners together, and they clustered round and escorted us to the only inn in the place.
THE GODDESS OF MERCY
"Look thy last on all things lovely
Every hour: let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
Till to delight
Thou have paid thy utmost blessing,
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
In other days."
SINCE Chapman and I were the only fighting members of the party we were relieved to find that Chinese village not particularly anti-foreign. The men who were feeding the mules and donkeys in the inn yard left their job to come and stare as the cobble-stones rang to our shod feet. We had to walk warily for where there was any liquid it was solid sheets of mighty slippery ice.
"Luckily," remarked Dr. Grahame, and I saw what she meant, it was sewage pure and simple.
The stalls for the mules open in front were ranged round one side of the yard, and opposite the entrance was the inn proper, a building of stones and mud, and when the door was opened and three or four ragged dirty men muffled to the eyes from the cold of the early morning tumbled out they brought with them such a reek of human occupancy that even Rosalie Grahame stood back.
"We can't," wailed Stella genuinely disgusted, "we can't."
"We certainly can't," said Dr. Grahame, and then looked round to see what offered. "We'll have to make the best of a mule stall," she said. "Luckily we're all used to the open. It won't be bad. We can make the stalls quite comfortable with plenty of straw."
"We can't live in a mule stall," Stella protested, "I want to wash—I want——" she looked across at me.
"I tell you, Stella, you'll have to lump it," said her husband harshly. "There's no washing for us this side of the Hoang Ho," and he seemed to find satisfaction in the thought.
The minister spoke to the landlord, a friendly gentleman in a fur cap with a dirty smile face, who hawked and expectorated, and finally agreed for forty cash—roughly something under a penny—to put kaoliang straw in two of the stalls, and for eighty cash more to supply us with enough warm water to do a little elementary washing. In such circumstances as ours it was somewhat difficult to preserve what we are accustomed to consider the decencies of life, and I could not help being struck with the different way in which the two girls took the situation. The young doctor accepted it as the most natural thing in the world. There would have been no awkwardness but for Stella Chapman. Her false modesty many a time brought a hot blush to the other girl's cheek.
"I feel sometimes," she told me one day, "as if I could strangle the people who brought up Stella Chapman."
I don't know that any upbringing would have improved Stella Chapman. She is rotten at the core. And yet she manages to be alluring.
Mrs. Wright accepted a bed of kaoliang straw in a mule stall as if it had been a room in a palace, and sank back in her rugs with a sigh of deep thankfulness.
"Now you must lie there," I heard Dr. Grahame say, "and I'll bring you some tea. Chung has gone to see if he can't buy a couple of chickens for breakfast."
"My dear, you're lovely to me," said the weary woman, looking up with a world of gratitude in her faded eyes. "It's real good to be here and I'm so tired I can't keep my eyes open."
"She's lucky to be able to sleep," commented Stella enviously. "I'm aching in every bone."
The village was the poorest of the poor. They all came to stare, and the wretched women with their bound feet and many ailments moved the young doctor to compassion.
"I could help some of them," she said. "I've a few medical comforts here——" and she looked at the minister.
"It's takin' on too big a contract," he said, shaking his head. "If you didn't cure 'em slick they'd blame the bally lot of us an' we'd have to face the music." And then he seemed to think he might have been unfaithful to his trust for he added, "Ma an' I are right willin', of course, if you feel like reskin' it——"
But Stella Chapman interrupted him emphatically. She disliked the Chinese and is not likely to heed anyone else's suffering.
"No," she said, "no. Don't let's risk anything. Let us get away from these horrible, horrible people. We have enough to bear as it is. There, don't look as if you thought I was a brute, Rosalie darling, but I can't feel they're human. I feel as if they were beasts, disgusting beasts."
Dr. Grahame hugged her dog.
"Treasure dog," she said, "we mustn't do it, and here's my skill going to waste. I abhor waste."
"It would be waste if we were all killed now," said Stella, and that was truth enough.
It was amusing to see the way Dr. Grahame put her foot down next morning. She was determined that Mrs. Wright should not walk a step. Stella looked at her and then at me and accepted the situation with a gay little laugh.
"You'll all have to help me," she said, and before we were out of the village I found her soft little hand thrust through my reluctant arm and her pretty little face looking up into mine while Rosalie was wholly occupied with Mrs. Wright.
In the clear bright sparkling cold of the early morning we went on our way. The ground was frozen hard, the hills all round were covered with snow, and the cold was bitter, but the sun was turning the little icicles that hung from the eaves of the houses into scintillating diamonds. The sky above us was a matchless blue. It was a delightful morning and half the village accompanied us on our way to the east gate.
Outside was a shrine of the goddess of mercy. It stands at most city gates in China. And when I think how deadly poor the people are, how ready they always are to help each other, I think that on the whole, however shabby those little shrines may appear, the great goddess is not neglected.
This was a very poor little shrine and the image was old and dusty, and in the pot of sand that stood on her altar were no incense sticks. A priest, or at any rate a servitor of the sanctuary, stood bowing to us as we passed and he held out a handful of those sticks. The minister waved them aside with a get-thee-behind-me-Satan motion, and the old man looked pleadingly at the rest of us. Stella shrank up to me.
"Oh," she said, "isn't he horrid?"
But Rosalie Grahame saw him in another light. She gave him a mou, ten go to a Mexican dollar, but it was worth more than a hundred cash, and I believe the old man had only hoped she might be good for a cash. Anyhow, he bowed himself to the ground and made loud exclamations of thanks and joy.
"Missie pay too much," said Chung reproachfully, but she didn't mind Chung. The minister was another matter. He was ahead walking beside the mule on which his wife was riding, and he turned round and saw her with the incense sticks in her hand just about to put them in the jar before the goddess. To me it seemed a pretty little act of recognition of kindness received.
"Rosalie Grahame!" thundered the minister, and the distress in his tones sent the colour flying to forehead and chin, and the smile she had turned on the old servitor died away, "you shall not deny the dear Lord! You shall not peril your soul in idolatrous practices!"
She looked from the one man to the other, pleasure on one face, pain on the other. Evidently she made up her mind.
"The town has been good to us," she said, with a note of decision in her voice.
Chapman was looking on with a smile, and his wife was clinging to my arm.
"What are they all bothering about?" said she.
"I don't want to deny my colour," said Dr. Grahame, "but the village has been good to us. Why shouldn't I make an offering to their goddess of mercy. I like the idea," and she got a match from Chung, who was enjoying himself, and lighting the sticks placed them with all reverence in the jar of sand on the altar before the goddess.
"Got plenties monies," said Chung preening himself.
"You are denying Christ," said the minister with quivering lips.
"No," said Dr. Grahame, "no. As far as this is concerned, Christ and the goddess of mercy are one. I am offering thanks for the kindness of the village in the only way they will understand."
He turned away to overtake his wife. There was a crushed look about him.
"Anyhow," said Dr. Grahame, "the people are pleased. And it does seem so impossible to please everybody. You're not shocked."
"It's bending the knee in the house of Rimmon," said Stella, and it was the first and only time she hinted that she ever read anything.
"Ever since I came to China," I said truly enough, "I've had a longing to burn incense to the goddess of mercy."
"And you are going to be a missionary."
"I don't understand what we're making such a fuss about," said Stella. "What on earth is the good of bothering about their silly old idols?"
That was the way she put a stopper on our quest after higher things.
She is pretty in a Dresden china way, but I could no more talk to her about the faiths or the needs of the world than I could have shaken that clinging little trusting hand from my arm.
"You needn't laugh at me," Rosalie said as we resumed our march, "but ever since I have known the Chinese I have felt that the goddess of mercy is the goddess they worship in spirit and truth."
"The goddess of mercy!" Stella's voice rose to a little shriek, and she shrank closer to me, "and they were going to kill us!"
"Oh, that was by the way," said Dr. Grahame. "No nation is always consistent."
"She is silly," said Stella confidentially to me, and Chapman was grim.
"So now you see, Dr. Grahame," said he, "you've offended all round, for I reckon he," and he nodded at the man who was walking ahead with bent back, walking sorrowfully as one could see, "won't forgive you."
"He will," said Dr. Grahame, "he's a good sort, and I know he will. Unfortunately I know also he'll make it a matter of prayer, of public prayer, and when that happens I always squirm. Don't I, MacTavish?"
But before many days had passed over our heads the bitter irony of that offering was brought forcibly home to us.
THE UNEXPLAINED TERROR
"I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover
the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light.
All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land."
THE day we reached the temple of the Eleven Hot Springs I was congratulating myself that we were getting along wonderfully, when Mr. Conant suddenly dropped Stella Chapman's arm and calmly joined the minister as if there were no one in the world he more desired to speak with. Stella sat down in the snow, and said she could not walk a step further. Mr. Chapman was sarcastic, and said she might stay behind, and Mr. Conant looked round on the landscape as if it really were no business of his. Superior cat!
I was in despair when Chung came to the rescue and pointed out a wretched little hovel tucked away on the hillside in a place that would be an orchard probably when the summer came.
It was dirty, small, and hardly fit for a dog. Indeed, I shouldn't like to leave MacTavish in such a hole, but Chung had the audacity to suggest that Stella should go and stay there till we should reach some mission station in Shansi and could send back for her! Mr. Chapman said he thought he could manage to carry her that far, and then she scrambled to her feet and said we were wicked and cruel and she'd try again.
She got along fairly well, but Mr. Conant declined to have any dealings with her. Her most pleading looks were lost upon him.
Hitherto we had had still glorious weather, and now suddenly puffs of wind came to us across the snowy fields that stretched away on either side. They were the merest little sighs, but they were icy, and as they cut my cheek I turned anxiously to Mr. Chapman, who was the most weather-wise.
He looked up at the sky. It was intensely blue, but he pointed to the north-west where a heavy, dense black cloud hung low on the horizon.
"That little caboose," he said, and stopped as if that reference to the hut we had left behind us should be sufficient.
Clearly if there was a storm coming we could not stay out in it, but to retrace our steps to such a forlorn place of refuge—— Another icy puff of wind was like sharp needles in my face, and I saw the black cloud spreading upwards, spreading quickly. All the hills were covered with snow; there was a clump of trees stretching bare arms to the sky to the right, and farther on ahead was a darker clump of what might be pines apparently climbing up a cleft in the hillside. The bare trees to the right were a graveyard that offered no shelter, but those on ahead—Mr. Conant pointed.
"They look like pines," he said. The minister shook his head over them, for a clump of trees in China, when it isn't a graveyard, and a graveyard isn't likely to climb up a hillside, generally means a temple. The Temple of Eleven Hot Springs, Chung said was hereabout.
"More better go," said he, also looking at the threatening sky, and then he added, "Can vash."
Hot springs and a wash! It did sound tempting, and we could reach it before sundown. I gladly turned out of our path and went straight for it, I was so pleased I even forgave Stella, and we both of us revelled in the thoughts of a nice warm bath. We felt ourselves well beyond Pai Lang by now, and the priests in all the temples that I had ever seen were unwashed but civil.
A paved way that led up to the temple gates was bordered on either side by tall and densely growing dark pines. They met overhead forming a series of arches, but the sun was low and streamed in between each pair, flooding a patch of pavement with sunshine. The branches sprang from the very roots, so that looking up the avenue it was quite regular, a broad band of dark shadow, cut by a narrow band of brilliant sunshine as far as the eye could reach. We could not see the gates, they were more than a mile away. We were looking up hill, and the pathway fell again when we reached the crown. It was rather a fine vista, the avenue of pines, the brilliant sunshine, and the snow sparkling on either side. The way itself had evidently been swept.
But as we stepped under the first pair of trees there came a burst of icy wind that tossed their branches wildly, and at one swoop the light and colour went out of the landscape as though a heavy curtain had been drawn across the sun.
It was eerie. I was suddenly afraid. Those archways we had to pass under seemed menacing. Our furs were like so much tissue paper in that cutting wind. Still it reminded me how urgent it was that Mrs. Wright at least should be sheltered.
We reached the top of the little rise, and as we looked ahead I stopped with a gasp. Around us the night had come suddenly, but ahead at the end of the gloomy avenue was one long gleam of sunlight that fell upon four colossal figures making them stand out with startling distinctness. At first I thought they were alive, but presently I saw my error. They were more than twice life-size, figures of warriors of bronze, and their arms held threateningly above their heads grasped weapons, a sword, a spear, an axe and a club. So life-like was their poise that I should not have been surprised had that spear come hurtling towards us.
"Search me!" said the minister in surprised tones.
It was a relief.
"Reg'lar rough on rats carnival," he went on, "blamed if I didn't think they pirates was the slap up real thing! Goshety Gosh! Idols! Dear Lord! Idols!"
I don't think they were exactly idols. I suppose they were some manifestation of power. They certainly were uncanny, and I think if it hadn't been for the storm coming up and the desolate country all round I would have suggested going back along that avenue and pushing on for the next village, giving up all thoughts of a plentiful supply of hot water, since it was only to be attained by crossing that sinister threshold. We drew close together in silence as we approached them. There was no gate. The light from above fell directly on the figures and showed us they were raised on a platform as high as the wall on either side in the place where the gate should be. A steep ramp of carved stone, on which were entwined chiselled serpents, led up to the figures, the only means of entrance, and it was worn a little by the passing of many feet. Clearly it stood out in that solitary ray of brilliant light, which showed us, too, behind the tossing branches of other pine trees, the curved corners of many tiled roofs, red and green and burnished gold. The sound of the bells that hung from every eave came to our ears with a harsh clang, quite unlike the silver sound of most temple bells.
Then suddenly the wind died, and as if it had been a signal, the single ray of light went, too, and the ramp and the guardian figures were only dark masses against the pines amid a stillness.
But by the time we had climbed that steep ramp the storm was upon us again. The pine branches bending before each furious blast were moaning and creaking in time to the wailing of the wind, and looking back, the long avenue up which we had come was blotted out in a white whirl of flakes dancing madly in the darkness to the sound of the clanging bells.
Down the other side of the ramp we were sheltered from the gusts of wind, but we could hear it raging in the pine branches overhead. A ruddy light streaming through the carved lattice of a paper window fell on a patch of snow, and every now and then a branch of pine swung into the light and every needle stood out distinctly.
It was rather a large courtyard, like all temple enclosures, with several buildings in it, and towards the largest we made our way, the muleteer making a sort of yodel that opened a door for us and showed us an interior bare and desolate, but lighted up by a brazier of live coals. There were about twenty monks with shaven heads and long red robes crouching round it, and as the door opened twenty pairs of cold and indifferent eyes met ours. We stepped across the threshold and again there came a hush in the storm, and we stood there in utter stillness held motionless ourselves by some indefinable menace.
And then there rang on the air a piercing shriek.
Such a shriek, as long as I live it will ring in my ears. In it there was something more than terror, but not a muscle of those impassive faces moved. Martin Conant made a step forward, but Mr. Chapman laid a detaining hand on his shoulder.
"Steady," he said, "these blighters hold the trump cards."
"That was a woman," said the minister in Chinese.
And with one accord the men answered:
"There is no woman here."
From all sides were collecting red-robed monks, impassive, inscrutable, the firelight gleaming on their hairless heads. There must have been a couple of hundred of them. Then one who appeared to be in authority asked calmly, as if there had been nothing to disquiet us:
"The Before Born need lodging."
But Mr. Conant turned to the other men.
"We must do something," he said emphatically.
"Are we ghost hearin'," said the minister, "or have we got a shingle loose by any chance in our upper storeys?"
"If a couple of hundred people on their own ground declare there is nothing," said Mr. Chapman, "what can we do?"
And we had to leave it at that in spite of all Mr. Conant's urging.
"The sooner we vamoose the better," said the minister.
But the fierce raging of the storm overhead told us plainer than words that move before morning we could not. There was nothing else for it; we had to follow the monk who led the way into a little paved courtyard with a couple of rooms in it. Even under the circumstances these rooms looked havens of rest to us accustomed to the discomfort of Chinese inns. They were stone floored, but that allowed of a brazier of glowing coals. There were carved black wood tables with high Chinese chairs, cupboards bound in brass and k'angs into the fireplaces, of which a monk put a little firing to warm them. The rooms were swept and cleaner far than anything we had seen since we left the mission station.
"Oh!" sighed Stella, "if I weren't afraid!" and for once she voiced my feelings exactly.
Chung beamed. Strange sounds didn't worry him. He came in fairly purring to explain that there was a hot spring quite close in the next courtyard. It fell into a pool that had been carefully enclosed, so as to ensure privacy and "Missie can have barf."
One needs to have been tramping through the disgusting winter dust of Chinese roads for days on end to appreciate the delight we found in that announcement.
I went with Stella, and Mr. Conant said,
"I'll stand outside till you've done," and we were certainly glad to have him near. That awful shriek, the sudden silence and the impassive monks made us almost afraid to move.
It was warm in the little chamber where the hot spring bubbled up.
There was an iron bar in the stone wall and from it Chung hung a round Chinese lantern on which black dragons had been painted so that their curious shadows greatly enlarged fell on the walls. It was a very dim light, dimmer still by reason of those dragons, but it served to show us the square chamber with dark shadows in the far corners where the light did not reach and where the steam seemed to linger. The spring burst out of a rock in the corner farthest away from the door and flowed into a great circular basin cut with much labour in the living rock. It must have been boiling where it came out, judging by the steam, but at the side nearest the door where it ran out with a curious gurgling sound that we heard even above the raging of the storm, it was just pleasantly warm.
"Now don't be afraid," said Mr. Conant as he shut the door, "I'll be here."
"I am afraid," said Stella as she shed her furs. So was I. But here was a luxury we had not had for many a long day and might not have again—till—well perhaps till we reached Peking.
"There's nothing to be afraid of here," I said, but Stella pointed with trembling finger to the threatening darkness of the far corner.
"I don't like that heap," she said.
"Only rags," I said, "let's get in quickly."
The water was about three feet deep, warm, soft, luxurious. There came to us the pleasant feeling of cleansing. I even dipped MacTavish, and as I put him on the stone bank that ran all round he danced about with joy. He hated being washed, but was wild with excitement when it was all over. He felt so good.
For a moment as we dried ourselves Stella and I felt a little better.
"I'll go in again, I think," she said, "who knows when we'll get another chance."
"But Mr. Conant's waiting in the cold," I reminded her.
"Oh he'll—Oh look at your dog!"
He'd run round the basin when I'd put him down, and as he came back into the light of the lantern I saw that his little head was all wet with some dark sticky substance.
I caught him and it came off on my hands—a sinister dark stain.
"Blood!" shrieked Stella, grabbing her clothes.
His head and front paws were covered with it, and I was horrified and dipped him in the water again. Then as I let him go he ran back and I saw him worrying into what I had thought a heap of rags. In a moment I was after him and snatching him up found him all wet and sticky and stained again. Once more I dipped him in the water, and as I held him there with one hand I touched gingerly the heap among which he had nosed—and—by the dim light of the lantern I saw—and for a moment my heart stood still with horror. I heard Stella's voice asking, "What is it?" But no words would come to answer her for I remembered the shriek and here was a woman's underclothing, a foreign woman's underclothing, not stained with blood but simply soaked in it. The poor plain muslin garments trimmed with simple frilling such as Mrs. Wright and Sister Luella wore. I felt sick with horror, my legs shook under me, I thought I would have fallen into the basin, but I huddled on the rest of my clothes and wrapping MacTavish in my towels made for the door with Stella still crying,
"What is it? Oh what is it? I thought it was blood!"
"It is blood!" I heard myself saying.
And the awful part is we cannot explain it.
We told Mr. Conant, and when he had brought us back to our room, he and Mr. Chapman went together to the spring, but except for a dark smear on the rock where I had seen the heap they found nothing.
We looked at one another in fear and dismay. It deepened the mystery. The bloodstained clothes had evidently been taken away in that brief space of time. The men might have doubted my word, but Stella was emphatic.
"You think we're foolish women. But it's true, I tell you, it's true! Why MacTavish was all covered with blood! Do you think we could have imagined that!"
Unseen eyes must have been upon us. We could do nothing, We all huddled together and kept the brazier going, and the men decided that they would take it in turns to watch. And at first the only person who slept was MacTavish. About midnight Stella went to sleep and I heard the others tossing and turning, I listened to the wailing of the storm and the clanging of the bells, and I watched the glowing brazier till at last I too fell asleep.
The next day we wakened to a still quiet world, the sun shone brightly and the faintest breath of air occasionally moved a bell that gave out a soft tinkle; the snow was piled up in the courtyard, and in the pine branches soft dry powdery snow slipped down occasionally with a sighing sound.
Chung served out breakfast and the muleteer turned up as if nothing in the world had happened.
I think Mr. Conant voiced our feelings when he said it seemed as if we could not go away leaving that awful shriek and the bloodstained clothes unexplained, but Mr. Chapman shook his head and said we were no knight errants and had to think of our own skins.
"We're not out of the wood yet," said he. "I'm no coward, but I tell you I'd a deal rather postpone enquiries till we can do it safely in Peking. The monks are none too friendly and they outnumber us—well I reckon there 're two hundred if there's one."
"Goshety gosh!" said the minister—"the heathen ain't on the advertisin' lay, but I reckon if they wanted to collect us—still," he added hastily, as if we might accuse him of selfishness, "if you feel like roustin' round on the enquirin' lay I guess Momma an' me's willin'."
No the enquiring lay was foolishness. Even Mr. Conant saw that, and we went away out of that sinister courtyard across the ramp between the menacing bronze figures along the avenue of pines where the sun was barring the pavement again. It was clean swept the whole mile length of it, though once we left the courtyard we saw nobody, and this exhibition of quiet power terrified us. As we stepped off the pavement out of the shadow of the pines into the dust of the so-called road, Chung put the situation in a nutshell,
"My tink monk velly clever mans."
They were. And we were caught in this country. Every day we were deeper in the toils. If we could only have wiped out that awful visit to the temple.
We saw plenty of people as we marched along the hard frozen road, often sunk a little below the surrounding country, peasants gathering manure, small-footed, gaily dressed women mounted on donkeys, long caravans of camels and mules, and through these people we got news occasionally of Pai Lang. He was ravaging the country to the south, and most of the caravans were hesitating whether they dared go through Shensi.
On the evening of the sixth day out we crossed a frozen river by a prettily arched bridge. On the other side was a small village, like all other villages, a long street of mud-coloured houses packed close together. By the time we were settled in the usual mule stalls, it was evident Mrs. Wright was very ill indeed. Of course, she didn't complain. She always smiles sweetly, poor dear, and is quite sure everything is for the best. She lay on her bedding now, and the waning light showed her poor white face thin and transparent. Her eyes were shut with very weariness, but they were not quite closed, and there were pathetic lines reaching down from her nose to her mouth.
Next day she was no better, and I told the others she could not be moved. Whether we liked it or not we were bound to stay here.
Stella looked up from her breakfast of millet porridge and devilled chicken, and said calmly:
"What are we going to do, then? We can't all be sacrificed for one person."
No one said anything, and she seemed rather surprised.
"No matter how weary I am," she went on, "I struggle on, and now you want to stay in this awful hole. The only thing that makes things bearable is the thought that we are getting on."
I was afraid she would tell Mrs. Wright, and make her feel she was keeping us back, and then I had an idea.
"It's a good place for Mr. Chapman and Mr. Conant to look round for another mule. Then you know you could ride."
Chung serving breakfast was listening with interest. Of course, he isn't exactly happy. He is a true Chinaman, and life in these rough places on the roads is not to his taste. It is too strenuous. He has mentioned it several times, but no one took any notice, for no one had anything better to offer. Now he was in complete agreement with his late mistress. He wanted to get on, and he thought Mrs. Wright ought to be left behind.
"How far Shansi?" he asked with interest.
"Two months," I said at a venture.
Chung sat down in the ground and rocked himself backwards and forwards, the very picture of despair, and MacTavish much agitated ran round and round him letting out short, sharp barks. He still looked rather shaven, though his hair was beginning to grow, and he was assuming a piebald appearance.
"Stepped out of a nightmare," said Mr. Wright, who didn't realise how very ill his wife was.
But MacTavish's scorn was the last straw and Chung wept tears.
"Go for die," he mourned. "No lice got for far."
"Can buy," said Mr. Conant tersely.
"No can buy," asseverated Chung solemnly, and he lifted up his face to the sunshine and the tears trickled down his yellow cheeks.
"There," said Stella, "even Chung's afraid. We must go on."
"Pai Lang have Lan Chou Fu," sobbed Chung, and he rose up and went away into the middle of the courtyard. The air was crackling with frost. The rough courtyard of the inn was iron-bound, and round the edges of a hide bucket that stood by the well the water hung in icicles. The landlord of the inn inspecting it as if he had never seen such a thing before was captured by the mournful Chung, and presently was dragged by that worthy over to us. He wore an evil-smelling goatskin coat, with the hair inside, and his brown and wrinkled face, grimed with many years of dirt, peeped out from a fringe of fur that lined his cap.
"Can do one piecey mule," said Chung, solemnly, and with the air of a man who had retrieved the company from disaster.
But on investigation the matter wasn't so simple. What the landlord meant, he declared, was that twenty li away was a big Mongolian encampment where they would sell plenty of horses and mules.
"But are we all going to walk seven miles out into the desert to interview a Mongolian encampment," asked Stella.
"No, no," said Mr. Conant, "I should think your husband and I might take the mules with the innkeeper for an interpreter."
"It's a pretty batty proposition," said the minister, "interviewing the gentle Mongol."
"I can't let you go," wailed Stella, clutching at her husband's arm.
He shook her off roughly, and she turned her wet eyes on Martin Conant, who smiled at her as if a bad-tempered husband were all in the day's work.
Chung looked round on everybody benevolently, and beckoned up the muleteer and the two mules. He was going to hasten things if he could. But he had a word of warning.
"Mongols," said he, "velly bad mans. If master go die——"
THE CASTING OF LOTS
"He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap."
You make up your mind quickly on an expedition like ours. A chance of extra mules was not to be lightly thrown away. We finished our breakfast without further discussion, and then both the women came to see us off. Chung attended them and gave another word of warning.
"The tiger," said he in solemn Chinese, "even when he plays has claws."
He could never divest himself of the idea that he was running the show. Heaven knows we'd have done mighty poorly without him. I wouldn't for the world be little Chung.
Chapman drew his automatic pistol. It was the only weapon we had amongst us.
"Mine," said he, "are sharper," and Chung, who had a wholesome dread of firearms, fled, his pigtail streaming behind him. He forgot he was there to protect his mistress. We bade the two women farewell, and passed through some mounds of brickwork that had once been a gateway and tower in the Great Wall, and Chapman, silent man as he was, gave his opinion of things as we rode along.
"The minister's wife," he said, "is going to get her crown of glory."
"A rest," I said, "may do wonders."
He shook his head.
"Our uncommonly capable young doctor thinks she's going to pass in her checks."
He was right, I knew.
The desert stretched away before us brown and desolate, flecked here and there with patches of white snow. Overhead was the deep blue sky, without a sign of a cloud, but the brilliant sunshine was bitter cold. I have felt cold many a time, but the remembrance of the cold of the Mongolian plateau that day remains with me as the worst I have ever felt. In the distance were rugged hills, their jagged tops outlined against the sky. Presently I saw a couple of black specks against a white snow bank. They were lost against the brown earth, but they came on, and at last, shading my eyes, I saw they were mounted men. Mongols probably. Chapman was shortsighted, and they were close upon us before he could see them, mounted men in long belted gowns, high boots and little peaked fur caps, from beneath which strands of greasy matted black hair fell down over their turned-up collars.
As they rode up the innkeeper became frantic with excitement, and too vehement in his remarks for me to understand him.
"We've been handed out the wrong crowd," Chapman explained. "They're not from our man's encampment, but belong to a great robber chief who's best let alone."
The men were riding a couple of clever-looking, unkempt, piebald ponies, and it was very evident that with our baggage mules we stood precious little chance if they wanted to be nasty.
Chapman stooped down and grabbed the reluctant innkeeper by his pigtail, for that gentleman was giving unmistakable signs that he considered discretion the better part of valour.
"We can't do without our interpreter," he said.
The desert men hesitated, came forward, hesitated, and then came forward again till they were within hailing distance.
"Tell them," said he to the trembling innkeeper, "that we have more rifles than gold," and I saw the slit eyes of the men upon his pistol.
"Ask them," went on Chapman, "if they have ponies for sale?"
When the answer was translated into Chinese I understood that they had ponies for sale at their yurts, many ponies, and the yurts were only three li, about a mile, away.
"Recollect," said Chapman, "the proverb about the tiger from the Eastern Hills, and the tiger from the Western Hills."
There is a good deal in it.
"Meaning," I said, "that you think there's not much difference between these and the gentlemen we shall meet at Wang's?"
"Meaning also that if they don't like our little game they could quite easily collect us before we reach Wang's."
Pleasant reflection truly.
"Then we haven't much choice. If anything happens to us—those helpless women."
Chapman turned and looked me straight in the face.
"That young doctor," said he, "is dead earnest and awful clever at planning out things, and the minister's a pretty good man of business when the Lord doesn't interfere. His missus is going to peg out, and mine's a dead weight, but on the whole I don't know that we're so necessary to the plan of existence as you seem to think," and he took a turn with the unfortunate innkeeper's pigtail round his hand. "Look out," he cried, "the muleteer's going to bolt."
I hadn't paid any attention to that odoriferous individual because I thought he would stick by his mules, but as Chapman spoke he sped back on the back track as hard as his legs could carry him. He scented danger evidently as he left his sole means of livelihood behind him.
"Encouraging," said Chapman, and he waved to the newcomers to lead and we would follow.
They said something to the innkeeper, and presently Chapman was telling me that the greatest chief of all the chiefs was at the yurts we were approaching.
"Our friend," he added on his own, "does not seem to be getting any real comfort out of the fact."
I was a little amused at the shivering terrified Chinaman. We hadn't anything worth taking, and it should be worth the while of these people to open up trade with the foreigner.
"The risk's worth the ponies anyhow," I said, "and I don't see why we shouldn't win out."
I felt pretty sure all would go well. But I wished—and with that fervent wish I abjured my uncle Irwin and all his works—we were more heavily armed.
We were close to the felt tents now and the people were crowding outside them to look at the strangers. The men were dressed like the two horsemen who had brought us and the women wore unbelted gowns and high head-dresses ornamented with turquoises and rubies, and the little dark-faced children were mere bundles of fur and dirty rags.
There must have been at least forty men, and they all had matchlocks slung across their shoulders. Every man in the desert carries a weapon, and they were not arms of accuracy.
However it appeared weapons were not to count, for Chapman stood forward and flung down his pistol.
"It isn't the thing in polite Mongol society," said he, "to enter tents armed," and he flung out his empty hands and motioned me to do likewise.
Out from a black felt tent stepped the very great chief.
There was nothing to distinguish him from his people. His face was burnt nearly black from the reflection of the sun on the snow, his dark cat-skin robe was dirty and torn, but he was evidently the very great chief. His followers gave him all deference, and their deference to him seemed to do us honour.
I felt a good half-way to our goal.
"Now for the ponies," I said. "Do you think that innkeeper can interpret properly?"
"He wants," said Chapman a little grimly, "to scratch his entry. He's scared out of his seven senses."
But he interpreted nevertheless.
"He asks," came the question in his broad Kansu dialect, "if the Master is a very great chief."
"Shall we get better ponies?" I asked, "if we are big chiefs, or shall we pay less if we are humble folks?"
"An Asiatic," said Chapman, "thinks small beans of a little man. We're very great chiefs. It's lucky we left the outfit behind. Tell him I am a very great chief."
"And the other master?"
"Ringing you in," said Chapman. "The other master is a very great chief too. We're sinking your connection with the missionary trade," he added. "Missionaries, I reckon, won't carry weight up here."
"But which is the greatest chief?"
"Now," said Chapman, "that is a poser. I'm willing to share my throne, and anyhow I'm the weightier man." He squared his shoulders. "Tell him I am the mightiest chief."
"And they don't seem quite happy in their minds, even now," he added.
Though learning a little German seems to have used up all my power in foreign tongues I understood the answer that was translated into Chinese.
"The great chief is glad to meet a great foreign chief. He has long wanted one in his power."
There was no mistaking it! That is exactly what the trembling innkeeper said.
"The devil!" said Chapman turning swiftly round and looking at me, "the minister would say we've gotten a wart hog in the greased pig class!"
The Mongols didn't waste time. Before I had realised that the danger that I had thought negligible was more than threatening, a couple of men had laid their hands on my shoulders. I went for them with my fists—I would have killed the crowd if I could without compunction. But hands like iron grasped my arms, the smell of unwashed humanity and unclean clothes was in my nostrils, and I might have been a baby for all the strength I had. And Chapman with strange oaths was fighting just as helplessly.
Presently we were standing bound side by side, and it seemed as if the story had moved on with a jerk. Our terrified Chinaman was standing between a couple of Mongols, but he was not bound. I looked up at the blue sky. I had never before realised how fresh, how invigorating was the air.
"What is the Chief going to do to us now?" I asked.
"It appears his job is to show his people how big a chief he is," Chapman answered.
"But how! Why we rode straight into his camp!" I felt very angry.
"By killing a great foreign chief," said Chapman grimly. "Now keep a straight face on you, man. One of us is going to die, and the other——"
"The other——" I repeated stupidly. How bright the sunlight was! The air was like champagne! The snow——
His clear cool voice cut across my thoughts like a whip lash.
"The other goes to tell the foreign peoples and the Chinese how great a chief is the blighter who dares this thing."
And then we looked at one another. One of us was to die!
I looked round and every man was unslinging his matchlock in silence. There was on all the faces turned towards us an eager expectant look. And on the clear air rang the joyous laugh of a little child. One of us was to die!
"Which?" I asked mechanically.
"That's the beauty of it," said Chapman. "They can't decide which of us is the greatest chief."
"Oh, the gentleman's only too willing to oblige. He went nap on you."
So I was to die in the sunshine. It was a queer feeling.
"But he straightened things out," went on the cold even voice, "by giving me a look in."
"I suppose they will kill us both," I heard myself say.
"That idea was mooted, I gather," said Chapman calmly, "but its drawback is it leaves no one to tell the tale."
"Then in God's name," I said, "what are they going to do?"
"Shoot one of us, and give the other a piebald pony because it isn't becoming a great chief should bestraddle a mule. Oh Lord, if they could only see our outfit!"
"If they only could! To think it is all a mistake!"
It is no easy thing to face death, sudden, unexpected, unnecessary. To wish that I might live was to wish him dead, and I felt the sweat cold on my forehead and salt on my lips. And he proceeded to explain that there would be two rifles and one would be loaded and the other empty, but the men behind those rifles would not know which was which.
"Will they give us time to write a note, to send a message?"
"The transaction is spot cash," said Chapman, and I saw a couple of rifles being handed to the two men who had brought us, while the rest of the people moved away from us. Then he spoke again.
"If you come through give a hand to my wife. She's pretty helpless, poor little cuss."
I was obsessed with the thought that time was short, that I had much to think of, many messages to send, and I would never get them said.
"So long, old chap," said Chapman's voice, softened as I had never heard it before.
We stood there alone, hands and feet bound, and opposite us, quite close, hardly a rifle's length away, stood the two nomads we had met so hopefully half an hour ago. They were putting their rifles to their shoulders——
"That's right, smile," said Chapman, "mustn't let the beggars think we funk it."
God knows I had no idea I was smiling. I remembered how the minister had calmed an angry Chinese mob by making them laugh, but these men were not going to be done out of their prey so lightly.
What a long time they took to arrange things! And yet I kept thinking if I only had a little more time, a little more time. Chapman was looking grimly ahead down the barrels of two rifles.
There was a quick sharp crack. I shut my eyes involuntarily and opened them again.
And the world was exactly the same! There were the jagged hills in the distance cutting into the clear blue sky. There were the patches of snow on the brown earth. There were the clustering, interested, eager people in front of us. I heard the sound of their voices as in a dream. I drew a deep long breath of the invigorating air. I was alive! I was alive! For a moment I thought of nothing else. And Chapman stood beside me.
"Old man," I said, and I felt as if I spoke with difficulty. Aeons had passed since last I spoke to him. He turned and swayed towards me.
"Tell them I died game," he said. "And my accounts are fairly correct," and the blood gushed from his mouth as he fell forward on his face.
And a man ran forward with a knife and cut my bonds.
THE ONE WHO WAS LEFT
"Something there is
(With my lips soothing thee, adding I whisper,
I give thee the first suggestion, the problem and indirection),
Something there is more immortal even than the stars."
THERE is a certain sort of woman—I have always envied them—from whose flesh and hair and clothes there always seems to emanate a sort of subtle fragrance, and even here after all our rough journeying, Stella had that charm. Now as she walked along leaning heavily on my arm after we had seen the men off, she sighed once or twice and then looked up at me,
"Oh Rosalie, you don't think me awfully wicked, do you?"
"You?" I said. I don't know that I exactly thought her a saint, but I was very sure she did not consider herself a sinner. "Why?"
She hesitated, and then said in a half whisper, "About Martin Conant, of course. Indeed it isn't my fault."
"Martin Conant?" I tried to speak naturally, but her words came like a little sharp sting.
"Don't you see?" she said. "I thought you would—I mean a woman can't help it if a man falls in love with her, can she?" and she lifted her caressing eyes to mine.
I don't know what I should have answered, but just at that moment the minister called me to his wife and I had to give her all my attention. Indeed she was very ill and I thought she was gone. But all the while I was attending to her I was thinking about what Stella Chapman had told me. Martin Conant was in love with her. Of course it was more than likely. She was just the sort with whom a man would fall in love. Of course a man oughtn't to fall in love with a married woman, and oughtn't to tell her so if he does, but they do, and why should I suppose Martin Conant was any better than the majority? I had just been thinking myself how attractive she was—Mr. Conant would feel it more deeply. I was sure of that.
Yes, probably Martin Conant did love her. A man would never notice that she was selfish, unless he swung over to the other side like her husband. But Martin Conant—my comrade and friend, Martin Conant! Till this minute I believe I had only thought of him as a good comrade—why should I mind if he was in love with Stella Chapman? I've been half in love with her myself. He could be a good comrade still—and I want nothing else—still—still—damn—damn—damn——
The minister was with his wife, Stella Chapman was curled up in the other mule stall asleep, and MacTavish was sitting beside me, every now and again stroking my dress with his little white paw. It was his way of saying
"You're forgetting your little dog."
Suddenly he leaped on my lap, and looking up I saw Chung with the tears streaming down his face. It didn't take much to move Chung to tears so I wasn't much alarmed.
"Missie," he said solemnly, "all go for die."
"Nonsense, Chung," I thought a little opposition would cheer him, "I have no intention of dying just yet."
"Missie," his hands were playing nervously with the bit of dark blue cord at the end of his long pigtail, "one piecey man have come back."
Then I was on my feet in a moment.
"Who? The innkeeper?" I was frightened now. Why should the innkeeper come back alone?
"One piecey muleteer," sobbed Chung. "Missie go for Lan Chou. Mongols velly bad mans!" and his voice rose to a shriek.
"Hush!" I said, "hush!" It was no good rousing Stella till it was absolutely necessary. She could not help in any way. I should like to have had the minister's advice, but Mrs. Wright was very ill. I couldn't very well take him away from her.
So MacTavish and I went out through the courtyard into the street, where I saw the muleteer crying and wringing his hands, and as far as I could make out, declaring that the Mongols had stolen his mules, and I must pay. What had happened to the men on the mules apparently he didn't know and didn't care. I was sick with fright, and I was helpless. It didn't even seem funny to me that these two men grown to man's estate should stand in front of me with the tears running down their yellow cheeks, one reiterating in Chinese that his mules were stolen, and the other sobbing in broken English, "Missie mus' hide. Missie mus' go for Lan Chou!"
While we stood there another Chinaman came running in. If the muleteer was excited there are no words in the English language to express this man's terror. His eyes were starting out of his head, his pigtail was flying out behind him, and his breath was coming in gasps. He had evidently run for his life. I did not recognise him for the moment, but Chung and the muleteer did. It was the innkeeper who had gone out with Mr. Conant and Mr. Chapman to act as interpreter. Apparently he didn't see the others as he rushed along in his headlong flight, but they caught him and there was a very babel of tongues.
Of course I knew the language, I knew it quite well, but a sort of sick feeling came over me, there was a darkness before my eyes, and what they were saying reached my ears as meaningless sound. MacTavish stood on his hind legs against me and signified that he was afraid for a wonk was coming after him, and I picked him up mechanically. It seemed as if I were saying to myself, "Martin Conant! Martin Conant! Martin!" Then Chung broke in in English,
"Mongol velly bad mans! Have makee master die!"
I understood his Pigeon English. Oh, it was plain enough. I could see everything clearly, the rutty frozen road that led away to the village gate, the walls on either side, the archway that led into the inn yard; overhead the sky was blue and the sun shone brightly, while in the air was a sting. I wanted to ask him which master, but my voice wouldn't come. I wasn't in the least afraid. I never thought about the rest of us or what might happen in the future. I could only think of Mr. Conant's kind grey eyes under his heavy brows looking back at me—at us—as he rode out of the village gates and on through the wall. I was afraid to put into words my fears, lest the very naming of them should make them true. MacTavish stretched up his little face as if asking me what was the matter, and then another man came running—but this man was not afraid—and he caught hold of Chung. In a moment—the relief of that moment—Chung's face straightened out, his air of self-importance descended upon him, and it seemed to me as if a load had been lifted from my heart. They were wrong, these messengers of disaster, or Chung would never have looked like that. He pranced forward in his old cheerful, important manner. The tears were not dry upon his cheeks, but he had forgotten all about them.
"Master wantchee minister," said he as airily as if he had not been explaining to me two minutes before that "Master makee die," and he turned to go into the inn yard—for like all Chinamen he did not think much of a woman when a man was in question.
But I spoke to him so sharply that he remembered that he was my boy originally, and a Chinaman always keeps to his bargain.
"Minister no can come," I explained. "Mrs. Wright plenty sick."
Chung knew that as well as I did. He put his head on one side ingratiatingly, "Master say, fetch minister."
"Missie will go," I said. "Chung come with Missie," and I thrust MacTavish into his arms. Both MacTavish and Chung objected, but I knew it would keep Chung close behind me.
It was only a step or two to the gate, and but a little way beyond was the gap in the Wall through which the two had gone so gaily so short a time before. There were some people there, a handful of Chinese in quilted blue coats and furs, two mules and a skewbald pony, and—my heart stood still and then went on again beating furiously—there was Martin Conant. I heard Chung making little purring sounds of satisfaction as if he had arranged it all, and I slowed down for a moment to collect my wits. I could not meet them with a heart beating like mad, and then Mr. Conant turned his face towards me and I could hardly help crying out. The light and life seemed to have been ruled out of it. It was white, and his eyes were sunken in his head. I thought of all the tales of torture I had heard, and ran forward pushing aside the Chinese who were clustering round.
"Martin Conant! What is the matter?"
It seemed as if his lips could hardly form the words.
"I wanted the minister," he said, "but nobody can do any good."
"The minister can't come. I never even told him. He has his own job, poor man. And if you're ill I'm worth much more than the minister."
I saw it was no good mincing matters. He was ill and wanted looking after.
For a moment his face lighted up.
"You're a doctor, of course, perhaps——" and he drew aside and I saw on the mule its load. The dead body of Silas Chapman.
Perhaps—no, there was no perhaps about it. Silas Chapman was dead. It took me but a few moments to ascertain that, and then I turned to the man who was looking at me with miserable eyes.
For the first time since I had known him, Martin Conant seemed incapable of thought or action. Evidently he had had a shock. There was nothing else for it. I must take the conduct of affairs into my own hands. The muleteer, with glad surprised cries, was rejoicing over the return of his animals, and I called to him to lay the body down there, and taking MacTavish from Chung set him to watch it while I led Mr. Conant back to the inn. In the little temple of the goddess of mercy I made him rest for a moment, and by buying a few incense sticks paid for a seat on a stone, and got him a little tea.
The people went away. Possibly they thought the muleteer and the innkeeper would be more communicative. Mr. Conant sat there with his head in his hands. I brought him the tea.
"Drink it," I said. He lifted up his face as if he did not understand.
"Drink this tea," I said, "rest a little, and then we'll go back to the others."
"I feel as if I can never face them again," he said. "Why was he taken and I left?"
He was so obviously wretched that I ventured to put my hand on his shoulder and gently touch his cheek. Perhaps a little human sympathy might help him.
"Tell me all about it," I said. He dropped his head down till it rested against my skirts and I took off his hat and smoothed his hair. MacTavish was frantic with jealousy, but for once I was not thinking of MacTavish.
And then in disjointed words he told me all about it. MacTavish sat on a stone a little way off looking at us with a disdainful air, "You've forgotten your little dog. Well he doesn't care," and once Martin Conant had found words the story flowed.
I had been so desperately anxious when the muleteer and the innkeeper had been talking that I thought I had not understood them, but now as Martin Conant told his story I knew I had heard it all before in Chinese, except what he and Mr. Chapman had said to one another.
The telling of the story brought him a measure of calmness, and he raised his face and looked at me with sad eyes.
"What could I have done?" said.
"You could not have done anything," I said. "You seem to have forgotten that it is the merest chance that it is you who are sitting here and telling me the story and not Mr. Chapman. Come back to the inn now and rest."
The incense sticks were burnt out now, only their sensuous fragrance lingered on the sharp cold air. The goddess of mercy looked at us with unseeing eyes. We rose up to go. Mr. Conant thrust his arm through mine as if he were afraid to be alone, and MacTavish trotted over and asked to be picked up.
"I'm your own little dog," he said in the soft murmurs of a Japanese pug, "and when you think about it you'll remember you've treated me very badly."
"And how am I to tell his wife?" asked Martin Conant. "How in God's name am I to tell his wife?"
Then I remembered disagreeably what Stella had told me this morning.
THE PASSING OF MRS. WRIGHT
"Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. Though a man should give all the substance of his house for love, yet it would utterly be contemned."
I COULD never afterwards remember how I got back to the little village where I had left the others. But the Mongols hindered me in no way. Rather did they help. They supplied me with a skewbald pony for my own riding, they strapped the body of the dead man upon one of the mules, and they escorted us half-way back to the gap in the Great Wall whence they had come. Thence with good-tempered laughing gestures they turned back, and I went on with my burden.
And this is where Rosalie Grahame comes in.
I hardly knew what I was doing or saying, but she took charge of everything in the most natural and capable manner in the world. God bless her for the very best of women. Lucky the man with whom she elects to throw in her lot. She engineered me into the temple of the goddess of mercy, got me some tea—it was nectar that tea—and made me tell the whole story. Why the telling should have soothed me I don't know, but it did; perhaps the kind and sympathetic touch of that gentle hand did more. Presently she said,
"Now you'll leave everything to me. I'll get another stall cleared out for you and I'm going to give you a draught that'll make you sleep."
"But I have to tell——"
"No, you will leave that to the minister and me."
So coward that I am, I left it to her, and when I awakened again the worst was over.
I think the telling of Stella was a bad job. She shrieked and wailed and cursed me till even Mrs. Wright, a frail ghost, sat up and tried to comfort her. But she wouldn't be comforted. Rosalie Grahame arranged with the muleteer that the dead body of poor Chapman should be guarded from wonks and wolves and should not be brought into the village, but should be buried there in the open.
"I know he'd like it better," said she. "I should. It is sweet and fresh by the Wall."
When I waked from a very refreshing sleep Stella was still wailing. She added greatly to my shame somehow. Of course I know his death was no fault of mine, but if I had never looked into her eyes I should have felt less guilty.
I had to see her. That was inevitable. She burst out crying afresh. Perhaps that too was natural.
"I promised your husband," I said, "that if I were the one to come through I'd take care of you."
"Tea have got," said Chung's correct voice. I believe Rosalie Grahame had arranged the interview so that it should be immediately interrupted; Chung, when he wasn't in fear of his life, was quite sure that nothing should interfere with our sacred meals.
"As if I could look at afternoon tea and poor dear Silas not in his grave," sobbed Stella. She was meretricious to the core. I wondered that I had ever been attracted by her.
"But you must have some," said the other woman's pretty voice. Have I said that Rosalie Grahame, in addition to a radiant smile, has a very pretty voice? It is like the chiming of silver bells. "It will do you good."
"I can't face it," wailed Stella, "I can't face it," and there was an air about her as if there was some particular virtue in not being able to face it.
Mrs. Wright did not come to tea. Neither did her husband, and afterwards Dr. Grahame said, "I'll try and persuade Mr. Wright to have some now. I'll stay with his wife."
"What's the matter with her?" I asked.
With a little catch in her breath she answered,
Stella cried out, "Rosalie! Rosalie!" but Dr. Grahame never looked at her. She turned towards the mule stall and we followed. Mrs. Wright was lying back in the rugs and blankets, and her husband sat beside her holding tenderly her poor thin hand.
"There is no one to hold my hand now," sobbed Stella, oblivious of the fact that since we had known her she and her husband had quarrelled steadily and openly. I couldn't very well laugh but I did wonder what the other young woman who had a keen sense of humour was thinking.
Stella had the hardihood to address the minister.
"We're afraid of the Mongols," she said, and dropped on her knees in the straw.
He looked up quickly.
"The Mongols ain't got any grouch against us," said he simply, "an' Sallie's real right down wore out. Ain't you, Momma?" and he looked at her tenderly.
She put out a thin hand and laid it on his wrist. It was little more than a skeleton with skin like paper drawn tightly over it. Her husband covered it with loving fingers.
"You didn't ought to take off your mitts, Sallie," said he, and his voice was a caress. Dr. Grahame picked up the little dog for ever at her feet and hid her face in his soft coat.
"Doc," said the minister with painful flippancy, "I guess Momma's finding the victuals in this food parlour a bit tryin'." There was an earnestness in his voice which emphasized the words.
"She cannot take much beyond chicken broth," said the doctor, and it was evident she was keeping her voice steady with an effort, "and when it comes to travelling on it——" her voice trailed away and she looked across at me appealingly.
But how could I tell him?
He was losing all that went to make life worth living. And he must see it for himself presently.
"This little bubble tour that we're takin'," he began hesitatingly as if he would blind himself to the truth as long as he could, "is a bit rough on the amatoor, an' it's sort of rammed in on me that what Sallie wants is rest, jest plain rest!"
"Oh, but we can't stay here," wailed Stella. "We must start to-morrow. I can't bear it," and the minister looked at me and then back at the doctor with an anxious question in his eyes.
The passionate prayer there went straight to her heart. She forgot her professional manner, and with her face hidden against her little dog, who looked on with great contentment, she answered only with a sob.
He understood then.
He said nothing, but his wife spoke.
"Tell him Rosalie, dear, I'm goin' home."
"No," he cried, "no," and his voice rang sharp with pain. It was as if a sword had struck him. "Lord! Lord! The world is empty without her!"
The young doctor stood just outside the mule stall in the cold sunshine. Her hood had dropped off and the light caught the bright gleams in her waving hair. The mocking little scornful look that gave piquancy to her face had gone, and in its place was an infinite tenderness. She was seeking words of comfort and Stella's crying evidently worried her.
"You would like her to rest," she said. "She is keeping up for you."
He bent over then and took the slender little body in his arms. Dr. Grahame indicated Stella still kneeling on the straw with the tears on her cheeks.
"Take her away," she said, and there was nothing for it—I must put my arms round her and lift her out on to the rough cobble stones of the yard.
"Sallie, Sallie," said the minister, and in the clear air, though he spoke low, we could hear every word, "I've been hard on ye, Sallie."
There came no answer, but the frail hand stole softly to his face. There was no need of words. Not one of us but knew that her husband had been the desire of her heart, the light of her eyes, and if she had loved so had he. The world would be empty for him when she was gone.
Even Stella Chapman stilled her lamentations before the minister's silent sorrow. She was dying here among the desolate mountains in a mule stall in a miserable little Chinese inn, but her head was pillowed on her husband's breast, and I reckon she cared for little else. She had craved rest—I expect none of us guessed how she had craved for rest—and she was resting at last. Every movement for the last six days had been an effort, and now there was no need to move any more.
Dr. Grahame moved a little away and I followed her with Stella clinging to my arm. She was sobbing loudly, but I did not feel that I could do anything. The air was cutting and we went into the next mule stall, and to us came Chung.
"Wantchee supper," said he. It was his business to provide for the wants of the party, whether we lived or died was no concern of his. He had ascertained from me that the death of Silas Chapman would make no difference to his remuneration, so he had gone about his business and had collected dried dung—argols they called them—and on his little fire in the open between three stones he had heated soup, and since we did not come to the little low k'ang table he had laid out, he came towards us bearing three basins on a large plate.
And sometimes the everyday duties are a relief. Rosalie Grahame looked as if she could not stand the tension much longer. I felt pretty bad myself, and I really think Stella Chapman needed consideration less than any of us. But I was bound to consider her, if only because I had once looked at her with eyes of desire, and Rosalie Grahame would certainly waste herself upon her. The only person who ignored her, and he did it with the utmost courtesy, was her late servant, Chung.
"I can't drink," she cried, "I can't drink! How can you offer me soup, Mr. Conant?" I wasn't doing anything of the sort. "Poor Silas is dead and Mrs. Wright is dying—how can we be so unfeeling as to have soup?"
Dr. Grahame was hugging MacTavish as usual. But her common sense was refreshing.
"Fuel is scarce," she said, "and food is scarce, and we all need something. Take it, Stella, take it. Oh don't you see we must make the best of things."
I backed her to the best of my ability.
"I'll look after Mrs. Chapman," I said, "you see if you can help Mrs. Wright."
But no one could help Mrs. Wright. She was done with this world, and as the next cold bright winter's day drew to a close she gently dropped asleep on her husband's breast, and so slight had been her hold upon life that Dr. Grahame, who was watching, could hardly say when she ceased to breathe.
And the man who held her in his arms looked down upon her as if he could not let her go. I did not see it, but Rosalie Grahame told me afterwards with tears in her eyes.
"She is gone," said the young doctor gently.
He had held his precious burden as if he feared by a movement to disturb her, and now he clutched her to him passionately.
"Sallie! Sallie!" he cried, "you wouldn't leave me to face it alone. You wouldn't go back on me."
But he knew. Those hands had never before been unresponsive when he caressed, those lips had always smiled at a word from him, those eyes must be closed for ever when they failed to look love and trust into his own. And he cried on his God and laid her down and flung himself down beside her and put his face on her breast, and Rosalie Grahame came for me, and again together we looked upon death.
The sky was flushed red with a rosy sunset and we were all bathed in the glorious light. The King of Terrors had come very gently to the worn-out woman, he had taken the man suddenly in the pride of his manhood, but to the woman he had come with a gentle smile as a comforter. On her face was an infinite peace. The tired lines were smoothing out fast.
And that had a message for the lonely man beside her.
"Sallie! Sallie!" he moaned, "I was hard on ye."
"She would be the first to tell you," said Rosalie Grahame, "that the very look on your face or the touch of your hand was enough to make her happy." And she added, "You two have made me lonely to look at you."
I wonder if it was true. Anyhow God bless her.
"Oh Lord!" cried the minister, getting to his knees, "I thank Thee."
And the splendour in the western sky deepened. MacTavish came trotting along and put up his little white paws against his mistress, and as she stooped to gather him up her clear-cut face with the little scornful upper lip was bathed in the glowing light. All the sky was radiant with crimson and gold. It made a glory in that poor little inn yard. The girl drew a long breath as she looked round, and though I had felt the faith of my mother slipping from me since I had been at the mission station, I could not but feel that here indeed we were in a holy place. The mysteries of Life and Death are beyond me, but the Power that set that glorious sunset in the sky is mighty.
Dr. Grahame must have felt the same.
"It is a glory," she breathed.
I stooped and touched the minister on the shoulder.
"Look up, look up at the sky!"
And Septimus Wright raised his face.
"Behold," he said, "the Lord is in His heaven and He heareth the cry of the afflicted," and as he dropped his face in his hands again I think we both realised that for him the worst had passed. He remembered once more the God Who doeth all things well. He was no longer quite alone in an empty world.
And then came Chung the materialist. He lived in the present. Such supper as he could get together—and it was not a bad supper considering all things, curried chicken and rice and scones steamed, biscuits these Americans called them, instead of baked—this supper was ready and he mentioned the fact. Mrs. Wright was dead. She had never meant anything to him. Mr. Chapman was gone. Weighed in the balance as a good master he did not counteract his wife as a bad mistress, and as his wages were sure he dismissed the subject from his mind. I and Rosalie Grahame were apparently in his estimation the important members of the party, not forgetting MacTavish, for was he not worth 50 dollars?
"Supper, leady," he said in his matter of fact sing-song. "Allee lice finish."
And the glory in the sky faded. The sun was gone and the night came down bitter, cold, grey and pitiless. Only where the tiny fire of argols burned was there any warmth, and that was like a fiery eye that threatened.
TWO WOMEN AND A MAN
"One's self I sing, a simple, separate Person."
I REALLY have been most unfortunate. In the very beginning it was unfortunate. Of course I loved poor dear Silas, but still I could have wished him different sometimes, and it really was cruel of him to bring me to China. How on earth could a young girl—I was only twenty-five when I married, and that is young for nowadays—who had only lived in hotels in London and Matlock Bath and Hunstanton know what it would be like in the interior of China? Of course, I wanted to go because I loved Silas, and I thought rich merchants in China had pearls and furs and rich silks and satins and plenty of servants; but he did know what it was like, and I'm quite sure he oughtn't to have taken me. It was cruel. Fancy being set down in the heart of China in a horrid cold Chinese house with Chinese servants, who made me shudder and absolutely no one to entertain! There wasn't even anyone to speak to. What on earth was the good of all my pretty clothes? And there was no place to go, nothing to do from morning to night. I cried, and Silas was sarcastic—I'm sure one hundred per cent. of women so situated would have cried. But then, men are cruel. Mother was hard on me, but I could get away from mother, and there were other people; and here there was nobody but Silas. You can't manage a man properly when there's nobody to play off against him.
That was what the good Pai Lang did for me. It was awful running away and living anyhow and going in fear of your life, but it did bring along Martin Conant. And Martin Conant is good-looking, and at first I thought he was going to be quite an acquisition. He was always queer, though. Sometimes when we were together, and he was helping me along, he used to bend over me quite nicely, just as if he thought I was a dear little thing and would be awfully good to kiss, and then all of a sudden he would drop me and go off as if he were vexed or something. Of course, I should have got along better without another woman.
There is no doubt a pretty woman alone is often at a disadvantage. She wants another. Dr. Grahame would answer, only she is too pretty. At least, prettiness would not matter, but there is an air of distinction about her which I certainly shouldn't have chosen for the woman I want as a foil. She is able to do all sorts of things, and yet she never looks foolish or common. Of course, the missionaries are common, but she isn't. She is slim and graceful, more graceful than I am, and so it is aggravating to see her doing fifteen miles a day declaring she likes it! Likes it! What nonsense! Of course, a doctor's training must wear off some of the charm of a woman. It's bound to. Rosalie has a great deal to thank her personal appearance for. If I had her looks what couldn't I do. It makes me horribly envious sometimes. A woman is a fool if she doesn't know how to make the best of herself, and I flatter myself I do know my own faults. Of course, I'm not the type to go in for athletic exercises. I want a beautiful drawing-room to set me off, and if I go out I want a car and plenty of rich furs. Then I'm delightful. A man told me once that in my furs I was a delicate, just-opened, fragrant rose with the dew on it, and I think he was right, but when one is the rose type one has to be careful not to be overblown. Mother kept me on thorns fearing I should be like her; besides, one doesn't want people who are admiring one to see what one's mother has developed into. That really made me thankful to go right away to China.
But it was a mistake. I see now it was a great mistake. And now poor dear Silas is dead. Of course, I'm most awfully grieved, but if we can only get away I'll be able to start again.
Rosalie Grahame pretends to be so careful about me, but she can be horrid on occasion. The day I took a little of her hazeline cream and powder, the stuff she had in her medical case—she was just horrid. She said I had plenty of stuffs that she had put up for me herself, and, of course, I had, but this dry cold makes your face and hands so sore you can use any amount of cream on them, and I thought I'd like to try hers. She puts that powder of hers on any dirty old woman's sores, and she grudges me a little for my nice sweet clean arms and neck. She said quite angrily that it was stealing—stealing to take that!
And she never would have known if it hadn't been for that interfering Chung. I thought she was safe out of the way, and he actually went and told her I wanted her!
It is all very well to have a foil, but you don't want your foil to be always on hand. She was getting to think she was welcome always, so I dropped her a hint that Martin Conant admires me.
She's silly in many ways though she is so clever. Look at the fuss she makes over that ridiculous little dog. I'm very fond of dogs in their proper place, and a Japanese pug is quite the correct sort of dog to keep. It looks very well in a car, but you want someone to see it is properly cared for and the idea of taking a little dog dyed blue and shaven and hideous along is too ridiculous. It's an absolute danger in a country like this, where every second dog has hydrophobia. But men are silly over a pretty woman. Both Silas and Martin Conant seemed to think Rosalie's devotion to her dog rather charming. On the whole though I'm glad she is silly, for while she is looking after MacTavish she can't be talking to Martin Conant. And though I honestly believe he thinks I'm the more attractive, he likes talking to her best. He's rather dull to talk to and I shouldn't mind Rosalie taking him off my hands only that when they get interested in some dull old subject, the religion of the Chinese or something, they generally end by forgetting all about me. Oh, this is a miserable life for a woman. I'd give anything to get out of it, and our position seems to get worse and worse.
Always the muleteers tell us, "There is unrest, there is unrest." We can't go north, we can't go south, we've tried to go east, so we seem to be gradually edging west I ride a pony nearly all day, and drop off half-dead, and there's nowhere to sleep but a mule stall, with a cupful of warm water to wash in. Oh, it's awful! And I'm cheerful! I do think I deserve a medal—but nobody says one word of praise. If you come to think of it, it is sad, a pretty young widow going along bravely day after day bearing up and smiling under all hardships and never uttering one word of complaint. It is pathetic. But nobody says anything.
Well, anyhow, I'm glad I dropped that word of warning about Martin Conant to Rosalie Grahame. I hope the death of poor dear Silas won't have put it out of her head. I don't think it has. He always walks at my pony's head. I'm afraid by myself, and I'm sure he likes doing that for me, and she never comes near him.
So that's all right.
If only I could think we were getting out of this.
Anyhow, when one's husband is killed in this sort of way, I don't think one need wait so long as a year before marrying again. Or if one did wait for a year there is nothing to stop one being engaged.
Silas and Martin Conant went away together—and—I wonder—of course it would suit him so well that Silas should be out of the way. At least, oh no, of course not. There were the muleteer and the innkeeper—of course Martin Conant has money. But, oh no, of course not. It was just one of those accidents. Poor dear Silas!
CHUNG GIVES IT BEST
"The burden of the desert of the sea. As whirlwinds in the south pass through; so it cometh from the desert, from a terrible land."
MRS. WRIGHT is dead and Silas Chapman is dead, and they are buried there under the Great Wall with the stones and rubble heaped over them because the ground is too hard to dig a grave.
Mr. Wright takes things hardly. The light and life seemed to have gone out of his twinkling little eyes, but when Stella cried and said she could eat no supper he lifted up his hands and said,
"Praise the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His Holy Name!"
I could see that Stella thought this bad form. It was in a way, but the minister is so earnest.
"Who redeemeth thy life from destruction," he went on, "Who crowneth thee with loving kindness and tender mercies. Who satisfies thy mouth with good things, so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's."
"Don't, Mr. Wright," said Stella. She could see nothing in our plight to be thankful for, and even I felt he was straining things a little.
"In my sorrow," he said simply, "it's borne in on me that I'm forgetting the dear Lord's many mercies. If I go on with you I'm turnin' my back on Him. He got me here among the heathen, an' now He's taken Sallie to himself I reckon it's a sign I'm to be about His business."
"But surely," began Mr. Conant, "those last days in Yang Cheng——"
"I'm turnin' my back on Him with my face set east. Yang Cheng is my place," and he turned valiantly to the setting sun.
"There is an edict," began Martin Conant, but the other threw out his hands as if sweeping away all such vain imaginings.
"The Good Tidings 'ud never have been carried to the heathen," said he, "if the disciples had been galoots as considered their skins first."
Then Chung took a hand. But there was nothing spiritual about him. He had been enquiring, as was the duty of a good servant, as to provisions to be got in the next village along the route towards the river, and the information he had acquired was by no means comforting. He came now with a solemn little prance swinging his pigtail from one shoulder to the other as if he were in deep thought.
"No lice got," he said lugubriously, shutting his eyes, and there were tears in his voice. "No chuckie got. No can buy," and he opened them again to see the effect of this announcement. Chung was always a joy. He was worth his wages for the cheering effect he had upon me and Martin Conant alone.
"Oh nonsense, Chung," I said, "can do next village."
"No can do next village," and Chung drew a long breath and shut up his eyes again very tight. "No can do this side libber," and his voice trailed away in a mournful wail.
"I suppose Chung knows what he's talking about," said Martin Conant to the minister who was too much occupied with his duties and his manifold blessings to consider such trifling matters as provisions for the next fortnight.
"You bet," said Chung opening his eyes and beginning to take an interest in things around again, and MacTavish gave a little encouraging whimper.
Well, we discussed the situation from all points of view and the result was we had to turn back. There was nothing else for it. We decided that Mr. Conant, Stella Chapman and I should try and reach the China Inland Mission at Urumchi in Sinkiang, two months away at least, but it was better than trusting to the tender mercies of the Mongols on the Hoang Ho. There was a missionary station at Sining, but that was rather far west, and we could hardly hope to get more than advice from the missionaries there. As for the minister he was going back to Yang Cheng.
And a week later the dear old man left us. It was a very forlorn little figure that, with bowed head, turned into a track that led south, and went bravely about his Father's business.
It was after that we found ourselves at Dresar, that is the business part of the great monastery of Kama Miao. We stayed outside the town in a little inn on the ridge that divides the temples and houses of the lamas from the town.
Things were very bad. We did not dare tell Stella how seething with unrest the country was. The muleteer was shivering and crying and saying that he would be killed, and Chung was going about with a face as long as a wet week.
It was a beautiful view up the hillside. Up and up and up climbed the temples, and their roofs were red and green, and the gold roof of the greatest of them flashed in the winter sunlight. There was snow on the ground, and against the white background the red robes of the lamas stood out splashes of gay colour. The place was humming like a hive of bees. There were great open-air staircases leading up from one building to another, and up and down them passed the red-robed figures, there was the blare of trumpets and the hum of prayer wheels, and woven through all like a silver strand came the sweet chiming of the bells that hung, hundreds and thousands of them, from the eaves of the temples.
It was most fascinating, and at any other time I could have stood and drunk it all in with joy. It seemed to me as if it had been spread there waiting all these hundred years for me to see. That I suppose is what Stella calls my colossal conceit. It seems to irritate her when I speak like this. Nothing fashioned by Chinese hands pleases her. She said she couldn't admire the embroidery till she was safe in a London hotel. How I shall dream of this scene when I am at home!
Chung was still in a state of desperate depression when he brought us our supper that night. He had a little k'ang table he had borrowed, as usual, from the people of the inn, and he set it down in the middle of the mule stall, where Stella and I proposed to spend the night. Its coat of grease was hidden under a blue tablecloth of the cotton of the country. We bought a clean one occasionally for a few cash. It was a little luxury we did allow ourselves.
Chung sighed heavily as he set down our scanty supply of cups and plates, and just as the sunlight gave way to the mournful grey light of the winter night he tumbled a few scones on to a plate and set down beside them an unusual luxury, a lump of yellow butter.
"No chuckie can get," said he.
"Oh, butter!" said Mr. Conant, "never mind, we've got butter!"
"No piggie can get," went on the mournful monologue.
Considering the disgusting pigs we had seen in the villages I cannot think that was any deprivation.
"No baa lamb, no sheeps," went on the dreary voice, and when a cheerful Chinaman feels bad he descends into the very depth of woe, "no nannygoat, no wonk." At that we laughed. We were not going to grieve over the absence of scavenger dog!
"To-mollow flour be all finish," proclaimed Chung sepulchrally.
"I see there's nothing for it," said I, "but to send Chung to Sining to see what the missionaries would advise."
So close were we to Sining now he could be back by next morning, and I thought that would settle Mr. Chung.
"I'm afraid," said Mr. Conant, "that is impossible. He couldn't get into a walled city with the robbers all about."
That little stretch of country between Kama Miao and Sining was extremely unsafe and we certainly never dreamt of daring it, but Chung straightened himself up, swung his pigtail joyfully from shoulder to shoulder, snapped his fingers and pranced forward cheerfully.
"Can do," said he gaily, "can do. Mus' go chop-chop. So can get back to-mollow chop-chop. Missie," his voice became very wheedling, "can pay small small monies?"
"Get us another cook," suggested Mr. Conant, remembering that in the Treaty ports a servant never goes till he has found someone to take his place.
But Chung shrivelled before the suggestion.
"Here am strange place," said he mournfully, "no can. But," cheering up, "come back chop-chop. Missie giving chit?"
"We can't let him go," wailed Stella. But Mr. Conant and I decided he must go. Our only hope was that the missionaries might have some suggestions to make.
Chung was cheerful again. He brought all his pots and pans and all our slender stores to the mule stall—"so Missie can mind." He also called my attention to the fact that he had made all the remaining flour into scones enough to last us all the next day, and he suggested that the muleteer could make the fire of argols for us, for that is an art in itself, and he also suggested he could warm the puffed rice and make the tea. Remembering the muleteer's unwashen hands I rather thought that if he lighted the fire I'd perform the other little offices myself, and then Chung came a little closer and spoke in a confidential whisper.
"Put on Tibet coat, can take Missie to Sining."
It was a great idea.
"Why, we'll take the whole outfit, Chung," I said.
"All Lite," said Chung cheerfully. "No can take Missie Chapman. He stop Kama Miao at inn," and he let off a whole series of winks, confidential but perfectly respectful winks.
I looked across to where Stella was talking to Martin Conant. The sharp cold and frost had roughened her cheeks a little in spite of all the grease she was for ever rubbing into them, but her face looked wonderfully dainty and delicate peering out of her white cat-skin hood. Her teeth were, perhaps, a little too pointed, occasionally it made her face look cruel, and yet it was an essentially feminine face, and as she looked up at Mr. Conant it was very enticing. I am afraid I do not like Stella as much as I did, probably it is jealousy on my part if I were to be quite frank. But her beauty evidently had no weight with Chung. He was determined to leave her behind.
"But, Chung," I said, "we can't leave Missie."
"Missie Chapman no can hide in Tibet coat," said he with a little note of scorn in his voice. "Can take Missie. Missie can do," and I've no doubt he would have seen me safe into the mission compound.
"No can leave Missie," I said. "Chung come back chop-chop."
"Chop-chop," said he with conviction. The next morning he left us. And that night the muleteer took his mules to have the harness mended, so he said. And that was the last we saw of him. We were reduced to the skewbald pony on which the Mongols had sent Mr. Conant back.
THE GATHERING OF THE LAMAS
"Within it opens into a world,
And a little lovely, moony night."
ON the night of the day on which Chung had departed the moment Stella was asleep, MacTavish and I stole out of the stall we shared with her, and went out into the courtyard that sloped so much to the west that I could see over the wall. The moon was at the full, and the light fell on the great pile of buildings that climbing up the hillside made up the great sanctuary of Kama Miao. The buildings were oblong—square—piles of massive masonry indeterminate in shape—broken here and there by chortens. Clear cut they were against the night sky, and in the brilliant moonlight, more brilliant by reason of the snow, we could see the staircases and the lamas moving upon them. The faintest breath of air, sharp, and clean, and cold, brought to our ears the rumbling of the prayer wheels, thousands of them, the silvery sound of the temple bells, and the cadence of rich young voices chanting psalm and prayer. On the roofs of some of the buildings they had lighted little fires of juniper boughs which gave out an exquisite aromatic scent. Such a glorious night!
Out of another stall came Martin Conant, and we stood side by side looking at the moonlight on the snow-clad hills that were so still and silent, at the temple that was teeming with life, listening to the chanting and the soft murmur of the bells. Everything unsightly or unclean was hidden away, and the monastery stood out in wondrous beauty. Oh, it was good to be there with Martin Conant. I stood there drinking it all in, content—more, glad, happy, thinking neither of the past nor the future, and then Stella's complaining voice brought me up sharply.
"What on earth are you two doing out there on this bitter cold night?" she asked.
"I'd forgotten. It is cold, isn't it?" said Mr. Conant. "Do go to bed. I don't think we've anything to fear just yet."
But next day we changed our minds. There was a tremendous tumult in the monastery and the lamas were collecting. Everywhere we could see their red robes pouring out. They mounted and came riding over the ridge past the little inn, and on their heads were turbans of raw silk dyed red, and the winter sunlight was flashing on guns and spears and swords. They had banners fluttering yellow and red, and I felt for the moment as if I had stepped back hundreds of years and was looking at the Asia that had faced the Crusaders: They were a company of at least 2,000 strong, and the air was full of the sound of their horns and of their voices shouting.
"Sha sa! Sha sa!" they yelled in a sort of chorus, now high, now low, and the hills caught it and echoed it, and re-echoed it. It was the war cry of the lamas, "Eat meat! Eat meat!" was the literal translation, and it marked the dire necessity that made them throw off their usual habits. The faint breeze that flaunted their banners bore on its breath as a minor accompaniment to this warlike array the silver sound of the temple bells, that told of the peace of winter and of the eternal hills. For a moment it would dominate, and then above it would sound the clash of arms, the blare of the long trumpets and the shouts of the fighting men.
It was wonderful! Something to be remembered! There was just that sense of danger that made me clutch MacTavish and hide him beneath my furs, but also that gave so much zest that I forgot to be afraid.
"I gather from the innkeeper," said Mr. Conant, "they are going to fight White Wolf."
In the clear blue sky to the east we could see clouds of smoke arising, villages burning. I raised my hand and pointed, and Martin Conant nodded silently. Stella caught his hand and stood up close to him sobbing. She was terrified. All around us the villagers were crying and wailing—poor things caught between the upper and the nether millstone. Each one was turning a prayer wheel. Last night the Buddhist faith had showed itself to me in all its beauty, this morning the click of the prayer wheel seemed a childish thing. It reminded me of a baby's rattle, and against the danger that threatened was about as much use as a baby's rattle.
"Chung has failed us again," moaned Stella, still clutching Mr. Conant's hand. I always was something of a Radical and Stella deepened that feeling. Why should Chung be faithful to her? What had she ever done to demand sacrifice from him? I turned away for a moment to try and re-arrange my temper.
A very dilapidated coolie, dressed in a quilted cotton jacket with the dirty wadding sticking out through the breaks in the stuff, high Tibet boots, a wisp of dirty rag hiding one eye, and an exceedingly unkempt pigtail, managed to attract my attention. He had a dirty scrap of paper in his hand, and he whined a request that the Lao T'ai T'ai would give him something for the letter he had brought. It always takes my breath away to be addressed as the Lao T'ai T'ai—after all I'm not old yet—but there was something about the man that was familiar.
There was only half his nose and one eye to be seen, while his chin was sunk in the collar of his jacket, but I don't forget faces easily, and there was something about this man—and then I knew, and my heart stood still. It was Chung!
For a moment I was on the point of addressing him by name, and calling Martin Conant.
But Chung was probably stretching a point to come even so far, and I held out my hand for the letter and offered him some cash. He pleaded for wu chen, that is half a Mexican dollar. For a moment I hesitated.
"Is it worth it?" I asked in Chinese.
"The Lao T'ai T'ai," he said earnestly, "buys safety with half a dollar, and this poor worm has come sixty li through fire and death from Chung Li, the faithful servant, to bear the good tidings. Is it not worth the half dollar?"
Whether it was or not he got it, and with a wink and a toss of his head that was truly Chung, he was gone before I could ask him another question.
Martin Conant came up and Stella followed.
"Who's your friend?" he began.
"Chung," I said, and Stella stared.
"But why on earth?" said Mr. Conant.
"I'm afraid he does not think much of our chances." I unfolded the letter, which was written with a blunt pencil on rice paper, and so was punctuated with holes.
"Honoured Missie," it began, and each letter was a printed capital of a different size, and the whole had evidently cost much labour, "Yor servant Chung Sick no can do rod it be far to much wat Hell can do in hil by blu se—" so far it ran smoothly, though I failed to make sense of it, but here was a word that had been altered and crossed out and re-written, and finally emerged as "mulican," and the letter went on, "allee same missie why the hel yu no go?" and it ended triumphantly, "your Lovin Chung."
As a specimen it was perhaps cheap at half a dollar, but I utterly failed to make head or tail of it till Mr. Conant took it and read it aloud, and then we saw it was to be treated phonetically.
Evidently he wished us to understand he was sick and could not travel—"rod" was certainly "road."
"His racy remarks are plain enough," said Mr. Conant, "but what they apply to I fail to see."
"Oh I hate—hate—hate the Chinese," moaned Stella, but as hatred of the Chinese was about all she ever did contribute towards helping out difficult situations, we neither of us paid any attention.
The yelling and shouting outside was dying away in the distance, but the sound of the turning prayer wheels still mingled with the sweet chiming of the bells. Clearly we ought to be out of this before the lamas returned. Whether they were victorious or not they might be a danger to us.
"In hill by blue sea," read on Mr. Conant in puzzled tones, but it sounded all right to us who were listening.
"Of course," I said, "In the hills by the Blue Sea—the Chinese call Koko Nor the Blue Sea. We're only three or four days from it, you know."
"You're a wonder, Dr. Rosalie Grahame," said Martin Conant. "You think he's advising us to go to Koko Nor. Well, I always wanted to see it, but not under these circumstances. No wonder he felt it called for forcible language. Now comes a poser. 'Mulican allee same Missee.'"
"Another American woman doctor," said Stella, with just that peculiar intonation with which she always spoke of a woman doctor. Sometimes it irritated me. Now I didn't care!
"Good gracious! Stella! You're right!" What did it matter if she did despise us. "An American doctor there! Mr. Conant!"
"You're presuming we can put faith in your loving Chung," said he with a whimsical smile. "You can't think how I hate to damp your ardour, but I feel bound to remind you that according to you the gentleman, while recommending us to go, has left an excellent service and high wages rather than risk it himself. Also I have heard that Koko Nor——" and then he stopped.
"Go on," I said. "There's nothing gained by not facing the worst."
"Well, I have heard that Koko Nor, besides being nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, is th—over two hundred miles round."
He had meant to say three, but thought better of it.
"We are the unluckiest people," sighed Stella. But neither Mr. Conant nor I looked very cast down. We had been wandering so long without any definite object that to hear we had a chance of reaching somebody of our own colour, who presumably knew the country, was distinctly comforting.
There was no question about it. We had to find that American doctor.
And there and then we loaded up the horse and paid the innkeeper—his bill was 100 cash, not quite 5 cents—and we made ready to start.
Stella stood still and protested she couldn't possibly walk.
And then I remembered Mr. Chapman, and how hardly I had judged him. Martin Conant, at the horse's head, looked at me hopelessly.
"Then," I said, "we'll have to make arrangements to leave you with the innkeeper. He looks rather as if he were going to run away himself, still——" and I picked up MacTavish and marched ahead.
"Cheer up," said Mr. Conant, "it's lovely weather for walking," and a forlorn little company we set out on surely the forlornest quest since the historic days when someone went hunting for a needle in a bundle of hay.
A BUTTERFLY IN THE DESERT
"Sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds.
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds."
IT was awful, simply awful, and of all the selfish women give me the woman who thinks she is just the kindest thing in the world. Rosalie Grahame is for ever holding herself up to Martin Conant as the kindest, most thoughtful, most self-sacrificing woman that ever was made. Not that she says so in so many words. Trust her for that. Of course she does do things that look as if they were kind, but that is only because he is looking on, and if he's only eyes, only a man's always blind, he'd see she spoils it all by being so selfish over that little brute of a dog. I hate him. Of course I can't say so. People are so unreasonable. They'd think me a beast.
We walked and walked and walked after we left Kama Miao. Goodness knows it had been bad enough in China, but here things got worse and worse. Always we were tramping up and down those wearisome roads, up one hill and down another, and the other two each carried a bag and a stick, and made quite a joke of collecting their horrid fuel. It was all very well for a man, but I wonder Mr. Conant didn't see it was disgusting for a woman. It showed such a lack of refinement. Of course a man will laugh over that sort of thing when he gets the chance, but I do think he might have remembered occasionally how miserable it all made me.
We met a certain amount of people and a certain amount of camels and mules and donkeys and horses—one always does meet them in China. Every Chinaman is horrid and these Tibetans in skin coats, with pointed hats lined with lambskin, matchlocks on their shoulders, spears in their hands, and knives in their girdles, were terrible people to come across. That is at first. We got accustomed to them very soon. Their brown faces were grimed with dirt, and their wild hair stood out all round their heads, unkempt and disordered, and once when they came too close I screamed. I really couldn't help it, it was most natural. Everybody hasn't got nerves of steel like Rosalie—she took me by the shoulders and shook me hard and said I was risking all their lives. As if I was.
It was hard too because I saw such lots of things I should have simply loved to possess. They had lovely furs, some of them, and I got Mr. Conant to buy one or two because the cold was bitter, and they were ever so useful, and then Rosalie Grahame must needs put her oar in and say we had enough for an Arctic winter, and we should need the money for something else before we were done, and we shouldn't be able to trade the furs. I do hate a woman who pretends to be practical just when she sees another woman wants a thing badly.
And then the ornaments the women had! Beautiful turquoises and coral, brooches and hairpins and necklaces, and even rings, and not one single one would that woman allow us to buy. I could easily have managed Mr. Conant. But she declared we hadn't a cent to spare. Such a pity too when we could have bought them at a tenth what they would have cost in England, and I am sure we could have managed all right.
But no, my lady was on the high horse, and we mustn't buy anything but tea, horrid brick tea, all stalks, and barley meal, vile stuff they called tsamba, and butter which was often filthy with hairs sticking in it and marks of the dirty fingers that had scooped it out of some filthy skin. I saw it once or twice, though Rosalie had generally scraped it clean before she set it before us, but the thought of it made me sick, only, of course, one had to eat something. We were right out beyond the villages, and it was snow everywhere, unless some of the hillsides were too steep for the snow to lie, and there weren't any more houses. We were actually sleeping now at night out in the open! Think of it! With the thermometer away down below zero, and nothing but the sky above us! And all around was a dreary waste of hills and dales covered with deep snow. It wasn't so hard for the others. Martin Conant is a man, and a man can always bear things more easily than a woman, though he generally makes more fuss if his little finger aches—it takes a woman to suffer in silence. And Rosalie Grahame is just like a man. She can't feel the things as I do. I did suffer a lot in silence, and then I found I might suffer, they went on as if I liked it. Liked it! And all the fire we had to keep us warm at night was the remains of the argols put into little copper Chinese hand-warmers, and when there was only enough for one they gave it to me, and such a fuss as they made about it you'd have thought they were offering me the luxuries of the Ritz or the Savoy at least. It really is hard when you've always got to be eternally thanking people for wretched little favours that in any other place you'd much rather not have. Fancy anyone having to be grateful for a horrid little smelly hand-warmer, and fancy having to say "I know you're so kind." I do really think I had the hardest part, and yet the other two were going on all day long as if they were saving me.
I could have managed Martin Conant all right. It was having a woman doctor, young and good-looking too, made it extra hard. Oh, why couldn't she have gone on with the minister to Miss Lodham, or Sister Ednah, or whoever they were. It would have made all the difference to me. It was the hardest luck she should have elected to come in where she wasn't wanted. If I could only have had Martin Conant alone.
We marched for four days into the hills, and got to the shores of Koko Nor, and then I thought we were really going to have a minor stroke of luck and lose MacTavish.
We were camping against a great rock and I was doing my best to keep warm—we really hadn't any too many furs—while Martin Conant attended to the horse and Rosalie Grahame was warming the last—the very last—of our puffed rice in the frying pan over a fire of argols. There were some tents sprawled out over the snow a couple of miles away, and Rosalie had bought butter and tsamba from them, filthy stuff—if anybody thinks I didn't suffer I'd like them to have to live on tea and tsamba, and that butter with the thermometer away down below zero. It was just getting dark, really rather picturesque, with Rosalie, tall and slim and graceful, bending over the red fire. If only I could have been whisked away to a comfortable hotel in London—it was the sort of thing I could admire on the stage, but to be taking part in it—o—o—oh!
Then I saw a great white Tibetan dog come creeping up. If I'd thought he was going to attack Rosalie I should have cried out, but I knew he wouldn't dare touch her, and before you could say anything he had made a snap at MacTavish, who was sitting down beside his mistress waiting for his share of the rice.
It was done in a flash, and I thought for a moment, with quite a throb of thankfulness, that the little brute was gone for good and all. But as the big dog shook him like a little rat he gave a despairing yelp and Rosalie turning shrieked aloud. And then actually, because she had no other weapon handy she seized the frying pan, sent the rice, the very last puffed rice we had, flying, and hit the dog over the head. He dropped MacTavish who made for his mistress's feet, and Mr. Conant came running up. He had the revolver in his hand, but Rosalie said,
"Don't shoot, for goodness' sake don't shoot. He belongs to those tents over there, and we can't afford to put them against us." Then she ran at the dog again with the frying pan—he was a handsome-looking dog—and he slunk away with his tail between his legs.
She turned back and picked up MacTavish, and he cried and licked her fingers, and she let him.
"I'm afraid he's badly hurt," she said, and you'd have thought it was a child she was speaking about as she knelt down by the fire to inspect him. I felt I had better call her attention to the waste. Where were we to get more rice?
"It's our very last rice," I said mournfully, looking at it scattered on the ground.
"Pick it up," said she, still giving all her attention to the dog. He moaned a little. "The ground is hard."
Of course she never thought about anything but her own affairs, but Mr. Conant picked it up for me.
"Is he hurt?" he asked.
"I'm afraid so," said Rosalie, and actually her voice was nearly breaking.
Mr. Conant bent over the little brute and patted his head. The silly idiots making such a ridiculous fuss!
"Poor old chap!" he said. "Cheer up, Missus. Why the skin is not even broken. I've seen dogs recover in the most wonderful manner."
"He's had a bad squeeze," she said. "A day or two will show whether he will pull through."
And she went to bed that night hugging him in her arms.
But I don't think he'll pull through, and that will be one burden less, for really the fuss Rosalie makes over that arrogant little wretch irritates me.
A FRIEND INDEED
"I knew it was Love, and I felt it was glory."
HOW I would have wondered once at the idea of being filled with anxiety about a dog when it might well be we had enough to worry about on our own account. We lived from day to day—still, thank God, we did live—and every day brought us nearer the spring and the warm weather.
The surroundings were Arctic. We'd been four days marching into the hills, and the road had reached its highest point. We sheltered under a rock, and looking back the country stretched away a mass of softly rounded hills covered with snow. The jutting rock hid the view to the north, and looking round we saw a wonderful sight, a great sea of ice, the lake of dreams, the Blue Lake, Koko Nor. Truly had it been so named, for frozen into its midwinter stillness when the sun was on it it looked blue, a great sheet of bluish, semi-transparent ice, stretching away to the far horizon, with the blue and cloudless sky above it. It was really wonderful, wonderful, all the vast expanse of blue and white glistening and glittering in the sunshine, an Arctic world, like the world to which the Snow Queen took little Kay in Hans Andersen's story. But when the sun went the glory was gone. The stars came out like gleaming points of silver, and the moon was a sickle of silver newly washed, but the frozen lake looked grey and threatening, and the hills were eerie and weird. The biting cold only emphasized the desolation, and the little fire of argols was hardly sufficient to boil our tea.
I felt down-hearted enough as I sat in the rugs beside Stella, with MacTavish in my lap. I would have left him there as he seemed fairly easy when he was lying still, only I didn't trust Stella. I was afraid she might torment the little sick dog when my eye was not on her. So I just sat where I was and nursed him and let Mr. Conant get the supper as best he could.
When Stella was asleep he and I discussed the situation, and he was optimistic. We must meet the American doctor sooner or later. Every day we came across encampments of cloth tents spread out like huge spiders on the snowy ground, and indeed, if it hadn't been for them and the provisions they sold us we should certainly have perished; but they weren't exactly friendly. Fodder was getting scarce and terribly dear as our means went, and I had been wondering whether we had not better try and trade off the horse at some of the encampments, only goodness knows how we'd have carried our things without him.
And MacTavish was sick. He lay in my lap and licked my hand gratefully every now and then with his little hot tongue. All night I lay with him in my arms, and the slightest movement made him moan. We were all huddled up close together for warmth—there was nothing else for it—and it's extraordinary how quietly one slips into things when the necessity really arises. Stella was in the middle, and once turning over and throwing out her arm she jostled the poor little dog badly, and I could have hit her, I felt so furious. I wasn't nearly so close to hating her then though as I was next morning. It was manifest the poor little chap was very ill indeed.
We had to eat our food cold in the morning, and parched barley and butter mixed with tea is about the limit, but lighting a fire was such a business we never could do it except at night, and as we were having our breakfast Stella looked at the little dog lying covered with my gay Italian silk rug.
"Poor little thing," she said, "I do hate to leave it."
Actually she would have left him sick and suffering to perish there of cold and hunger!
"Who's going to leave him?" I asked, and I wonder if my voice expressed all I felt.
"Are you going to ask Mr. Conant to put him out of his misery?" she asked sweetly. How could I ever have thought she was charming? "Perhaps that would be best."
"I don't know what you mean," I said, and gave MacTavish a little reassuring pat. I felt as if he might understand what she was saying, and it seemed so dreadful when he was so ill.
"Well, what are you going to do with a sick dog?"
"I'm going to carry him, of course." He knew we were talking about him and raised his pretty little butterfly ears and watched me anxiously as I gathered together my particular load. It seemed to me that the poor little thing who had always been so gay realised that he was incapable now of walking, and was wondering what would be his fate. It gave me a sharp pain to think he might not be sure I would protect him.
"Darling little ducksey dog," I whispered in his ear, "I'm going to carry you."
"You can't burden yourself with a dog," said Stella all at once very considerate for my comfort, "You know he's overgrown for a Japanese. He must weigh at least ten pounds."
Then I turned on her. "I'd rather stay behind myself," I said, "than leave my dog. So there!"
Then Mr. Conant came to the rescue.
"And I can help you," he said cheerily. "We can't afford to lose our jolly little friend. Why he's better. That's right, old chap! Lift up that funny little nose of yours. He'll be trotting along as well as ever presently."
And he looked at me and smiled, and I knew I loved him.
That evening as we crawled slowly along looking for some place where we could camp for the night, two Tibetans came galloping up to us. Their matchlocks were slung on their backs, but they carried their spears threateningly. I spoke to them in Chinese, but they shook their head. They knew no Chinese. Evidently they were out for robbery for one of them made a grab at the gay rug I had wrapped round MacTavish. It was the only thing out of the common we had about us. The little dog whimpered as his rug was tugged at, and Mr. Conant promptly stepped forward and threatened with his pistol. The man let go and they both laughed, and urging their horses rode on down the mountain track we were following.
"Oh, you ought to have let him have it," cried Stella, "we've got to keep on the right side of these dreadful men. Why one had his face painted red and yellow."
But I said, "No, I think you were right. It would never do to let them think we were afraid of them." And as I spoke I knew I was desperately afraid.
And then how it happened I don't know, I slipped on the stony slippery path, and trying not to jar the little dog I slipped still more, and presently I was sitting down in the middle of the path with MacTavish in my lap and the agonizing knowledge slowly crystallising in my brain that even if my life were at stake—and very likely it was—I could not crawl from that spot.
Mr. Conant bent over me.
"You're not hurt?" And looking up into his troubled face I would have given worlds to say it was nothing. But I couldn't. I could only put down my hands and grasp my ankle and say with difficulty,
"I don't think any bones are broken."
"That's good. Just rest a bit. Hold the noble Persimmon a minute, Mrs. Chapman."
But Stella drew back.
"Oh, you're frightened. He's much more frightened of you, I assure you. He'll stand, I think. Here, let me," and he got me with my back to a big rock and then kneeling on the ground began unlacing my boot.
I tried to keep my voice from shaking, and I said, "It's a bad job. I'm afraid it's sprained."
"We must rest for the night," he said, and he actually managed to speak cheerfully. "Anyhow I think it's just as well to let these men get ahead of us. We'll find a little camping place in the hills here. I'll look round. Cheer up. You're not afraid to hold Persimmon, are you?"
If Persimmon had been anything but the mildest of beasts I should have had to let him go, but it made me feel I was of some use still when I held him, and before he went Mr. Conant had arranged MacTavish comfortably in my lap. Bless him. Stella cried, of course. She always did cry in an emergency. I wondered dully what on earth she was crying about. It wasn't her ankle that had given out, but I didn't try and comfort her. I felt I had bottomed. My nerves were all on edge. I wanted to get up and shriek. I felt desperate.
But it is curious how little things affect one. MacTavish gave a little whimper, and I forgot my woes for the minute. I patted his little head and Stella wailed aloud.
"You're only thinking about your little dog!" she sobbed, "and I know we're going to die here in these awful, awful hills."
It was too much. In spite of everything I laughed.
"Well, for goodness' sake die if you want to," I said, "but I'm not going to die just at present, neither is MacTavish."
Just for the moment my own words cheered me, and back came Martin Conant saying he had found a little hollow in the hills where there was a fireplace made of stones, plenty of fuel round and quite a comfortable little cave to sleep in. It might have been the Biltmore, at least, and he made a joke of getting me there, and setting me to blow up the fire, for it is a business to make a fire of argols.
But when we lay down my courage oozed out. All night I looked out at the hard bright stars and the moon, which was past the full, but still bright, and cold—oh so cold. And my ankle throbbed and I held my little dog close, and I think I was the most miserable woman in all the wide world. Oh, I was miserable! And the night was long and yet it was not long enough for I knew there was only one thing I could do. It was all very well to scorn Stella for a coward, but I had no right to keep the other two back. It was my bounden duty to persuade them to go on and look for the American doctor. They could come back for me—if I was alive—but, of course, I mustn't say that. I could not allow them to stay here and wait till I got well.
And then there was MacTavish, my little MacTavish, who was so sick. I thought about him till I had to bite my lips to keep from bursting out sobbing. He snuggled up closer to me, as if he knew all about it, and licked my hand softly and that made it all the harder. The night seemed so long, as if it would never end, and yet I was afraid of the end. Oh, that awful night! I can never again have such an awful night.
And then came the soft pink of the dawn stealing slowly over the white snow, and the sun himself, bright and cold. The thermometer must have been far below zero, but the light was brilliant, and when the other two waked, and Mr. Conant went away to look after Persimmon I summoned all my courage and tried the scheme on Stella.
She was extremely cheerful about it and my heart sank. I wonder if I had really thought she would say "No," or offer to stay with me while Mr. Conant went on to look for the American doctor.
"We can make you a nice little fire and pile plenty of fuel up round so you can get it quite easily," she said as if it were the jolliest plan in the world, "and we'll come back, of course, the minute we find the doctor, and take you and MacTavish."
"But I want you to take MacTavish," I said. "He's sure to be all right in a day or two if you let him ride on Persimmon for a little."
"Oh, I think he's better with you," said Stella airily. "Won't MacTavish be better with Rosalie, Mr. Conant?" she asked as he came back.
"What's that you're saying?" said he.
I looked at him. Somehow the words would not come. But Stella spoke up more cheerfully than she had done for a long time.
"Rosalie says she'd rather stay here and we can send back for her when we find the American doctor," she said. I hadn't put it that way, and it sounded as if I really wished to stay behind. "She says we're to take MacTavish, but I am sure he'd be better with her. A sick dog can't ride a horse, you know, can he? and he doesn't like me."
Mr. Conant looked from her to me and back again. Then to my utter surprise he dropped down on his knees beside me and put one arm round my shoulder.
"My dear girl," he said, "my dear girl." He said nothing more for a minute, but with his other hand began patting my cheek, "Do you think we'd part you and MacTavish, and do you think we could leave you behind? Why we'd never be able to get up a fire, and would perish with cold," and he laughed a little and patted my cheek again.
I couldn't say anything. It seemed as if some terrible burden had been lifted. I looked at him for a minute, and his eyes were full of pity, the pity that is tenderness and kindness and sympathy.
"Why, we could never leave you," he said.
"We can take you on the horse and leave you at the next Tibetan encampment we come to," said Stella, and her voice sounded shrill and as if she were disappointed.
I remembered once we had threatened to leave her in a Chinese hut, and I was ashamed. Oh it would be awful to be left. Mr. Conant drew me a little closer to him. I tried to say something, but no words would come, only strangled foolish sobs.
"We're going to stick together," he said, and the kind hand went on stroking my cheek. "I know what we'll do. Mrs. Chapman is dead sick of walking. We'll carry you on Persimmon to a little sunnier spot and make a sort of permanent camp there, and you women can stay at home and you can blow up the fire and I can go ranging out every day——"
Then Stella's voice cut in sharply and angrily.
"Don't pet her. It's the very worst thing for hysterics."
I made an effort to stop then.
"If you only knew what it is like to find you so kind when—when all night——"
"You were making up your mind to send us away with the treasure dog," said he with a little laugh, "you ought to have known me better than that. Now there's such a lot of fuel here we're going to have hot tea for breakfast, to say nothing of porridge, and there's still a spark in the fire if you think you can blow the bellows," and he stooped down and undid the rug in which I had wrapped MacTavish. It gave me a queer pang to think how my heart had ached as I had wound the rug round him. The little chap raised his ears and stretched out his little white paws.
"Why, he's better," said Mr. Conant, gently lifting him to his feet. "There's a bit of good luck for us. He's distinctly better."
AN ARCTIC WILDERNESS
"Sleep were no sweeter than her face to me.
Sleep of cold sea bloom under the cold sea."
"She played at half a love with half a lover."
I'VE a pretty strong imagination, but I certainly never anticipated being adrift in a howling Arctic wilderness alone with two good-looking young women. I sometimes felt as we marched along as if I were between the embodiments of good and evil, the attractive good and the attractive evil.
Rosalie Grahame is a good woman, there is no doubt about that. She has high ideals and tries to live up to them. She is hot-tempered, but that adds a spice to life, and she is very good-looking. When first I came to the mission station I was mightily attracted by her, but she kept me at a distance. On this journey the aloofness has slipped away imperceptibly, and I see what a thorough good comrade she is, sound all through. If it weren't for Stella Chapman——
That woman is a little devil, an attractive little devil, pretty, and soft, and clinging—as selfish as they make them. Without uttering a single word she says twenty times a day, "Let's enjoy ourselves. We're both young. Nobody would know and we could have such a good time. We shall never get such a chance again."
She would hold up her hands in horror if she knew that was the crude way in which I put her appeal to me, but, nevertheless, boiled down to the essentials, that is exactly what she is saying the livelong day.
She is certainly attractive, but not half so good-looking as Rosalie Grahame. Rosalie is worth a dozen of her—a dozen—a hundred—a thousand!
Hang it all! The idea of analysing like this when the Lord knows whether we shall be alive this day week. I'm hanged if I know how we're going to get out of this. And poor Rosalie has twisted her ankle—nothing in a civilized land, but here pretty near fatal. Poor girl! The brave lips quivered a little as she suggested we should take MacTavish. I very nearly broke down, and if I hadn't put my arm round her and hugged her, upon my word I believe I should have howled or throttled Stella. The little devil would have left her here, would have got rid of her and her dog and cared not a cuss whether they died or not. She would have been pathetically sorry about poor dear Rosalie and her little dog, and that would have been the end of it. And Rosalie—I have never seen anything like the relief in those brown eyes of hers as she looked at me—the gladness—and then they were drowned in tears. She ought to have known that any man with a glimmering of imagination would have realised that to leave her here would be abandoning her to her death. She knew it. Hang it all, why couldn't she give me a little credit for common decency? Things don't look very promising, but anyhow we're going to face it together, unless Stella likes to make a little excursion on her own, and I don't think that's likely. She can go if she wants to.
After we'd had breakfast—such a breakfast—only it was warm for once, I got Rosalie on to the old nag—she couldn't put her foot to the ground—put the little dog in her arms, and then leaving our gear, led the horse while we went to look for a camping ground with a little more sun about it, and a wider outlook where we might rest for two or three days. Resting is a beautiful word, and we might just as well call it that as anything else.
We didn't go far. We couldn't afford to be parted from our belongings. I found a good camping ground on a hillside that was sheltered, and from which we could see over quite a goodly range of country. Koko Nor was to the north of us, and on a rock in it we could see the curved roofs of a monastery, and about twelve miles away, but still plainly to be seen against the snow, a little to the right of the monastery and the lake, were some spots of black. An encampment, of course. Plenty of folk in the wilderness evidently. The question was to whom should we apply for aid? Help we'd got to have from somebody soon. We had good reason for distrusting monks, and those in Tibet are often truculent, and the encampments—oh, well, I thought I'd give my mind to considering it later on, or perhaps discuss the matter with Rosalie when she was rested.
I dumped the women down in the sun and went back quickly for our gear. Rosalie, with her little dog in her lap, sat down contentedly enough with her back to the hillside. Stella looked as if she were considering coming back with me, but I nipped that desire in the bud by setting off at a pace that would have taxed all her powers. I didn't want Stella at this juncture.
For one thing the weather was threatening. It looked as if a storm were coming up. We had only been able to travel at such a low temperature because the air was still—if it began to blow I knew it behoved us to be snugly tucked up till it was all over.
I got back in about an hour and a half. Then I piled up stones roughly against one side of the hill, and over it I stretched a piece of American Army canvas, that hitherto we had used as a ground sheet, fastened it down with heavy stones and filled up all the chinks with snow. I brought it, Stella pretended to, and Rosalie though she had to stay in one spot, worked like a nigger, so that we had really a substantial resting place before the first puffs of wind began to blow. I collected fuel and put it ready to our hands just outside, and inside the shelter we piled up our furs and thanked God we had so many.
"And you didn't want me to buy them," said Stella reproachfully to Rosalie.
The young doctor was as gay as a child building a doll's house.
"I'm glad now," she said. "I'm thankful. Oh, we shall be all right. Oh, supposing I had been alone," and her eyes wandered over the lake where the heavy clouds were gathering, and her hand stole down to pat MacTavish nestling among the furs.
"You ought to know," I said, perhaps a little roughly, "you never would have been alone."
She turned round with one of her old imperious looks, and then there came into her eyes a softness and she bent over the little dog.
"We know, MacTavish," she said, "we know and we won't ever forget."
I had not realised it before but hers isn't mere prettiness. It is something better than that. I had always thought she was nearly beautiful, and there and then I took away the qualifying phrase.
However, the Lord knows this wasn't a time to think of women's beauty. I built a fire of argols, thrust the bellows into her hands and bade her keep it going while the horse and I ranged the country round for more. I got a goodly pile before nightfall, and I saw some tents not three miles away, and made up my mind that presently we would appeal to them. It would be better to go to an encampment than to the monastery, and better to go to one three miles away than ten. Suppose these people could put us in touch with the American doctor.
Rosalie and I talked about it that night as I ate the porridge of parched barley she had ready for me, and so hungry was I it tasted quite good. Stella cried because the wind was beginning to blow, driving little wreaths of snow before it, and I wondered where I should have been if there had been no Rosalie to prepare that supper. One thing is quite certain, Stella would not have done it.
Rosalie was amazing. She was cheerful and happy, and even pitiful with Stella, who was crying like a fretful child.
"Don't cry, dear," she said, "don't cry. Only think how nice and warm we shall be to-night, however much it storms. And oh, just look at MacTavish! He's getting well!" For MacTavish had crawled out of his gay rug, and staggering along on shaking legs, was inspecting our abode and giving it his gracious approval.
"I'm so unhappy," wailed Stella, "I'm so unhappy," and she wrapped herself in the best of the furs and came creeping along to crouch down beside Rosalie, "I'm so uncomfortable," and she fidgeted about as if she could not get herself settled in the confined space. Rosalie laid down the bellows and tried to help her.
"There, that's better," she said. "No? Oh! There's a lump here."
"It's nothing," said Stella hastily, and her tone changed.
"Nothing! Why, of course you're uncomfortable, sitting on awkward corners like that. Let me—Why? Stella!" and she drew out a little parcel and looked at it curiously. Stella too looked at it half shamefacedly, half defiantly. I couldn't see what it was, but the dull fire of the argols caught and sparkled on something bright.
"Stella!" cried Rosalie again, half laughing.
"Well, why shouldn't I?" she said. "Those buckles alone cost two guineas in Bond Street, and the shoes are not worn."
"But to bring them along! I thought we'd left those shoes outside Yang Cheng!"
"As if I could," said Stella, with so much feeling in her tones that we both laughed outright and she joined us. It cleared the air somehow and put us all on a better footing.
"Still I'm worried about poor old Persimmon," said Rosalie looking up and wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes. The wind came shrieking down and tore at the little shelter, and went wailing away into the hills. Good Lord, how it did blow! It bore on its icy breath snow like little lumps of sharp ice, and soon the air was so full of whirling flakes it was impossible to see a yard ahead. We had got our shelter just in time, no human being could have survived such a storm in the open. The wild wind made the fire of argols glow redly. Of course we had to abandon the horse to his fate, but I had found him shelter, tied him with a long line, given him a good feed of parched barley, and I could only hope he would justify the name we had given him and pull through.
There was nothing to do but attend to the fire and sleep. The storm roared and wailed overhead, the air was full of the whirling flakes, and that little shelter, and the red eye of the argol fire made our world.
"It's the coldest fire," said Rosalie, as every now and again she rose and blew it up with the Tibetan bellows.
"I was just thinking," I said, "that it made all the difference. Why, this place is quite cosy."
"I'm glad you like it," said Stella sarcastically.
"He hath laid my vine waste and barked my figtree; he hath made it clean-bare and cast it away; the branches thereof are made white."
"WELL," said Martin Conant, as we snuggled down together, "you may look upon yourself as a public benefactor after all," and in the dull glow of the argols I was blowing up I saw that tender little smile not only on his lips but in his deep grey eyes. Who could help loving Martin Conant?
We were up rather high under the lee of a cliff. He had piled up stones on one side and built in our ground sheet carefully, so as to form a shelter. Naturally it was very small and very crowded, and just in the opening we had made a fire of argols that the storm served to keep alight. We were sheltered from the wild blizzard that raged outside, luckily. Just above the fire and below the curtain overhead, we could see the snow driven before the wind in one great slanting white sheet of dancing particles, and stepping outside for a moment you needed to keep your wits about you, for but one turn would have blotted out the fire, the shelter, every vestige of the camp, and you would have been lost and frozen to death in a white wilderness. We went out no more than we could help, and we abandoned the poor old horse to take his chance. We had to.
Stella lying there in the furs we huddled round us complained bitterly of the cramped quarters, but I—I was happy. Who would have thought I could have been happy in a little make-shift shelter on a hillside on the Tibetan Marches?
And yet I was. I had feared so terribly the night before. No wonder the howling storm sang in my ears as a paean of thankfulness, and Stella's moans but emphasized the comforts that were ours. And MacTavish was getting well. He staggered out of his wrappings more than once and held up his pretty little head, and asked us with what Stella called his arrogant air what on earth we were doing in such a place. And I laughed and hugged him, I was so ridiculously happy. And yet the shrieking and the howling of the storm drowned all other notes.
Never have I seen such a storm, but it wore itself away in thirty hours, and before the sun set on the second day, the sky was a cloudless, wind-swept blue that looked down on a white world. Even the lake was gone, and where there had been a vast expanse of blue ice was now one stretch of snow, of undulating snow worked into hills and valleys, like shifting sand, by the fierce wind. I could not have believed it was a lake. It was lucky we had come upon it a couple of days earlier, or else we should have gone marching on right into the heart of it, never realising we were on the lake itself.
It took us nearly till sunset to clear things round about us, and to feed Persimmon, who had survived. Goodness knows we had not much left, and Martin Conant and I looked at each other when we saw how scanty was our store of tsamba and curds and tea. Still we managed something for the poor beast, and we knew there were tents not far away. Mr. Conant had seen them when he was collecting material for our shelter, and we had discussed the propriety of appealing to them for help. But Tibetans are not inviting. We put off communication with them as long as we could.
"But I've got to look them up to-morrow," said Mr. Conant. "Can we hold out till to-morrow?" he asked, when I had given him a feed for Persimmon. Persimmon had the same as we did nowadays.
Till the day after, I told him. MacTavish was solemnly trying all his little legs out in the sunshine, and he looked so much better that I was confirmed in my faith that all was well. I watched the gorgeous sunset over the hills of unknown Tibet, and that night I slept a dreamless sleep without a care, and when the fresh clear, cold, sunny, morning dawned I awoke refreshed, better, very sure that this was the best of all worlds.
We had our minute breakfast, and then just a little tiny feeling of discomfort began to creep into my heart, I didn't like Mr. Conant going to those unknown Tibetans. I suggested he should ride, but he pooh-poohed the idea. Evidently he did not think the horse was up to it. I looked across to where, before the storm, perhaps ten or twelve miles away, had been the black tents of another encampment.
"Go there," I said, reluctant to let him go out of our sight, "and we can watch you all the way."
"Why, my dear girl, I shouldn't be back to-night. Wouldn't you rather I came back in a couple of hours than watch me flounder through the snow for six?"
"Well, take the pistol."
But he wouldn't do that. "I guess I'm safe with this stout stick," he said, "and I like to think you women have something to protect yourselves with in case of necessity. But I'm sure you'll be all right, and I won't be long." He stood up, walked a little way, turned round and looked at us.
"Don't worry. I'll be back soon," and he snapped his fingers at MacTavish, waved his hand to us, turned the corner into a fold of the hills and—vanished.
We set to work and tidied up. You can understand there are difficulties for a woman in the life we were leading. But Mr. Conant was very thoughtful, and, as we all wore furs, rich furs, we did not look so unkempt as we otherwise might have done. Stella and I always kept our hair well brushed. We both of us had plenty, and did not mind letting it down and combing it vigorously, and now that we were certain Mr. Conant could not come back for three hours at the very least we cleaned out our cooking pot, filled it with snow, and got enough warm water to have a thorough good wash, which refreshed us considerably.
When that was done we sat down in the sun in the snow and talked. Not that we had anything to say. Of course there was lots to occupy our minds, but nothing that demanded immediate attention. Stella was cross and discontented, aggrieved with me, though what I could have done to injure her I'm sure I don't know. I felt how thankful I would be when Mr. Conant came back. He always made light of difficulties, and created an atmosphere of cheerfulness. Stella evidently missed him too. After two hours had passed and the sun was creeping up to the zenith she became quite tearful.
"He ought to be here now. It's cruel of him to leave us alone so long."
I could only repeat, "He hasn't been long. It would take him at least an hour to get there and an hour to get back."
He would come as soon as he could, but oh how I longed to see him turning that corner.
Three hours passed and I too grew restless.
He would never spend an hour in the camp of the dirty Tibetans.
"He's cruel, cruel," wailed Stella. "He's left us because we're helpless and we keep him back."
I could hardly believe my ears. At last I understood stern hard Silas Chapman. Was this the sort of woman he had to live with, one who the moment a friend was out of sight imagined all manner of evil about him?
I made an effort to speak reasonably.
"How can you be so wicked, Stella? Has he ever been anything but good and considerate to us?"
"Oh!" said Stella, "that's just it. You can't expect a man to go on being good and self-sacrificing for ever. He's bound to get tired of it, and your accident was just the last straw."
She took away my breath. It was such cold callous reasoning.
"He might get tired," I said, "but he wouldn't go away and leave us to die."
"No one would ever know," Stella's voice trailed away miserably, "our bones will lie here for the hawks and vultures."
I was right down angry then.
"How can you think so badly of a man who has been so good to you?" I said. But she kept on.
"He went away with Silas, a big strong man, and came back with Silas dead. How do we know the story he told was true?"
It was horrible. I found it disgusting to be near her. I wanted to snatch up MacTavish and walk away into the snow. And then I remembered that Stella always said the first thing that occurred to her. She was no more responsible for her words than a silly child who had lived among low-class minds.
"You must remember," I said sharply, "your husband was a great loss to us all, and to Mr. Conant in particular. It doubled his responsibilities."
"He was my husband," said Stella wiping her eyes, and even in that moment she spoke with that bridling air of satisfaction that a certain type of woman always uses when she thinks her charms have been irresistible.
It was the very last straw. I don't know whether I looked as disgusted as I felt, but I held my tongue, and suddenly she was down on her knees with her arms round my waist.
"Don't be cross with me. Of course I never meant that exactly. Only you see men do like me—and think me pretty, and——"
I shook her off. Hateful little beast! I could find no other word to describe her. And yet here we were, two utterly helpless women, alone on a Tibetan hillside, and it would be folly to quarrel. I walked away a little and after waiting another half-hour MacTavish and I began limping towards the corner where Mr. Conant had turned into the hills.
Stella came after us weeping and crying that I was cruel and she was a most unfortunate woman, and that now we were as good as dead. At last we got to the turning in the hillside. My heart beat as we turned that corner. There was quite an extensive view of snow-clad hill and dale, but there was no sign of a tent, not a sign of human habitation! We were alone in a desolate white world. Mr. Conant had said he could see quite plainly tents from here and the men and women outside them.
"I told you so. I told you so," said Stella. "There are no tents there. There never were any tents there. He's left us."
What was the good of defending him from the atrocious accusation? What did it matter what a bad woman thought? We were alone, close to starvation, and Mr. Conant might be injured or dying among those snow-clad desolate hills. Unless the tent dwellers had held him prisoner or killed him nothing would have kept him from us. My knees were trembling so I had to sit down in the snow and MacTavish scrambled on my lap and licked my chin to show his sympathy.
If Martin Conant were dead it seemed to me the world would be absolutely empty, and I might just as well sit there and die too. But supposing he were injured and helpless—that thought wrung me, for I was so helpless myself. Stella wrung her hands and sobbed, and then subsided on the snow beside me, but I had done with trying to comfort Stella.
I believe I should have just sat there till I died if it hadn't been for MacTavish's little warm tongue licking my face. It reminded me the little dog had a right to his life anyhow. I struggled to my feet and remembered that the poor horse was tethered, and I determined I'd let him loose and give him a chance for his life.
"Where are you going?" asked Stella. But I said nothing.
When we got back to the little shack the western sun was low in the heavens, but we could see quite a long way round and the light on the snow was blinding. It hurt my eyes, and as I was turning away something black caught them. There were the tents on the hillside to which I had wanted Mr. Conant to go because we would have been able to see all the way he went. And then like a flash it came to me, if we could get there perhaps the people might help us.
It was such a forlorn hope! But we had nothing else. I limped into the shelter and got hold of the tsamba bag. There wasn't much, but we would have to share with poor old Persimmon.
"Are you going to get supper?" asked Stella in a conciliatory tone.
"I'm going to give the horse something," I said, "and MacTavish and I are going to wait here till to-morrow morning, and if Mr. Conant is not back by then I'm going to try and get across to those tents over there. Perhaps they can help us to find him."
It was awful that night. I had never before faced danger alone, for Stella did not count. Here in the dark stillness I heard a thousand terrible threatening sounds that could not be explained. I lay awake and thought of Martin Conant, and prayed he might not be suffering. I thought how easily we might be overcome did anyone come to the camp in the night. We were two women alone, and very, very helpless, and even those black tents I intended to make for might not hold out a helping hand. Even if you believe there isn't anything worth living for you still feel a shudder at the thought of being at the mercy of a horrible filthy man clad in dirty furs and dirtier rags, and crawling with vermin.
Stella cried and said she should not close an eye, and then I heard her regular heavy breathing. I thought I might consider us safe as long as MacTavish slept, but when he sat up and listened intently I listened too, and the night was full of crunchings and snappings and long-drawn sighs. The little dog growled angrily, and I felt cold down my spine. He snuggled back again and I felt faint with relief. I lay and watched the stars, keen and bright, through the opening under the ground sheet, the planets were like glorious jewels, and I must have dozed and slipped a little so that my waking eyes looked up at the ground sheet and I started up wide awake in horror, thinking the doorway was filled up.
But the dawn came at last and everything was as we had left it the night before, not a living creature had been near us.
It was a business getting off for I could only just hobble, and those tents were certainly ten, possibly twelve, miles away. We had to load our things on Persimmon, and it took me all I knew to do it.
"We can take turns in riding him," said Stella sweetly, "though I don't know how you're going to get up now Mr. Conant has deserted us."
I looked at her.
"I'm not at all sure Persimmon can carry our goods, and he certainly can't carry you or me," I said.
I gave him the last of the tsamba mixed with tea, poor beast, and he ate it gratefully. He had got over his prejudice against white people and used to nuzzle his poor old nose into my hand for something to eat. Luckily most of our baggage consisted of furs, and I made a little nest among them for MacTavish, and he sat there looking out, bless him, as if it were his proper place and he was sure everything was going all right.
That was an awful journey. My foot was so bad, swollen and hot and black to the knee, and painful, when I put it to the ground, that I could only hop along, guiding Persimmon by clinging to the ropes. Every few yards I had to sit down and rest. One thing it didn't give me time to think, every effort was given to crawling along. Mostly the snow was frozen into a hard stony surface so that there was no sinking, but occasionally—for what reason I don't know—it would be soft, and then both the horse and I would find ourselves plunging hopelessly in a drift that scared me lest we should be overwhelmed and never get out again. It was a cruel struggle. We had started soon after sunrise, but by midday the tents seemed no nearer, just little black spots on the surrounding whiteness. I ached in every limb, and my ankle throbbed so that I think that at another time I should have sat down and wept with the pain—now I was beyond all tears. It was like a ghastly nightmare. I felt that darkness might fall on us, and find us still struggling along on this great snowfield, and I had no doubt about what the end would be if it did. We ate all the curds I had left, and let the horse lick up the remains, and I wondered if we had eaten our last meal. Stella didn't say much. I think she was too tired even to complain, only when I lifted MacTavish down and gave the little chap some of my share of the curds she said,
"I can't think how you can bother yourself about the dog now. Just as if we hadn't enough on our minds. And you know the dogs at the encampment'll probably finish him." And she looked across the waste of snow.
She didn't intend her speech to comfort me. But it did. It evidently hadn't occurred to her as it had to me that we might never reach that encampment, that it was little bigger than it was five hours ago.
"We've got to get on as quickly as we can," I said. "It will never do to be caught by the darkness."
"I really think we have got on wonderfully," said she with an air as if she thought I might have praised her. And again I drew courage from her words. The sun got lower and lower, and I could have screamed if I had had any breath left to waste on such an effort as I saw that still the tents were a great distance away. But we could see plainly that they were tents. Stella sat down and said that she could go no further, and for a moment I was tempted. It would have been such a relief to take the furs off the horse and roll myself up and rest there in the snow, but I knew what that would mean, and if Martin Conant wanted help, who would help him. I felt as if I daren't stop. I could hardly turn my head.
"If—I—can——" and I heard my own words coming very slowly, and with gasps in between—"I'll—send—those—people at—the—tents back—for you."
It sounded very forlorn, and hopeless, and presently she was stumbling along clutching my arm and gasping and crying that she was done. I couldn't help her. If she had fallen I could have done nothing. The sun went slowly down flooding the scene with a light more brilliant than ever, and dropping behind the hills left the world cold and grey, and with his going came the gripping cold fiercer than ever—to breathe the air was like drawing down swords into your lungs.
I thought it was the finish. We could see the tents now, four large tents, we could even see people moving outside them, and I wondered they didn't see us. Perhaps they did and were not interested. With the fading of the light they seemed to vanish. How could we go on if we had no point towards which to steer? I tried to say something to Stella but I didn't seem to have any voice. In my heart I kept crying, "Martin Conant! Martin Conant!" and I stumbled and fell on my face for about the twentieth time. And then I heard Stella sobbing, "They've lighted, a fire!"
At that I struggled up again and saw the fire, a glowing fire of argols, a point of red light in the gleaming snow.
How on earth we got over those remaining miles—there were two at least—I shall never know.
Stella might have gone on, but she explained afterwards she was afraid to face the Tibetans alone. If they had been unfriendly I don't know what we should have done. I was not even equal to taking thought for MacTavish beyond being thankful he was secure in his cosy little nest, for the dogs came rushing out. In a dim, confused way I was glad of the barking dogs. They proclaimed our arrival. Stella clung to me and shrieked,
"They'll kill us! They'll tear us to pieces!" Out of one tent came a man and beat them off, and the curtain of the biggest tent was thrust aside and there stood a woman in Tibetan costume, with a little round cap on her head, but the hair that fell in long braids beneath it showed up pale yellow in the light of a lamp, the dull firelight gleamed on a pair of glasses, and the eyes behind those glasses were blue. This was no Asiatic!
Surely it was the American doctor we had been hunting for the last week! Was it a week? It was more like a thousand years.
She was a little woman with a pale set face, and she stood and blinked at us behind her glasses.
She said something at first in a tongue I did not understand, then in Chinese she asked, "Who are you?" and then she repeated it in English, and there was a surprise in her voice as she stepped forward and laid her hand on my arm.
I found words then——
"Thank God," I said, "Oh, thank God!"
"'Secrets,' sighs the nightwind,
'Vacancy is all I find;
Every keyhole I have made
Wail a summons, faint and sad.
No voice answers me,
I WAS so utterly done I saw nothing as the little doctor drew me into the tent. Vaguely I was glad because I knew we had reached the goal we had set before us ever since we had left Kama Miao, and that thought filled me with such satisfaction and thankfulness that in my utterly worn out state I could think of nothing else. It was done, and I staggered across the warm and cosy tent and sank on a pile of furs. I forgot the horse, I forgot Stella, I even forgot MacTavish till I felt him snuggling up against me—someone had brought him in, I was in a sort of torpor and I only felt dimly my boots being taken off and my swollen ankle being bathed.
"My!" said a high nasal voice, "you've been havin' a dandy time!"
Then so great was the relief I dropped asleep, and when I wakened I lay for a moment looking out at my surroundings, not knowing where I was. It was a fairly big tent, dimly lighted by a small lamp on a folding table. I had looked so long on the vast whiteness outside the dark Tibetan cloth walls and carpet were a relief to the eyes. Beside the divan of furs, a bed, a table and a couple of boxes, the only other furniture the tent contained was a folding chair in which was sitting our hostess reading a book. She was a little woman with a pointed nose and sharp features. She had rather an aggressive face, and no teeth, and her mouth falling in gave her a quaint look of primness. Her only beauty was her hair, and that she had done her best to disguise, for the Tibetan cap hid her head, and all I could see were two thick plaits like yellow ropes lying on her shoulders. She was the only thing in the tent that did not look restful. I thought thankfully how cosy it all was—and then I remembered, and threw out my arms with such suddenness that Stella, who was beside me, stirred. "Martin Conant!" I said.
Our hostess laid down her book—I think she was picking out texts in the Bible—and looked at me.
"Now ain't that real nice," said she. "You'd better have some supper."
But I was gathering together my scattered faculties, and I murmured foolishly, "He's lost."
"Lost, is he?" said she. "Well, I guess you're a bit rocky as to your own whereabouts." She spoke as if she had no curiosity, and as if it didn't very much matter. I struggled up into a sitting posture then, though Stella protested.
"We must save him," I said. "If we crawl after him we must save him."
"You ain't up to ten yards," she said in the most matter of fact way, looking at me as if she didn't see me, "Who is Martin Conant anyway? Your husband?"
"He isn't my husband. He——" and I tried to explain what had happened. To my dismay she didn't appear to be listening, and Stella cut in,
"He's all right. He just didn't want to be bothered with two women. If he'd known we were so near here, I expect——" she went on with a hateful smile I saw clearly enough in the dim lamplight.
"When did you say you—um—um—like a roarin' lion——" she held a piece of paper between her lips and fluttered violently the leaves of the book she held, "no, that ain't exactly to the point—Sodom and Gomorrah—um, that's the ticket—their sins—you was sayin'——"
"He went out yesterday morning"—I tried to be patient and explicit "—we expected him back in a couple of hours, three at the most, and——"
"Only yesterday morning! Lawks!" She fluttered over the leaves again. Her Bible was accustomed to it, the leaves were quite limp "—jubilee shall that fiftieth year be unto you—um—the grapes undressed—seems to me sort of wasteful, but who am I to judge?"
"But you see I must find him," I said, "I'm bound to."
"What's the trouble?" said she. Stella was asleep again. "He's stopped along o' the Tibetans. There ain't no sayin' what a man'll do. I'm trying to get my lesson fixed up for to-morrow, and I tell you it comes hard, for the Tibetans ain't an agricultural people, flocks is all right, but when it comes to grapes——"
"He wouldn't stop with the Tibetans," I said desperately, "unless they made him."
"Wal, supposin' they did. He'll get back all right. Thirty-six hours—where'd I be if I started worryin' in thirty-six hours! Why I ain't seen Lemuel Petersen a fortnight come Saturday, an'—now I've got it. It ought to be something simple—set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones."
I grew frantic.
"I'm afraid he's hurt."
"Wal, supposin' he is. Not likely though." I felt cheered "—an' lo they were very dry. Anyhow you can't go rampin' an' ragin' round the country this weather."
She took a pencil and began rapidly scribbling, murmuring just above her breath, and it was evident that I and my troubles had gone quite out of her head.
I rose up then, and with MacTavish at my heels staggered across to the table.
"Look here," I said, "I've got to do something—if I go out doing it on my own."
She came back to my affairs with an effort.
"A nice missionary you'd make," she said, "not a mite of trust in the Lord!"
"But I'm not a missionary," I said angrily. "I'm a physician and I've got to find Martin Conant."
Her thoughts had gone wandering again.
"Sure," said she, "you're very welcome to anything I can give you even if you're not a missionary. The mission always enjoins on us hospitality. I guess I'll give you a sleeping draught. Look at your sister."
It was maddening. "Oh do pay attention for a moment," I begged. "I'll give your mission fifty dollars if you find Martin Conant alive. Tell me someone I can go to."
"But you can't tell what a man'll do," she declared, only half interested even at the prospect of money for the mission. "Lemuel always says—says——"
"Where is Lemuel?"
She was deep in her book again.
"I tell you it's some work preparin' this lesson. It's gotten to be translated—Oh, Lemuel—well if he's back any time these three months I'm content. The longer he's away the more souls he'll rope in."
"I don't want to rope in souls. I don't care for anything if only you'll tell me how I can set about looking for Martin Conant."
"Hush!" she said. "Hush! It's a privilege for these benighted people, and if you——"
"Would they do Mr. Conant any harm?"
"Well the Tangut robbers are some bad," she said dubiously. "If they got frightened they might—but we don't come out into the desert to go a wearying after what might happen."
"This time I know something has happened. Is there anybody who has any influence with these people?"
She was deep in her Bible again, much taken up with Ezekiel's bones, but seeing I was so desperately in earnest she tore her mind away for a moment.
"There's Mr. Ling," she said. "The word of the Lord"—she was writing busily. "Mr. Ling's gone up to the monastery—um— m—m—thine hand—I don't like to have any dealings with the monastery—um—um—m—m— Judah—tabernacle—or with him, though I hear his mother was one of the Lord's chosen—and——"
"How can I get hold of Mr. Ling?" I put my hand on her shoulder.
"Abbas—it isn't his real name, but it's the nearest I can get my tongue to it—Abbas shall go up the first thing to-morrow morning."
To-morrow morning! And already it seemed ages since Mr. Conant had gone round that hillside. I looked at this woman, and she looked at me, and apparently we came to different conclusions.
"You're petered out," she said, not unkindly. "You're going to have some supper and a draught and then you'll be able to see your blessings more plainly. Look here, I'll call Abbas."
Abbas was called, and apparently instructed, and went out again. Then she gave me a supper of bread and butter and curds and dried apricots and tea, the nicest supper I had had since Chung left us, and though she didn't take any interest in MacTavish—she'd have liked me better if I been a Tibetan—she didn't object when I gave him some bread and milk with a lump of butter in it.
Then still in her masterful way she insisted on my having a sleeping draught. I suppose her calm manner of taking things did have a soothing effect upon me. Surely she could never have been so casual if a man's life were at stake even if she had never seen him. Anyhow I had set in motion the beginnings of something to help Martin Conant.
I must have been very tired when such a very small beginning comforted me. I suppose it was the feeling that I could do no more. I dropped on to the divan again, and with MacTavish snuggling up against me fell into a sound sleep.
How long I slept I do not know. I only wakened when someone pulled aside the curtain over the door, letting in the icy outside air and the brilliant daylight, and then I started up wondering where I was. There was Stella standing full in the light saying querulously,
"How much longer are you going to sleep?"
THE SORROW OF THE WORLD
"The burden of dead faces. Out of sight
And out of love, beyond the reach of hands,
Changed in the changing of the dark and light,
They walk and weep about the barren lands
Where no seed is nor any garner stands,
Where in short breaths the doubtful days respire,
And Time's turned glass lets through the sighing sands."
I HAD slept heavily and long, and it was late. Almost before I was awake the thought that I must make up for lost time and help Martin Conant was uppermost in my mind.
Dr. Caroline Petersen was serenely going about her business. As I came out of her tent I saw the tail of her gown whisking into the one next it. She came out sternly propelling before her a dark, flat faced Tibetan woman with turquoise and coral weighing down her greasy black hair behind. Dr. Petersen was earnestly impressing something upon her unwilling ears, and the woman was listening in sullen silence. To what I did not gather, and did not care. My mind was set upon one end.
"Oh, pardon me," I said, "but last night you were good enough to say you would send a messenger to the monastery."
She looked at me through her spectacles abstractedly.
"The monastery," she repeated vaguely. "Well, p'raps it is better than having three husbands! And one a trial sometimes! Five months I have wrestled with this woman, and now she tells me without turning a hair she's got three husbands!"
"You remember," I went on patiently, "it was most important. Martin Conant—hurt perhaps——"
I had to be spasmodic for I wanted to get it all in and impress it upon her. But it was like trying to stop a hole with quicksilver. She had one idea—the Tibetans. Nothing else mattered.
Still she was hospitable.
"Didn't Anna give you some breakfast? Here, Anna! Anna!" something unintelligible, and Dr. Petersen was gone into another tent and Anna had placed before me tsamba, and tea, and cream. Delicious, if my mind had been at ease.
Dr. Petersen came back again carrying a fat and dirty child in her arms, with the mother hovering over him anxiously.
I tried her again.
"If you sent to that monastery," I began.
"Oh, do be quiet," said Stella, "Mr. Conant will be all right."
"I'm determined that this child at least shall have a fair start," said Dr. Petersen, and she flicked a look at me for a moment as if she expected sympathy. "Brought up in darkness and the shadow of death, to say nothing of no proper ewer or wash bowl—um—um—right away down to his little shirt and pants."
"Oh, but I must go to that monastery," I cried desperately. "I must see your Mr. Ling."
"He isn't my Mr. Ling, thanks be," said she. "I don't hold with these marriages. Still, of course, the Scriptures——"
"Did Abbas go to the monastery?"
Stella was smiling.
"Abbas," repeated Dr. Petersen, "of course if I told him—Why, what's this?"
What on earth it was I don't know. I didn't want to know. An idea had suddenly struck me. There was the monastery, its red and gold curved roofs peeping out of the snow. In the clear air it looked quite close, surely not three miles away!
I pointed to it.
"I'm going there," I said to Stella. Dr. Petersen was off again. It was no good expecting help from her.
"Don't be a fool," said Stella.
But there was nothing else to be done and there and then MacTavish and I started off. It was a good omen to see him dancing about in the bright sunshine, happy and almost well.
It was hard going over the snow, and it took me a long while because my ankle was still painful and weak.
At last I drew near enough to see the open-air staircases built up on archways, and the gateway, a great square arch, opening on to a courtyard filled with snow. The heavy iron-studded gates were wide open, but there was not a sign of a living being, only on the stillness, growing, growing, as I came nearer, was a sound monotonous, and yet strangely weirdly tuneful, like a great volume of voices rising and falling—in long cadences. I listened, and suddenly there was a great blare of trumpets that cut the air, harsh, resonant. It came again and died down, and as I stood in the gateway in dead silence I could hear the snow slip, slipping softly from where it had lodged on the roofs, and the sound of MacTavish's little restless feet as he pattered over the white ground.
There were pine trees in the courtyard, and a little snow still lingered in their branches, gleaming white against the dark pine-needles, there was snow on the pavement, and piled up against great China jars, in which were tall plants bound into neat pyramids with straw, snow-covered now. Facing the gateway with the sun streaming right upon it was a seated statue of the Buddha, and on his shoulders and in his lap, in the turned-over leaves of the bronze lotus flower in which he sat, and as a crown on his head, was the soft white snow, while in a long line on either side of him were a row of prayer wheels, but they were still and silent, and in that courtyard was no living human being. Only on the air was a low murmur.
I picked up MacTavish and stood still in the gateway and looked at the face of the Buddha. It was so calm, so far away, far above all the wear and tear of this earth. It spoke of a high order of civilization. The men who took pride and pleasure in looking upon it could not be rough and rude savages. They might be cold and impassive like the far-away dreaming face or like the deserted hills around. My nerves steadied. The scent of incense stole upon the air and the murmur of unseen voices rose and rose till it was loud and ringing, and again there was the red blare of the trumpets.
It was awe-inspiring this appeal to the Father of all. I felt small, impotent, yet burning in me was fear for the man I loved.
I was desperate. I made a step forward, only to be again arrested, for standing in the shadow by one of the prayer wheels, having apparently come up softly from behind them, was a tall Chinaman bundled up in the richest furs. My heart gave a bound: here was someone who could understand me. But it sank again for this man was evil-looking. He had the white puffy fat look of a man who leads a sedentary indoor life, who lives on rich greasy foods such as a Chinaman loves. But it was not that that repelled me. It was something sinister and evil in his face, something secret. I felt he had been watching me long before I had seen him.
He stepped forward and spoke to me in English, quite good English, but pronounced with a careful precision that he could have learned in no English or American school. He spoke pompously, and he took my breath away by his first words.
"A pearl! A lotus flower!"
To add to the weirdness of the situation out blared those trumpets again, accompanied by another sound, deeper, louder, a sound made by the blowing of conch shells.
For a moment I stood speechless, and then like a flash it came to me in dismay—I had found the man I was seeking. This was Mr. Ling. And he was my only hope!
"Are you Mr. Ling?" I asked in a half whisper.
Our voices were pitched in quite a different key from the chanting, and I could hear, and he heard quite plainly.
The big Chinaman put up a hand, clothed in a sealskin glove with a knitted red mitten over it, and made as if he would raise his cap, but it was tied under his chin, so he touched it and fell back into the Chinese fashion of shaking his own hands.
"This unworthy person is Mr. Ling, madam, Arthur Ling, Ling Cheong, at your service."
He stepped forward and pointed to the gateway, and slowly I fell back towards it.
"I want help," I found myself saying, "I must have help for an Englishman."
Still he pointed to the gateway and I went back.
"They pray for the illustrious souls of the mighty dead," he said in his fat solemn voice, "the souls of the million dead."
Back, back I went, beyond the snow-laden pine trees, by the great china vases that stood at either side of the gate, outside into the snow where the sunshine seemed more brilliant in the wide space under the great empty sky.
"The souls of the dead," I repeated.
"A thousand times ten thousand," he said, sweeping his hand round, "and the abbot and the monks pray for their souls."
"Over in barbarian Europe, where they fight," and I stood dumb before him. These people I had disdained were praying for the souls of the men dying in the great European war, men unknown to them, bound to them only by the ties of a common humanity. Overhead the sun blazed in the cloudless heavens, the glare from the white snow almost blinded me, and from the monastery rose and fell the deep chanting of hundreds of voices—praying——and the scent of the incense enwrapped me. Here, in Tibet, they were praying for the souls of the dead and dying in Europe. And as the trumpets blared again I could only bow my head and add my silent, wordless inarticulate prayer to the volume of sound that was going up to the Almighty. Here, on this frozen lake, in the heart of Asia I realized the world tragedy.
I came back to my trouble with a start. The evil-looking Chinaman was pointing towards Dr. Petersen's tents, little black blotches in a world of whiteness.
"If this insignificant one may suggest the lotus flower has been afflicted with the loss of her most precious guardian."
I wished he would use a little simpler language, but when I tried to explain he waved my words aside as if they were of no account.
"It would indeed be a difficult and hazardous conjecture to make," he said, stretching out his hands and patting the air patronizingly, "but the Heaven-sent messenger this morning brought news of the unprepossessing circumstances and the glad tidings of the arrival of two pearls and a donkey."
Poor old Persimmon!
"An intelligent and discriminating individual," he went on, "will perceive the utmost need for much reward in cash," and he looked at me shrewdly out of his slit eyes.
But however absurd his language he was my only hope.
And there and then I made the best arrangements I could. He said in very flowery language that he could find out what had become of Mr. Conant because he had many dealings with the Tibetans, and they trusted him. It was more than I did, but I promised to pay double what he asked if he brought Martin Conant back alive.
Then there was nothing for me to do but to go back across the snow the way I had come.
LONG DRAWN OUT
"When I looked for good then evil came upon me; and when I waited for light, there came darkness...... I went mourning without the sun......I am a brother to dragons and a companion to owls. My harp also is turned to mourning, and my organ into the voice of them that weep."
THE finishing touch was always being put to my missionary career. Not that the Tibetans don't want some sort of reforming. But that I or twenty thousand men like me could ever influence them in the smallest degree I very much doubt. The visit to those tents swept away the last remnant of my faith in my own powers.
There were only two tents and I felt I ought to be able to manage their occupants. I put a bold face upon it for these people despise the humble and meek, and I advanced swinging the big stick I carried as a protection against the innumerable dogs that hang round these camps.
But they came on baying and growling menacingly, and their vociferous remarks fetched out three unsavoury-looking ruffians clad in sheepskin. Their appearance was not inviting, but they made no effort to use the old-fashioned matchlocks which were slung across their shoulders. The dogs came at me with open mouths and slavering jaws, and I laid about me with my heavy stick. I called out in Chinese too, but I don't think they understood. My actions probably spoke for themselves. The dogs, four fierce beasts, kept out of range, and the men advanced with broad smiles on their dirty countenances. So far so well I thought, especially as the tallest produced a whip and proceeded to lay about him with a will. I made a step forward, and then—there was a blank. I never saw the man who shot me, never even heard the sound of the shot. It came upon me suddenly as if for a brief space I had been annihilated, and when I came back to this world again, dazed and sick, and feeling curiously angry and indignant I found myself lying on the snow surrounded by three men backed by four growling dogs.
For the moment I thought I was not hurt, then I felt that half my face was blown away, and a sickening pain in my side made me, in spite of myself, sink back upon the snow. The men standing over me were apparently quarrelling, and the dogs crept a little closer to inspect me. I wondered if I were going to die. It was pretty disgusting going out like that with my life all in ragged ends, and I thought with a pang of those women I had left on the hillside. One of the men bent over me, weights were holding down my arms, there was no power in my hands. I was looking up into a flat-faced Mongolian countenance burnt nearly black by the sun on the snow, and before I had a chance to try my halting Chinese again the pig eyes and matted black locks were swaying up and down, mixing themselves up with the blue skies and the white hillsides, and again I forgot my troubles in the depths of unconsciousness.
I must have been insensible for some time, for when I came to I found I had been flung across a horse that was stumbling along. The glare of the sun on the snow hurt my eyes, hurt my head, the pain in my face and in my side was excruciating, but the thought of the women I could not help hurt me most. We went on and on. Sometimes I was unconscious, but mostly I was acutely, painfully clear-headed, piecing together the consequences of my action, and the probable fate of those women.
After what seemed hours I was lifted inside a stuffy tent that smelt to high heaven, and some clumsy person was going through my clothes. Evidently I was an object of great interest, for about half a dozen other people, men, women, and children were punctuating the performance with shrill cries that might be admiration or astonishment.
I could not make myself understood. They laughed and mocked at my efforts, and I lay there on the filthy vermin-infested ground through interminable nights; and long, long hopeless days, haunted like an intolerable nightmare by the thought of those helpless women. Sometimes I wondered why I did not seize one of those long knives that were raised at me threateningly, when occasionally I made shift to crawl outside, or one of the matchlocks, and put an end to it all.
A thousand times in those dreary tortured days and nights I longed for death to put an end to my thoughts, to ease the maddening throbbing of my face, which extended now to my whole body. I felt I was fetid and horrible, and always I craved for something to drink.
Sometimes my hosts gave me a sort of barley water, but often I gathered lumps of snow outside and crammed it in my mouth to take away the burning fever, and the pain that was in my whole body.
After ages and aeons of suffering I came back to find a Chinaman, a clean-looking fat Chinaman, looking down at me, and I summoned with an effort my Chinese to ask him to help me.
But I thought I was still in a dream, when he bent over me and said in English—
"O, most illustrious, this mean one has followed in your footsteps to beg permission to relieve you in your necessitous and ill-starred situation, and we together, armed with a just cause, shall quit the abode of——"
I don't remember any more. The torment of the nightmare descended upon me again, and I seemed to be going, going, going, always in intolerable pain, feeling I must rescue those women, till suddenly I felt cool clean water on my face, and opening my eyes I saw bending over me, Rosalie Grahame—Rosalie Grahame in the flesh, and well, Rosalie Grahame, who had perished a thousand times in my thoughts on the hillside.
I pushed her hands down with my own, and she smiled.
"It's all right. You're safe at last."
I strove to understand, to regain my full senses, and then I heard another voice, a voice I also knew well, a little petulant, a little querulous.
"My goodness gracious me," it said, "well, I'm glad you think he's all right. He's horrible. If he dies it will be just——"
But the voice stopped suddenly, and I tried to think to whom it belonged. And then I went away into peaceful forgetfulness.
THE LAST OF KOKO NOR
"If women could be fair......
But when I see how frail these are,
I muse that men forget themselves so far."
BEASTLY, there's no other word for it. How on earth I ever endured to tell the tale I don't know. My sufferings—but nobody ever seems to think of my sufferings. Rosalie is for ever prating about the clear air and the healthfulness of the bitter cold, and the wonderful effect it has in healing her patient. Thinks Tibet'll be a health resort some day! Ugh! All because of Martin Conant. She mends his broken face and damaged lungs—thinks of nothing but him. And he thinks of nothing but the fact that he is in love with her, and isn't fit to have her now. He doesn't like her seeing his helplessness, and his—well that wound on his face—festering and horrible—ugh——
So he turns to me, no thought as to whether I should like to play second fiddle. Pleasantly exciting for me, isn't it? They are a silly couple.
I don't mention Dr. Petersen or her husband because they simply aren't worth mentioning. People who are foolish enough to condemn themselves to life among the Tibetans had better be allowed to enjoy themselves in their own way. Far be it from me to interfere.
But everything is so dull that a boredom beyond words is added to other miseries.
The man who really counts in the situation is the Eurasian, Ling Cheong. And whenever—I mean, of course, when one's desperate, desperate measures are not only to be excused but are an absolute necessity. Where would the rest of them be, I should like to know, if I hadn't had my head screwed on the right way? You've got to look a little ahead.
First Ling said he thought he could get us a servant—my suggestion—he knew a Chinese who had been left behind by some missionaries fleeing from Pai Lang, and the next time he came up he brought us of all people in the world, Chung—Chung, prancing along as usual, tossing his pigtail from one shoulder to the other, beaming in his hateful self-sufficient manner, but still Chung, an excellent servant. Left behind indeed! I should have thought the boot was on the other foot. However, there he was, and I was exceedingly glad to see him, though of course I didn't say so. It never does to admit you are dependent for comfort upon a Chinese servant. Martin Conant did. I think he found it pretty humiliating to be helpless in the hands of those two women doctors. You couldn't count Dr. Petersen's husband. He was never with us for more than two days together. No wonder Martin Conant was glad to have a servant of his own again.
He isn't my servant. He always makes that clear. I can't think why. I suppose because he thinks I have not as much money as the others. Chinese are so mercenary.
It is a cruel situation for a pretty young woman. I want so little. Given the proper surroundings, I can make a wonderful show on almost nothing at all. But, of course, I must have something to go upon. Naturally my thoughts turned to Ling, and I had the forethought to cultivate him.
Luckily he is easily flattered. Men who think a woman an inferior being always are. You can't move a man like Martin Conant, who persists in putting woman with a capital "W" on a pedestal, but give me a man who thinks a woman was made for his particular pleasure when I want to get something out of him. I hadn't seen Ling three times before he had brought me as a present the sweetest set of pale blue silk garments, Chinese, of course, but of the richest silk of the most delicate shade, and simply divinely embroidered. It was ages since I'd seen anything so pretty, and I could quite sincerely be sweet to Ling even though Rosalie has a way of looking down her nose when she finds me talking to him. But I wonder where she and her lover would be if I didn't arrange things—tell me that?
I put it to him wasn't it possible to get down to China?
It seems it is quite possible. White Wolf is still on the prowl, but Ling said he thought he could probably hire some of his braves to guard us—it was only a question of money.
What I want, what we all want for that matter is to get away, and I soon saw I must stick at nothing if I am to succeed. And Rosalie was determined Mr. Conant should not be moved too soon.
It was the end of February before Chung joined us. And at the end of April we still lingered in that hateful hole. I had it all settled up in my own mind and was just debating how I should spring things on the rest of them when Chung took the matter in hand. He doesn't like Tibet any more than I do. Of course he is horribly selfish, but sometimes selfishness is useful.
One day we were all sitting out in the sunshine, Rosalie nursing that beast for which she had been ready to risk all our lives, and Mr. Conant shading his scarred face with his hand. He will never be handsome any more, but Rosalie has done wonders, I will say that for her. That disgusting festering sore that made me sick when I caught a glimpse of it once, is now reduced to a deep red scar, ugly to look at but perfectly clean and with nothing nasty about it. I suppose he thinks it worse than it really is, because he often covers it with his hand.
Well, we were all sitting there in the sunshine, our party I mean—you never knew where the Petersens were—and I was thinking how boring it all was. Rosalie and Martin Conant were talking some drivelling bosh about the lovely view instead of considering how we were to get away. If they'd even gone in for courting I could have forgiven them, but to moon their time away talking about the skies and the lake and the flowers—Goodness! It was lucky for them they had me along with them!
"Spring," said Martin Conant, touching the flowers she had brought him almost as if he loved them. He always was a bit of a fool, "and I can hardly crawl from my bed to my chair."
Then she comforted him. That's the sort of drivel they called conversation. I was thankful to see Ling arriving, if it was only to put a stop to this aggravating twaddle, and while Ling was giving himself up to prolonged greetings, Chung appeared on the scene.
Chung always went straight to the point.
"Missie go China," said he, "my go China, small dog go China?"
Mr. Ling nodded solemnly. He wore European clothes, his hands were tucked in the narrow sleeves of his Norfolk jacket Chinese-fashion, and I saw he missed his petticoats.
"Go to China!" said Mr. Conant as if the thought came as an immense surprise to him. How truly foolish some men are!
Then Mr. Ling spoke in his picturesque, Oriental way.
"If it is the wish of this illustriously endowed gathering," said he, "to move towards the Flowery Kingdom, this mean worm can conscientiously assure them of his far-reaching protection."
Mr. Conant rose up as if someone had hit him.
"If we could get to China I could get to Europe. And the war? What about the war?"
But nobody took any notice of him. Apparently Mr. Ling didn't know anything about the war, besides the great thing was to get away from Koko Nor. I felt mad with joy at the thought that there might be a hope, and Rosalie hugged the wretched little beast on her knee.
"Oh MacTavish!" she said, "MacTavish!"
Chung gave a little satisfied prance.
"My can makee nice," said he, "in Chinatown."
So we settled it there and then. Ling didn't say anything about the guard of robbers, and, of course, I held my tongue. It is well not to be too wise, and in three days we were saying good-bye to Dr. Petersen.
"A day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness as the morning spread upon the mountains........A fire devoureth before them; and behind them a flame burneth, the land is as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness."
DR. PETERSEN'S husband, the Lemuel she mentioned occasionally, turned out to be a nice gentle kindly man with haunted eyes. He was not a missionary, but a physician, and a clever one. He helped me a great deal with Martin Conant's face at first, but he never stayed long at the tents. He said he was interested in the people, and he used to go wandering off, and only appeared at irregular intervals. I am sure he helped wherever he was, but I doubt very much whether he was engaged in roping in souls as his wife fondly imagined. It was Ling who came more into our lives. We could never have got Martin Conant away from those tents if it had not been for his help, and yet—he fills me with dread. I like no half-castes, but Ling Cheong is a loathsome beast. I might have liked his father, who was probably a fat and pursy Chinaman, and pitied his mother, who belonged to one of those curious little one-horse American sects who often feel it their bounden duty to seal their sacrifice by marrying one of the people they have come to convert. And the result was Ling, the very personification of evil, some cruel, secret, unmentionable evil of the East. He too was fat and pursy and middle-aged, and when first we met him, or perhaps I should say he met us, he was dressed as a Chinaman, which was at least suitable. Then one day he appeared in European clothes, a Norfolk jacket, out of which he was bursting, his chest had slipped considerably, and the little skirts of the jacket stood out horizontally in front; below, instead of his dignified skirts, he wore a pair of very tight and very short black evening trousers; round his neck, instead of a collar, was a woman's knitted scarf, but on his feet were still the comfortable Chinese shoes and white socks, and on his head the little round black satin cap with a red button on top that so many Chinamen wear. An oiled paper umbrella completed his turn-out, and instead of looking a figure of fun he contrived to look sinister. And he is powerful. He is rich, that is evident, and he is willing to lend us money till we can get back to Peking, so we can do nothing but suffer him.
We were wild to get away, and yet we might have been in a worse place. Above us stretched the beautiful blue sky with an infinity of depth in it, sometimes cloudless, and sometimes with great clouds piled up on which the sun shone, turning them into snowy mountains with blue crevasses and hollows that caught and held the golden sunshine. And the frost gone, the lake below was indeed a great sea, the Blue Lake, a wonderful blue lake stretching away to a shore that was beyond the farthest horizon. On it, crowned with the broken roofs of temples, were three white islands sparkling and bright, like the clouds that floated overhead. On them we knew were shut away for the summer the Buddhist monks who dwelt in the monasteries there, and whose stern faith did not allow of even a small boat that would connect them with each other and with the mainland. Dr. Petersen used to weep over those monks, but if I had done so it would have been for a different reason. They had what they wanted, of that I was sure, but they stood to me for the mystery of the East. They seemed to hold in their hands the threads of the skein that held us entangled in its meshes. I feared the monks. It was for myself I could have wept.
And now the grass was springing in every sheltered corner, and in all the little nooks of the hills around the May flowers were coming out shyly. MacTavish and I had gathered sweetly scented violets growing on a bank where a little stream went brawling over the stones as if it were rejoicing to be free of the ice and hastening to join the great lake.
But the flowers and the lake and the wide view were my only solace. We seemed to be caught in a coil and must drift with the stream under the guidance of this half-caste who fills me with a fear I cannot throw off, and yet that must be disguised under an outward semblance of friendliness. Stella does not seem to feel it. She displays for this Chinaman, got up in a travesty of European clothes, all the seductive ways that she had once used towards Martin Conant, and he looks at her, it seemed to me, as a snake might look at a playful rabbit that presently he intends to swallow whole. And the worst of it is I daren't even hint at my fear to Martin Conant. He is still so frail that I desire above all things to keep his mind from worry.
Li Hsien, the little Chinese town, where Ling has a house, was three days' march away, and on that march down I realized that my instinctive fear of Ling had reason in it. They had three litters, Stella, Ling, and Mr. Conant, to his disgust, but I chose to ride poor old Persimmon and carry MacTavish, even though by so doing I lowered myself in the estimation of Ling and his following. He had a wonderful large following, a ragged array of men, some on foot, some on donkeys and mules, and all armed after a fashion, looking very much like the filthy mob that had attacked and wrecked the mission station. They made me shudder, and Chung when he passed me the first evening after we left the Tibetan highland looked at me for a minute with a wink, and remarked sotto voce,
"Lobbers! Missie mus' stayin' close to litters."
Adrift in the heart of China with a band of Chinese robbers! Ling had gone back into Chinese dress, rich Chinese dress, and it was very evident that he was a power and we were entirely at his mercy. It seemed to me there was significance in his fat sleek smile as he looked at us that evening out of the corners of his long slit eyes.
The next day we came to the country that had been ravaged by Pai Lang's braves; we passed several farm-houses, poor little mud cabins along the wayside, whose thatch roofs had been burned. In the doorway of one a tiny child lay dressed in a little soiled green coat and pink drawers, evidently the precious son of some family, and when I dismounted and turned him over I saw that he was dead and the wonks had gnawed his face! The poor little helpless thing! And as I turned away I saw Mr. Ling looking at me, and smiling secretly.
And next day it was worse. We passed many burnt farm-houses, and the wonks were busy with the dead who lay among the ruins, and as we went on we came upon the trail of the brigands in all its desolation and horror. We passed no less than three walled towns, the walls of which were an empty mockery, for inside the houses had been burnt and sacked, only here and there had one escaped, and thin and gaunt shadows stole out, but directly they caught sight of us they scuttled away in abject terror. I longed to feed them, but I could only help through Ling, and he merely smiled as if these people were so many ants to be crushed without a thought. It was horrible. Stella sank back in her litter and covered her face, I looked round for Mr. Conant, but I could only see his litter stopped far behind. I guessed what had happened, he was helping some unfortunates there. It encouraged me and I got a handful of small coins from Chung and flung them out to the starving wretches. And then an awful thing happened. A miserable woman with bound feet gathered up about twenty cash in her claw-like hands and began hobbling towards a tumbledown hovel. One of our ragged following went after her, and though I called out in my best Chinese that the money was for the woman, he paid no attention, but caught her by the shoulders. She held on to the money and shrieked and screamed, and the brute drew his knife, and before I could stop him he had cut off her hand and she had dropped forward on the ground, the brass cash, about a cent's worth, all dabbed with blood, scattering around her. I stood too horrified for words, and then came Ling's voice, calm, smooth, odiously courteous.
He had been ahead as the most important person in the party, but he had come back.
"The condition of affairs is indeed offensively unbearable for the illustrious pearl," said he.
"If that brute's your servant," I cried, "he deserves hanging." I would have jumped from old Persimmon, but Chung pressed MacTavish back against me.
"Missie go chop-chop," he said, and his desperate earnestness made me hesitate just a moment. But it was fatal. Ling made some little careless motion, and before my very eyes the ruffian stuck the woman in the throat. She looked at me with reproachful dying eyes.
"Chop-chop," cried Chung. And still I hesitated. I saw another woman's face starved and worn peering round the ruins.
"Mr. Ling! Call that brute off! We must help them!"
He stretched out his hands.
"If the pearl will condescend to bestow the light of her presence upon the immeasurably inferior——"
I interrupted again.
"We must help," I said in a shaking voice.
He moved his hands backwards and forwards smoothing the air. It gave me a feeling of absolute helplessness. I looked round. Mr. Conant's litter was still far in the distance—besides what could he do? We were entirely in this man's power. Chung struck Persimmon on the flank, and I made no further protest and rode on, though that woman's dying eyes haunted me.
Now that the spring was upon us, with its warmth at midday, the smell of death and decay that hung over these towns poisoned every mouthful we ate and made me turn from even a drink with disgust and horror.
Mr. Conant's indignant protests—and there was much to protest at during the next day or two—were met with the same inscrutable smile, the same impassive demeanour. There was no doubt this man on whom we were dependent countenanced these frightful things. To say we were thankful when on the fourth day we arrived at a farm-house outside Li Hsien is to put it mildly. Ling ushered us into the courtyard, and standing there with his hands in his sleeves, bowing solemnly, said,
"If the exalted ones will condescend to direct their venerable footsteps into this uninviting and degraded hovel, this mean worm will have his senses gladdened by their distinguished confidence and they will overwhelm him with gratified confusion."
Ling's extraordinary inflated language ought to have made us laugh. It didn't. It was sinister. Doubly it made me fear him. To be absolutely in the power of such a man!
"This humble person's slaves," he went on, "will outdo themselves day and night in assuring the illustrious ones they may close their distinguished and virtuous eyes in peace. Doubtless the exalted ones do not need riches, but nothing could confer more pleasure upon this humble person than an opportunity of offering his despised and sordid wealth upon this gratifying occasion."
I looked at Ling. Both Martin Conant and I fully understood that his despised and sordid wealth would only be at our service just so long as he was convinced that we could pay a proper percentage. Indeed we would have used it on no other terms. We would not have been under an obligation to him if we could have helped ourselves.
He stood there smiling that secret smile that I had learned to dread, and he looked at me Chinese-fashion under his eyelids. With a cold shudder of foreboding I entered our new resting place.
THE POWER OF LING
"We may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea and sell the refuse of the wheat."
A FARM in China does not bring before the eyes the rural surroundings of one in Europe or America. The farm in which Ling installed us was not unlike an inn, the rooms, all of one storey, opened into a fairly large courtyard where the sun penetrated every corner. There was rather a high wall round, and I could well believe it had been built for defence. In the centre of the courtyard were three large peach trees covered with pink blossom. Outside the walls were lines of fruit trees, peaches, plums and apricots, lovely in their pink and white spring dress, and the land around waking from its long winter sleep was carpeted with green, the blades of wheat just bursting through the ground.
If it hadn't been for Mr. Ling I could have been almost happy. Martin Conant was so much better, wanted so little of my attention, that I was able to establish a sort of little clinic for the women and children in a corner of the farm-yard, and hither came from all the country round, and even from the town itself, three miles away, the halt and the maimed and the sick for advice and treatment. Sometimes boys would come creeping in with bad eyes and terrible sores, and even the men, and how could I send them away? My medicines were reduced to a rudimentary basis. My principal drug was clean boiled water.
Still it was good to think I was helping ever so little, and it took my thoughts off Ling and our very uncertain future. Ling did not come to see us very often. He professed himself perfectly willing to lend us money until we could get away, and as Martin Conant and I were quite rich according to Chinese notions, we agreed to keep Stella between us. She thanked us both prettily, but I'm sure she thinks it is the least we can do. It is.
It seems to me that whoever reads my story will complain it is too full of ghastly horrors. But China after a rising is full of horrors. Human life is of no account, and cruelty—well, perhaps you could not expect a nation that inflicts a long drawn out torture upon its women to consider anyone's sufferings. It flings out blind unwanted puppy dogs to die of starvation, heedlessly torments domestic animals and criminals, and those it fears when caught are tortured without mercy.
One day Ling came to me smiling his secret smile. It made me shiver, but I could only smile back at him defiantly. It always made me remember that as a last resource I could die. But he was perfectly courteous after his own fashion.
"In the matter of detail," said he, "it may be objected that this penurious one is inefficiently incapable of expressing himself mellifluously. But the representation of the marvellous cures of the healing pearl——"
"Oh, what do you want?" I asked. It always tired me to try and find the meaning in his long-winded lucubrations.
"A devout and unassuming person," he said, "has heard of the heaven-sent cures, and she, seeing greater endurances have not been neglected, might be worthy of the favourable consideration of the healing pearl."
"If you mean there's a sick woman wants to see me," I said, "why, of course, I'll do what I can for her," and I picked up MacTavish so as to occupy my hands and have an excuse for not looking at him. I have no words to say how I dislike to look at Ling, or to feel his eyes upon me.
"Alas," he said, "this ill-destined one dwells at a farm ten li away, and though without delay she would set herself to the arduous and laborious task of crawling to the feet of the pearl among miracle workers——"
"If she's too ill to come to me, of course I'll go to her," I said.
He smoothed the air softly with his hands outstretched after his usual fashion.
"Since the miracle-working pearl consents," said he, "this unworthy person will make arrangements to amiably conduct her to the abode of the necessitous one."
Well, that was fairly to the point. The only thing I wanted to make sure of was that he would not take me himself. At first I feared that was his intention, but finally I gathered that the sick woman should be told I was coming next morning, and that he would send a man to guide me to the farm.
Then came Martin Conant. "Is it safe, do you think?"
Again Ling stretched out his hands and smoothed the air.
"The glorious miracle-worker," said he, "is in the care of this wormlike person. If the honourable healer wrapped up in the inception and manner of operation of this versatile scheme will deign to accept the unalterable assurance——"
"Oh!" said Stella fervently, "we trust you entirely, Mr. Ling."
She said it. I could not have done so, but thank goodness it cut short the interview.
It is beginning to be hot in the daytime now, but the mornings are gorgeous. The sun rose on a clean new world. The trees are in full leaf, and outside the farm-house, far as the eye can see, right up to the grey crenellated wall of the little town extends a sea of green waving corn fields, broken here and there by the lines of fruit trees heavy with their promise for the autumn. Overhead is the clear deep blue sky, with here and there great clouds like heaped snow mountains. The intense dryness of the Chinese winter has gone, and in the air is a soft languorous feeling, the scent of the tuberoses I have placed in pots outside our windows is heavy in the air, and from every blade of grass, from every ear of corn hung a crystal dew-drop sparkling like a diamond in the early morning sunshine. A gorgeous morning! We had the courtyard to ourselves, and the dainty green hoopoes with their crested heads, all in their bridal array, danced to each other among the grass growing up between the cobble stones. A sweet and lovely morning! I did not feel there could be much wrong in the world on such a morning.
We always breakfast early, though Stella never fails to protest, but now she sat in her wrapper and drew in long breaths of the scented air.
"I have a good mind to come with you," said she, "it might be good for me."
She has a secret fear of growing fat. Very probably she will, for she is a lazy little toad.
"Yes, do," I said. Mr. Conant wanted to come too but someone had to remain at the clinic, and he had been a great help there latterly with the men and boys, and I left MacTavish in his care.
Chung informed us that a guide had come. He was a ragged and forlorn individual, whose face brightened when I promised him a mou if he returned us safely to the compound, and having had our breakfast we set out. Martin Conant insisted upon our taking Chung, though what good Chung was likely to be in case of danger I failed to see.
"Anyhow," I said, as we started, Chung very lugubrious for he didn't like walking, "he can be trusted to bring you prompt news of our decease."
But Martin Conant shook his head. "Don't joke," he said. And he was right. Life in China is dead serious.
However it was a most enjoyable walk in the freshness of the early morning, and if Stella grumbled at the roughness of the road it was only to be expected. Our destination was one of the better sort of farm-houses, but the living-room was filthily dirty, and in the next room, which had had no fresh air since the summer before, an old woman lay huddled in furs coughing her life out in the last stages of phthisis. The case was hopeless. She might last a week, she would quite likely die before the sun went down. I should like to have torn down the paper windows and let in the fresh air in the interests of others, or have made a beginning with a pail of warm water and a cake of soap, but this was a very important old lady, and I had to walk warily. I made my adieux with the grave formality which the better class Chinese expect, and went outside again to draw deep breaths of the fresh air.
Stella was standing in the courtyard in the sunshine, and our guide was sitting on the ground in front of her, while Chung was leaning against the wall.
"O—o—oh!" said Stella, "I thought you were never coming."
"I haven't been long."
"But listen to that."
There was a strange sound like a long-drawn moan in the air, and then laughter, coarse, brutal laughter. I remembered I had been conscious of it when we arrived, but my mind had hardly taken it in, I was too full of my unseen patient. It was a curiously disquieting sound.
"Let's go back quickly," said Stella.
"Chop-chop," said Chung with a whisk of his pigtail and a prance. "Missie not knowing, bes' not knowing," he asseverated earnestly. Chung always endeavoured to live up to his duties. But once my attention had been called to that sound it had to be investigated, though Chung, I have no doubt, is right, and there are many things in China best unsifted. The laughter and chatter almost drowned the moaning. It came from behind a large building the other side of the farm. I made for the entrance to the courtyard with Stella clinging to my arm and Chung and our guide close behind.
But when outside, instead of turning to the right, I went in the direction of the sound under some lime trees in full flower, and a chorus of wails in different keys came from my three companions.
"You can go back, Stella," I said, but she clung to my arm a heavy weight.
I paid no attention to the other remonstrances and went on round the farm-yard wall, dragging her with me. The others followed. There was a graveyard, the air was heavy with the delicious scent of lime blossoms, and on all the little pointed mounds the fresh green grass was growing. A young man with a bird in a cage sat there peacefully contemplating the little singer. He looked up at us with lazy indifferent eyes. Beyond the bare ground was dabbled with some whitish substance, and there was a crowd of dirty, unkempt people all looking one way. For a moment they did not see us, then someone pointed us out and they turned curious eyes upon us. And those eyes were not indifferent. They were stormy, cruel—I flinched before them. There was a silence as they turned towards us, and the moaning rose again on the air. A pitiful hopeless moaning.
I had to see what it was. I might be able to help.
"Stay there," I said to Stella, and before I could think I had made a step forward into that horrible crowd. They parted before me, and then I saw—I saw that at which they had all been looking—jeering. It was all that was left of a man, buried naked to his middle in a lime pit, the earth stamped down well round him. His nose had been cut off and the hollows where his eyes had been were filled with white lime. His mouth was open and from it came the piteous heart-broken moan that kept ringing in our ears and exciting the merriment of the cruel Chinese labourers.
The utter horror of it turned me to stone. It was a relief to feel Stella's clutching hands on my shoulders, and hear shriek after shriek rending the air. As I stood still, stupefied, the crowd again parted, dwindled away, and I saw Ling standing serenely looking at the awful sight.
"Help him!" I cried, "for God's sake!"
And he looked at me and smiled.
"It is much to be regretted," said he, "that the sight of this narrow-minded and incompetent insect should offend the eyes of the God-given pearl," and he calmly walked up to the unfortunate and drew a pistol. He looked at-me, salaamed, put his pistol against the man's temple and shot, and the man fell forward. The Eurasian bent over him and turned to me again.
"It is with a hopeless sense of illness of ease," said he, "that this unworthy one definitely understands that the eyes of the heaven-sent pearls have been affronted with this degraded and unpresentable object."
And then I remembered that he had sent me here for his own purposes. Suddenly something else caught my eye and I felt myself suffocating. The hair on that head that lay there on the ground all dabbled in blood was brown and curly—no eastern man has curly hair. The earth began to go up and down, and far away I heard Chung's voice,
"Missie coming back chop-chop."
"The misguided one," went on Ling's urbane voice, "may thank the miracle-working pearl for a symmetrical and luxurious death. He placed insuperable obstacles in the way of munificent guiding by this poor worm. He was leagued with evil forces, and the illustrious and energetic workers of the district are ever suspicious of those who doubt the spirit of their ancestors. Will the gracious pearls be pleased to make use of the litter of this unworthy person?"
Stella, still shaking with sobs, accepted eagerly, but I could only stammer dully that I was going back with Chung.
Of how I did get back I haven't the slightest recollection.
UN MARIAGE DE CONVENANCE
"I had no hope but of some evil thing.. .. ..
She walked between the blossom and the grass.
I knew the beauty of her, what she was,
The beauty of her body and her sin."
STELLA announced it to us at breakfast. Breakfast at seven o'clock on a June morning in the shade of the peach trees, when the sunshine was golden and just warm enough to perfume the air with the scent of the tuberoses and the single peonies, was a delightful meal, and Stella in a delicate blue Chinese wrapper was very pretty. Rosalie wore a grey silk Chinese coat and skirt, which she said was suitable to her profession. She looked very well in it, but this morning she was pale from the shock of yesterday. We had thought of nothing else since.
Ling had professed entire ignorance of the man to whom he had put an end in contemptuous pity. He had declared his intention of informing the prefect, and there the matter ended. But Chung had informed us he was a Scandinavian wandering preacher, who moved by religious fervour had thought to convert the Chinese and had wandered up country. He had succeeded in stirring the people, already harried by robber bands, to frenzy, and Rosalie had seen the result. There was no doubt Ling could have protected him if he had liked, for Ling is all-powerful. How powerful Stella showed us.
"I am going to marry Mr. Ling," she said in a small voice, crumbling her scone beside her plate.
"Stella!" cried Rosalie in disgusted horror, and I heard myself saying in much the same tones,
"I know poor Silas hasn't been dead a year," she said, and Rosalie interrupted her angrily.
"A man like that! A Chinaman! A brute! A devil!"
"It's the only way to get back to England," said Stella virtuously. "Do you think I want to stay here for the remainder of my natural life? You can't get away," and she looked at me in a way that was intended to make me feel humble and meek.
I had nothing to offer. That was certain.
"Can't you see that we shall all be killed just like that man yesterday unless we make sure of Ling? He's our only hope," went on Mrs. Chapman, "and I can't stand it any longer. I'm desperate. Ling has promised to take me to America, and I'm going to marry him. Besides it's all very well for you people, you've got money. I haven't. Ling is rich," and her voice changed. Now that she had got the unpleasant announcement over she was prepared to show us the bright side.
For a moment there was silence, and then Rosalie's voice in its coldest, most cutting tones remarked,
"His wealth won't do you any good."
Then indeed a smile of pleasure lighted up the other woman's face, and her blue eyes danced. She put her hand inside her wrapper.
"There you are wrong," said she. She drew out a long string of pearls and flung them on the breakfast table, "They're worth a king's ransom. Whatever happens I shall be rich. He gave them to me yesterday as soon as I said I'd marry him. They're my very own."
"I should feel they were soaked in that poor missionary's blood," said Rosalie severely.
"You're unkind, you're always cruel to me," sobbed the other, pushing away her chair and making for her own room, but she did not neglect to take the string of pearls with her. MacTavish gave a little bark and raced round and round at full speed as if he were rejoiced at the prospect of getting rid of someone he had always distrusted, and Rosalie looked at me.
"She can't possibly do such an awful thing," but that was only an expression of her own feelings. We both knew that Stella had every intention of doing it. She had been thoroughly scared. It seemed to her the only way out, and the money was an extra inducement.
Before we had finished drinking our last cup of tea came two men with a couple of donkeys bearing presents for the expectant bride, consisting principally of rich silks and magnificent embroideries enclosed in perfumed boxes, carved and inlaid with mother of pearl and ivory. The Eurasian in eastern fashion was doing honour to the woman he desired. She was being bought and not cheaply.
"But he has wives already—I know he has," said Rosalie in disgust, "and she knows it."
But evidently she did not think that Chinese wives counted.
Rosalie stamped her foot. "It's too horrible and disgusting for words," said she. "I'd rather—I'd rather——"
But no amount of discussion could alter the fact that Stella intended to marry this man.
In due course Chung was announcing Ling Cheong. I received him graciously, for we were certainly in his power, and sat him down in a high chair under the shade of the peach trees, and motioned to Chung to place a stool for his feet. He sat there solemnly. His dark blue silk skirts hung down in straight folds, showing the tips of his round-toed, thick-soled Chinese shoes, his long sleeves close together hid his folded hands, and his pawky face, solemn under his little round Chinese cap, had in it all the mystery, all the secret, undiscovered sin of the East. From the little round red button in the middle of his cap to the black satin bands that held in his white stockinged ankles, and the thick paper soles of his shoes, he exhaled that intangible something which separates by so great a gulf the East from the West.
He had come to ask for Stella Chapman in marriage, or rather to announce his intention of taking her. Since the lady was willing, anxious, how could we interfere?
I said emphatically that Mrs. Chapman's future must be safeguarded, and he spread out his hands and smoothed the air and said,
"The occasion is one which undoubtedly calls for gravity in an exaggerated degree," I cannot describe his smugness, "but this humble person is an unworthy member of an enlightened people who outdo themselves in endeavouring to keep the exceptional cares of huddled life from the gazelle-like shoulders of the lotus flowers who trust them. The sorrows of existence shall be but as the finest grains of Foo Choo sand to the rocks of the mountains to the dovelike one."
He meant to say that the Chinese care for their women.
They do! As we care for our cattle or our dogs! Some pet and spoil them! Some neglect them, some just keep on the right side of public opinion. But for the woman as for the dog there is no redress.
In my missionary career I had learned something of the way in which the Chinese care for their women! Mr. Wright used to say that Chinese family life was enough to bring on nervous prostration in a brazen statue. But what was the good of talking? Stella knows as well as I do what she is letting herself in for.
I wanted to throttle him, but that would have been madness. We can only let things take their course.
Evidently the compound had been aware of what was coming, for presently I saw Chung peering out of his kitchen with a distinct question written on his expressive countenance. I made a sign and a small table covered with a blue cotton cloth was brought and a little feast was spread. There was tea, the very best that Li Hsien could produce, there were cakes made with sugar and lard, and sesame seeds and almonds, and there was ginger and dried fruits of all sorts. It was a very solemn feast, Chung in his best gown, with his head newly shaven, his pigtail down his back waiting upon us. And every now and then in the intervals of serving us he found time to take out the little yellow fan tucked in the front of his silk coat and flutter it delicately, his hand well held above his head.
Rosalie took nothing. She told me afterwards that Ling seemed to her like a great loathsome, spider slowly spinning his toils around us.
Only when the feast was drawing towards its end did Ling speak the words which clinched the bargain. Of course we had known they were coming.
"On the auspicious and well-chosen day at the new moon at the rising of the sun this humble person will swiftly and eagerly despatch his broken and inefficient litter for the moonfaced and accomplished lotus flower who stoops to bestow upon him the light of her amiable countenance. In his unworthy abode he will await her joyful coming with ill-restrained impatience."
This self-depreciation is merely a manner of speech—we have heard it so often that we simply listen in order to sift the verbiage and understand what the beggar is driving at. Anyhow he proposed to take Stella away. If she had wished, we would have risked everything to save her, but she had made up her mind, and nothing would move her.
At the appointed time in the cool of the early morning there arrived a gaily decorated litter covered with red and gold, borne by two handsome brown mules, half hidden with red and gold trappings, with bells slung at every corner and followed by other litters. What was in them I don't know, possibly they were only for show like the bodyguard of men on horseback. These were a queer collection, for the Chinaman of the rich loose country does not exactly shine as a horseman, and they were a scratch lot, some only coolies in their ordinary blue coat and trousers, with scraps of red about them, mounted on a scratch mob of horses, mules and donkeys, also decorated with red tassels and red streamers, for bridal good luck I suppose.
We tried one more protest.
"Oh Stella! for God's sake think what you're doing!" pleaded Rosalie.
"Don't go," I said.
She was dressed in red satin, and she looked picturesque enough. I suppose her appearance gave her confidence.
"You sillies," she said, "don't you see it's the only thing to be done? When I get you out of this horrid hole you'll thank me."
"I want nothing from Ling that I can't pay for in gold," Rosalie said emphatically.
"Silly," said Stella again, "don't you know there are a great many things can't be bought with gold. Wait till I help you, dears," and she kissed us both quite fervently, and then she, who had consistently wept and wailed and been an obstruction ever since we had started on our travels, entered the litter smiling and gave herself over to that ragged crew, apparently without a qualm. The attendants drew the curtains, she put a white hand through and waved it in farewell, MacTavish barked, they put the litter on the mules, and it went swaying out of the courtyard.
Rosalie drew a long sigh and put her hands before her face.
"Oh!" she said, "Oh! if you had seen that man in the lime pit! And she has gone to that——"
"All his gold garment had
Pale stains of dust and rust."
I THOUGHT that when Stella had gone with her querulous discontent and uncomfortable insinuations, peace and comparative happiness would reign in our little compound, but I found as a matter of fact that I couldn't shake off Stella so easily. Morning, noon and night I found myself worrying over her fate. It was obvious that Martin Conant felt the same uneasiness, although he did his best to keep it from me. We seemed to live in a fever of painful expectation, and I grew so nervous at last that any sudden sound made me jump.
And yet the days passed away without anything to confirm our forebodings.
June passed and July came in hot and stormy. My work grew. I was desperately busy. Providence must have been considering the suffering people of Li Hsien for this anxiety about Stella took from me all desire to get away. Talking it over with Martin Conant we did not see how we could leave her. We both felt that we were waiting on from day to day, hoping, fearing, we knew not what. Our release depended upon Stella, and Stella——
Occasionally she came to see us. She was very self-conscious and mysterious at first, but every time I saw her I thought with a sinking heart her confidence lessened. And I waited anxiously for what, I did not know. She always wore the pearls and appeared to derive satisfaction from looking at them, and calculating what they would bring her when she found herself in a position to discard Ling. Then she did not come. We waited. Still there was no word of her, and at last it seemed so long since we had seen her that I persuaded Mr. Conant to go and find out why she did not come.
He came back escorted by Ho Ting, Ling's business manager, who said the country was unsafe, and implored us to stay in the compound. Mr. Conant himself was surprised and uneasy. He had been refused admission. As far as he could make out the attendants had informed him that it was not seemly a man should be admitted to the women's quarters! Ling was to all intents and purposes a Chinaman. This was bad enough, but it was followed by a piteous little note from Stella herself, imploring me to go and see her. There was nothing for it. I could not pay any attention to Ho Ting's warnings. I felt I had to go. I had vowed to Stella I would never enter Ling's house, but I was too uneasy to think of that now.
Ten minutes after I had received that note I had taken Chung and set off.
It was a hateful house. A house full of stealthy steps, strange whisperings and subdued murmurs. It was stuffy and close with the heat of a Kansu July day, and the mingled scents of eastern perfume, of sandalwood, of oily cooking and of dirt were strong. I left Chung in the outer courtyard, was shown into an empty room, and was kept waiting a long time until Mr. Ling, to my dismay, shaking hands with himself and smiling his secret smile, conducted me through one dark room to another across little courtyards, and down little narrow passages, till at last we reached a room where, reclining on a k'ang, Chinese fashion, with a cushion behind her shoulders, and another for her arm to rest upon, lay Stella. She was dressed in the thinnest of blue silk, but her pretty hair was limp and dank and all the colour had gone from her face, which was strained and anxious. The long string of pearls was round her neck, and she was playing with them languidly.
Her face lighted up when I came in as I had never before seen it light up at sight of me, and by that I gauged the depth of her misery. She rose up and flung herself on me, and I caught a whisper, "He won't go away, and I can't talk to you," and then she leaned back again on her cushions and pointed to others arranged on the other side of the k'ang for me.
But I couldn't lean against stuffy cushions on such a day. The room looked into a little courtyard where was a Chinese garden, a bridge of stone, a pool of water and some trees in pots, all on a miniature scale, and Stella had had the sense to tear the paper from the fretwood window so that all the air that could get into that confined little courtyard came into the confined little room. I leaned up against the window, and a woman with small feet, a woman who had to work too, evidently a slave of the household, brought in a high Chinese chair and placed it down beside the k'ang. On it Ling took his seat and sat there with true Chinese gravity and I searched my mind for something comforting to say to Stella. And I could find nothing. Only with an effort I talked to Ling, discussing the conditions of the country, and he warned me with a meaning in his suave tones that made me shiver, that this expedition must not be repeated. It was dangerous for me to leave the compound without an escort. Pai Lang, according to him, was ravaging the country to the south and east, and to the north the Mohammedans were threatening to rise. He smiled, and I felt as he dilated on the unrest that he was gloating over the fact that he had us in his power. He terrified me more than I can say, and I had to keep repeating to myself that we must be safe, Martin Conant and I owed him a considerable sum of money, and it was to his interest to keep us safe. And yet when I looked at his hands spread out on his knees, with their disgusting long nails, I knew that we were in the heart of China and almost anything might happen.
Stella said nothing, only shivered occasionally as if she were ill. But she was not exactly ill, though there was something strange about her which intensified my fear.
Tea and cakes were brought in and Mr. Ling served me with ceremony. It was a great honour considering I was a woman. I ate and drank and tried my hardest to help Stella.
"Stella had better consult me," I said, "as a doctor." And Ling smiled secretly as if he could go one better than that.
"O adorable and discreet pearl of ravishing loveliness," he asked, "no rapacious and evilly inspired distemper has seized upon you," and he bent forward anxiously.
I don't know whether he always used this flowery form of speech in the bosom of his family, but its effect upon Stella was distinctly disquieting. I saw that she was far more afraid than ever I had been.
"Oh no," she said hastily, "no. If I can go to the farm some day soon—to-morrow——"
"A convenient, expedient and commodious day shall be diligently sought," he said, smoothing down his knees and casting down his eyes, and quick as thought Stella lifted her eyes to mine and shook her head. Ling had made her take things quietly.
After that I dare do nothing. I could only declare definitely that we would expect her at the farm early to-morrow, and then take my leave, still escorted—closely watched, I might have said—by Ling.
Chung was not forthcoming, and Ling smiled.
"The humble followers of this low-minded person," he said, "dispense degraded hospitality to the exalted one's elegant slave."
If he meant me by the exalted one he was about as much out as when he described Chung as an elegant slave.
That gentleman merely smiled when I rated him for keeping me waiting, and truth to tell I paid little attention to him, for Stella's pale face haunted me. Why had she sent for me? Whatever the reason, she had not dared tell me, and I had very little hope of her coming to the farm. Martin Conant and I talked the thing over in all its aspects, and we were still talking it over when next day Mr. Ling came hurriedly to the compound, and bursting in on us without being announced, demanded Stella.
We stared at him dumbfounded.
He was furiously angry. He seemed to have lost all control of himself, and he shouted at us in a curious mixture of Chinese and English that had lost some of its pomposity and did not even pretend to be polite. He said he knew she was here because last night we had sent one of our servants for her.
The news came like a thunderclap and I plucked up courage to defy him.
"What nonsense! We have only Chung! And we certainly didn't send Chung for her."
"Misfortune comes to all men and to most women," he stormed, "and when the fled fair one was alone her shadow filled her with a complicated emotion."
If he meant she was afraid of her own shadow he was right. But where was she?
Chung was engaged at a small stove in the open air. He was busily preparing bread for our tiffin. His neatly plaited pigtail hung down his back, and his working clothes were of spotless blue cotton. He never even looked in our direction.
"Evil dragons and thunderbolts!" mouthed Ling, "that insatiable person came!" and he pointed a hand, long nailed and disgusting at Chung.
And I was very sure Chung at any rate would not have crossed the road for Stella.
I beckoned Chung over and he came reluctantly.
"Missie mus' be quick," he announced to all whom it might concern, "else bread spoil," and he gave his pigtail an energetic flick, and taking out the fan he always wore tucked in the front of his coat, looked us all over without meeting our eyes.
Mr. Ling burst out at him in a torrent of Chinese, and Chung fluttered his fan deferentially.
"Not understanding this fashion talk," said he. "Master mus' speak slow."
Master didn't speak slow. He completely forgot that he aimed at a high standard of civilization and he threatened Chung with all the penalties of an outraged Chinese master. I was afraid, but Martin Conant tapped him on the shoulder.
"Really, Mr. Ling," he said, "you mustn't threaten the man. I saw him in his quarters last night, rolled up, sound asleep."
"Beyond a doubt you called the contemptible slave," said Mr. Ling angrily.
"I did not," said Martin Conant. "He was sleeping soundly so I did without him. But I saw him rolled up on the k'ang."
"The illustrious one," said Ling, struggling for this politeness, "will pardon this person for suggesting he was mistaken."
Mr. Conant shrugged his shoulders. "I don't think so. Besides Chung always refused to serve Mrs. Chapman."
Ling considered the matter a little more calmly. Mr. Conant's attitude had its effect. Still he repeated once more,
"The exalted ones have hidden the fair flower."
"Look for yourself," said Mr. Conant. "Chung take Master round the compound."
"Blead spoil," said Chung succinctly.
"Chung!" And at the angry voice Chung flew to do his bidding.
It was a most thorough search that Chung conducted while we two looked at one another uncertain whether to rejoice at her escape or to fear for the consequences. Heaven knows we could hardly have hidden a mouse, let alone a young woman like Stella, and when they came back to us Ling apparently was on the best of terms with his conductor.
"My tink," said that wily gentleman, "Missie have gone back to minister."
"Oh no," I said involuntarily, "how could she get so far?"
"One piecey caravan with straw hat have gone," suggested Chung, and then added briskly, "can do? Can go bread? Else spoil."
Certainly there was a very appetizing odour of newly baked bread, perhaps getting a little over-done, and Chung, having received permission, skipped away hurriedly.
But there was a certain complacency in that skip that strangely enough cheered me. I was in the mood to catch at straws. Whatever had happened between Mr. Ling and our servant, Chung considered he had had the best of it. He was the only serene person in the compound.
Ling seemed unable to make up his mind that his search was vain. He kept on insisting that Stella must be here. It was nonsense to think she would go away with a caravan—his caravan.
"Something dreadful has happened to her," I said, and I looked at Ling. What had I not seen him do? What had not been done under his orders?
Only if he had hurt her why should he even trouble to mention her to us. Why this pretence of looking for her? It gave me a little hope.
"Nothing has happened to the misguided one," he said. He spoke more simply than usual, but he was in deadly earnest. "Undoubtedly she has run away, and when they of this person's household run away——" He did not finish the sentence. He did not even trouble to indulge in the long Chinese farewells. Only as he flung himself into his litter he looked back and tossed us a word of warning.
"If the exalted ones go beyond the sheltering farm," he said, and he looked round as if he could have killed somebody, "the rapacious braves of Pai Lang are like starving wolves in the snow, and the contemptible cash this person has expended will be expended in vain."
Looking out we saw the litter going at full speed towards the city with the muleteer running panting along behind it in an endeavour to keep up.
THE TEMPLE OF EVERLASTING PEACE
"We whom the world loved well,
Laying silver and gold on us,
The kingdom of death and of hell
Riseth up to take hold on us;
Our gold is turned to a token,
Our staff to a rod."
SO it had happened, that indefinable something we seemed to have been waiting for ever since Stella had gone to Ling's. At Ling's departure we looked at each other hopelessly, for what could we do? Stella might need help, need it terribly. But how were we even to begin to look for her. The seclusion of a Chinese household faced us at every turn. Chung told us Ling was searching secretly up and down the town and making preparations to go to Yang Cheng, and at last in spite of his sinister injunction I decided to go to his house.
Mr. Conant insisted on accompanying me. First we went to Ling's business establishment, for if trouble were brewing it would be well to have as much money as we could. His manager was sitting before an open stall on which were ranged little piles of brass coins of inferior value for the use of the poorer people. Ho Ting was a suave fat Chinaman of the old school, with a pigtail, and a chest that had slipped even more than Ling's, and he told us that Mr. Ling was making preparations for a journey to the west. We asked for a couple of hundred dollars. He protested, but by offering a little higher interest we got it. He seemed extremely anxious we should go back to the farm. Indeed he wanted to escort us back, but though he hummed and hawed, we insisted on going to Ling's, and I left him still protesting with Martin Conant in the outer courtyard, while I went to the women's quarters and asked for Ling T'ai T'ai.
My arrival created a sensation, and an old woman came forward. She looked at me with a sly secret smile, and when I asked for Ling T'ai T'ai showed me into the room where I had seen Stella, and there on the k'ang, leaning against the cushions by the open window sat a middle-aged Chinese woman elaborately dressed in a pale blue coat, much embroidered, and pink trousers. Her feet were of the tiniest, her face was worn, but it was impassive under its paint and powder, and her thin hair was drawn back under an embroidered satin band fastened on her head with gold pins. There were two other women, both elaborately dressed and both with tiny feet, seated on the k'ang, and each of them held in her arms a child, while two more played beside them. I could not doubt I was looking at Mr. Ling's harem. And Mr. Ling's harem was secretly hostile and secretly triumphant. They received me with perfect courtesy—that is Chinese courtesy.
Yes, this was Kuei T'ai T'ai, the wife of Ling Cheong. These were her children, and she had, she counted on her fingers, fouteen more. I tore my thoughts from Stella's plight to remember that the children of the secondary wives and concubines are always counted the children of the first wife. I praised them, said how beautiful they were, for however desperate one's anxiety, you may not hurry a Chinese interview. Kuei T'ai T'ai said the house was contemptible, and the children were ugly and sickly, and her sisters were hardly worth my notice, but I had honoured them all by coming here. She trusted that I had beautiful children.
I disclaimed the children, as hastily as politeness would allow. No, I was not married. And then in spite of my own pre-occupation I saw that a little wonder did creep into her voice, a wonder she instantly suppressed, but her calm superiority had been broken for a moment by that emotion, and I got a chance to ask about Stella.
In a moment she was herself again. Yes. It was true there had been a foreign woman here for a short time. What would you? You cannot interfere with men's fancies. But she was only a passing fancy. She had gone to rejoin her own people and—Kuei T'ai T'ai spoke with the calm nonchalance of a woman who thoroughly understands her rights, and is going to allow no outsider to interfere with them. I was shaken with a fear that grew and grew as, with elaborate courtesy, the slightly arrogant courtesy with which we are accustomed to treat the half-civilized, she swept all mention of Stella away, and ostentatiously set herself to do the honours of her house. The other women were inclined, I realised dimly, at the back of my mind, to show a little natural curiosity concerning my unmarried state, but she checked it with an air of serene condescension that was perfect in its way, and beckoned the innumerable servants who were peeping in to bring me cakes and tea. Her whole attitude went to show she had got her right position back again, and the incident was closed. If I had been afraid when I entered the house, my anxiety was doubled when at last I cut short the interminable Chinese farewells, and got back to the outer courtyard and Martin Conant and a very agitated Ho Ting again.
And at the city gates Ho Ting dismissed us with another warning to stay within the bounds of the farm compound, and as we went back I noticed an undue number of armed men, ragged armed men such as had escorted us down from the Great Lake, and more than once they looked at us and laughed.
There was evidently trouble brewing. It was no time for foreigners, unarmed foreigners, to be wandering about the country.
"I think," said Martin Conant, "you ought to go back to your clinic, and I'll see what can be done about Stella."
And then the growing terror clutched at my heart. We two were the last left of the little company that had set out from the mission station at Yang Cheng. Two we had seen die, the minister might be all right, but Stella——
The moment we were in the safety of the farm and MacTavish was going mad with delight at seeing me again, for I had left him behind, I put both my hands on Martin Conant's shoulders and said,
"I can't be left. I daren't be left. We must look for Stella together. Promise, promise you won't leave me. Promise, promise."
He looked at me a moment. Then he put up his hands and took mine in his.
"My dear," he said, "we'll stick together. You're thinking about all the dangers we've come through. Remember we have come through them," and he sat me gently down in a seat and called to Chung to bring tiffin.
But if there were danger for us we hardly heeded it in our anxiety as to what had become of Stella. Had Ling T'ai T'ai—I had no doubt she was Ling T'ai T'ai—taken measures to get rid of her? Such things might be I knew in a Chinese household. Had Ling himself killed her in a moment of anger? In that house anything might have happened. What were we to do? How were we to begin to search? We took Chung into our confidence, and he was all for waiting.
"Master—Missie—waiting one piecey farm and Missie all ri'—Missie surely all ri'," and he fanned himself emphatically, while Martin Conant marched impatiently up and down, and asked, "How do you know? How can you know?" But Chung only smiled mysteriously.
The evening came, and we had heard nothing, and the next day in desperation we went again to Ho Ting, but all we got out of him was outspread hands and Chinese politeness and a reminder that we had been requested to stay in our compound.
He made us feel that danger threatened, for six armed men escorted us back, and made a little encampment outside the gates.
We were now virtually prisoners in our little compound. It was awful to think of what Stella might be suffering, and we were helpless. There was only one hopeful sign. The people still came to my clinic, though they came creeping. I dressed gunshot wounds and frightful sword cuts, and they said there was war in the land, that the Elder Brethren and the foreign lord were fighting. Did they regard White Wolf as a foreign lord, we wondered?
The day passed, and the next day was only made bearable by hard work, for the cases at the clinic were exceptionally heavy. Every ailment for miles round had been brought apparently for treatment, and when I made enquiries as to this unwonted rush, a ragged bald-headed, toothless, old lady with a chronic sore obliterating one eye, calmly informed me that they heard we should soon be killed, and so she had come while there was yet time, otherwise it would have been more convenient to wait till after the harvest.
I told Martin Conant as we sat at supper in the pleasant warmth under the peach trees where the fragrant fruit was rapidly ripening. Overhead the clear blue sky peeped through the green leaves, and all the farm-yard was bathed in the golden light of the sun sinking towards the west. We had made a few improvements since we had come—there was no dirt and no litter. Roses and peonies and oleanders, pink and white, and golden marigolds, were in pots outside our rooms, a cricket was shrilling loudly in a small straw cage outside the kitchen wall, and another answered him from outside. The air was heavy with the scent of the last of the peonies, but I was too anxious to enjoy anything or do justice to the excellent supper Chung had set before us. MacTavish had his and retired to the kitchen to nose round for tit-bits. I had forgotten all about him, and Martin Conant who had gone to the gate came back smiling.
"One good sign," said he, "our guard has gone."
I jumped up. "Are you sure?"
"I am quite sure. They are making for the city."
He was interrupted by MacTavish, who came tearing across the compound lugging along something half wrapped up in paper. Chung was in pursuit, but MacTavish was pretty sure of my sympathy for his peccadilloes and made straight for me.
"Bad dog," I said stooping over him and taking from him a pigeon wrapped up in a piece of paper.
"Small dog," said Chung outraged and angry, "tief 'em one piecey pigeon for cully, small dog——"
I was going to hand over to him the messy parcel when I was startled by seeing on it English handwriting. I held it back and Chung rudely made a snatch. Martin Conant standing by caught him by the collar, shook him, and swung him backwards, and he stood there looking rueful and apologetic.
"Missie, Missie," he begged abjectly.
"What is it?" I had unwrapped the dead bird and saw that the paper was covered with writing that was thick and blotted as if it had been done with a Chinese brush.
"Missie, Missie," pleaded Chung, "no good now, no good now."
"Get back to your kitchen," said Mr. Conant, but Chung picked up the bird I had let fall, and crouched there on the ground sobbing. I paid no attention to him.
"What is it?" asked Martin Conant, and MacTavish began scratching at my dress begging for forgiveness, but for once I had no time for MacTavish. For it was part of a letter.
"Chit coming too late," wailed Chung.
As I looked at the dirty smeary piece of Chinese paper in the corner I saw a signature, "Stella."
Stella! Stella! A letter from Stella and Chung had hidden it. I felt as if the world were going up and down with me. Martin Conant took it gently from my hands and pushing me into a chair spread it out on the table.
The top was gone. Either Chung or MacTavish had disposed of it, and all we could read of the first line was "Englishman" and "emple of".. .. "lasting peace." Then it went on quite easily to be read in spite of the blots that writing with a brush made plentiful. "Please, please, by all you hold sacred, don't tell him about me. I have written him a letter saying there are foreigners here. I told him I was staying with Ling's sister. I will meet you on the road, but don't tell him because——" and the rest, but for the signature, was illegible. But the signature was undoubtedly Stella's. And Chung had had this precious letter, which would have relieved all our anxieties, and seemed to open out undreamed of hopes, and had used it to wrap up our dinner. But for MacTavish we might never have seen it. I was dumb before such a heinous crime, but Martin Conant swooped down and dragged the culprit to his feet demanding where he got the letter.
Chung sobbed woe-begonely, the tears trickled down his fat cheeks, and he smeared them away, like a child, with his sleeve.
"Where did you get that letter?" reiterated Martin Conant.
Chung went limp. His head and arms and pigtail hung loose and wobbled as if he were a rag doll. And Mr. Conant shook him again.
"Chit coming late too much," he sighed.
Mr. Conant let him go, and he fell all of a heap exactly as if he had been stuffed with sawdust. MacTavish stood off and barked at him, and he opened an eye and fixed it on me piteously.
"Have been one piecey velly good boy," he mourned.
"Chung," I said severely, "where did you get Missie's letter?"
"Late too much," he murmured again.
I tried once more.
"Where is Missie?"
A little stiffening came into Chung's back. He raised his head.
"Missie have gone Peking."
"Missie have," he reiterated. "Maybe tufeis catch him," he added thoughtfully.
"The foreign master at——" began Martin Conant.
Chung finished the sentence for him. "The foreign master at Temple of Everlasting Peace," said he. "Missie say wantchee go. But no can," he added sorrowfully, and there was conviction in his tones.
I was mad with excitement. A foreigner at the Temple of Everlasting Peace! And Stella had seen him! He had helped her to escape! I distractedly put two and two together, and my hopes, because I had been in the depths of despair, soared wildly. A foreigner in Li Hsien! But suppose he had gone while we had been waiting here wasting time!
Martin Conant dragged the limp Chung to his feet again.
"Is there a foreigner in Li Hsien?"
"Pai Lang have got her one time," Chung said, as if Mr. Conant had jerked it out of him.
"Is it any good paying attention to a boy who uses important correspondence to wrap up the dinner?" asked Martin Conant. He spoke as if half our troubles were over. Indeed I felt they were. But the sun was sinking fast. In a little over half an hour the city gates would be closed and we would have to wait till next morning to find out whether this thing were true or not. The thought of waiting was intolerable.
"Let us go to the Temple of Everlasting Peace," I said catching up MacTavish.
Chung shrieked and yelled as only a Chinaman can.
"No, no, Missie, no, Missie. Missie staying farm, Master staying farm. Pai Lang——"
We looked in each other's faces and read the same decision. We would go at once and seek out this Englishman. Of course we could not get back to-night, the gates would be shut presently, but there would be no hardship anyhow in spending the night in the temple.
I hastily gathered together a few necessaries, and Chung followed me sobbing, "Missie, Missie, Pai Lang have catch foleign Master. Missie! Missie!" but I paid no attention to him.
"Come on, come on," said Martin Conant gaily, "never mind Chung. It'll do him good to think we've left him. I suppose the beggar wanted to prolong the job. I think we shall do it. Here, I'll carry MacTavish. If he's going to find anything interesting among the graves he'll delay us."
We raced across the ground that lay between us and the city gates, laughingly speculating as to the meaning of Chung's conduct.
When we were close up to the gate and saw it was not yet shut I paused a moment.
"Chung's conduct was queer," I said. "What did he say about Pai Lang?"
"We've been threatened with Pai Lang for the last six months," said Martin Conant. "After all if there isn't an Englishman in the temple we can spend the night there. The people have been talking about a foreign lord!"
The great door, heavily studded with iron, moved outwards a little, hesitated, and a face peered round it. The sun was set and the guardians of the city were taking a last look round before shutting the gates for the night. It was intolerable to think of having to wait ten hours.
Martin Conant took my arm and we ran forward. The guardian of the gate grinned at me in friendly fashion. I recognised him. His little son, his only son, had been sick, and I had set him on his feet again. He put out a grimy hand and patted MacTavish.
"A good omen," I said as the gates clanged ominously behind us and we were in the darkening city for the night.
"The Temple of Everlasting Peace!" Martin cried, "where is the Temple of Everlasting Peace?"
A grubby hand pointed the way, and I asked,
"Is there a foreign lord there?"
"O mighty healer!" said the man, "there is a great lord there. But," he hesitated, "if the healer desires, the gate shall be opened again."
"No, no, no," and we ran along the dirty narrow street leading to the temple that stood enclosed behind red walls in a great open space on rising ground in the heart of the city.
My companion caught my arm with one hand, while the other held MacTavish. It was darker inside the walls than it had been outside in the open, and here and there a light showed dimly through paper, but there are few windows in a Chinese street. My heart was beating to suffocation. Were we at the end of all our troubles? Stella evidently thought we would be when we reached the Englishman. Why had she not waited? But what was the use of foolish speculation? Presently our questions would be answered.
Darker it grew, and darker, and narrower the streets. Then I saw at the end of one of them the silvery white light of the moon nearly at the full and just topping the city wall. Only in the narrow streets because of the walls her rays could not fall. But where the street widened, a broad irregular dusty place opposite a high wall with a heavy door in it lay flooded in the white light.
"Now for it," said Martin Conant, and his voice had a cheery ring in it.
I was glad he seemed so certain for I did not like the look of the dozen or so of men who were lounging about the open space. They reminded me too much of the men who had guarded us as we came down from the Great Lake. Only half of the temple door was open, and an unkempt sort of soldier lay sprawling across. The man sprang up as I asked for the foreign lord in Chinese.
He looked us up and down, grunted, called another man, and presently we were thrust rather rudely into the inner courtyard.
"We'll have to speak to the foreign lord," began Mr. Conant, "about the manners of—Oh!" he broke off, "the Temple of Everlasting Peace!"
He softly thrust MacTavish into my arms and the faintest breath of wind perfumed with the scent of incense shook the bells on the eaves till they gave forth the ghost of a chime.
The moon was coming up. Outlined against the clear sky were the curved irregular tiled roofs of the temple, and from the gnarled and spreading branches of dark-foliaged cypress trees hung great round Chinese lanterns in colourless oiled paper, shining silvery white, like the moon herself. The courtyard was all soft white light and deep dark shadow, and there was nothing to mark where moonlight ended and lantern light began. There were china jars, white and rich royal blue with oleander bushes in them, and long pathways wound among the trees, pathways paved with small pebbles worked in patterns such as the Chinese love.
We stood and drank it all in, and for a moment my anxieties, my hopes, my fears even, were stilled. The Temple of Everlasting Peace! And then like a crashing discord broke on the air the shrieking falsetto of a Chinese singing girl, and the twanging of her lute. The spell was broken, and we looked at each other and laughed.
"He's got a queer taste in music that foreign lord," said Martin Conant.
"Come," said the man who had brought us in impatiently, almost rudely, motioning us towards one of the pathways where the light fell dappled through the foliage overhead.
It was only half a dozen steps, and there came a turn in the pathway, there were more lanterns, and the light, still soft and cool but bright as day, fell on the front of the temple raised a little above the ground. There was a high tiled roof, supported by dark red pillars, up which twined golden dragons, and behind was the interior, a dimly seen vista of scarlet and gold, mysterious and wonderful. But the figures in the foreground of the picture riveted our attention, a singing girl in gay silk coat with painted impassive face, and reclining among cushions, a large k'ang table between them, two Chinese in silken robes, and my heart sank like lead, for one of them, portly, suave, sinister, was unmistakably Ling Cheong!
Martin Conant drew my arm through his, and then I was conscious that the ragged armed bodyguard I had seen outside had clustered behind us, cutting off our escape.
"O illustrious ones," said Ling rising and shaking hands with himself, "how fortunate indeed is this long hoped for and much procrastinated meeting. This humble person has been fortunate enough to extend his beneficent protection over the mighty ones, waiting for a convenient season when it would be possible to commemorate this honourable meeting with music and other forms of delight," and he spread out his hands softly patting the air and yet indicating the man who lay opposite among the cushions, his heavy eyelids opening and closing lazily.
"We came to meet the foreign lord," said Martin Conant sternly.
Ling salaamed first to the other Chinaman, and then to us.
"This," said he, "is a matter which has been pressing upon this person's mind for some time, and this unworthy one is immeasurably and unaccountably relieved of compelling anxiety by the gracious presence of the exalted ones. There is now no possibility of ingenious misunderstandings unexpectedly arising. The exalted ones will undoubtedly be enraptured to exchange the protection of this unworthy and humble person for the all-embracing care and much-to-be-desired tenderness of the illustrious and beneficent Pai Lang!" And again with his hand he made a motion towards the man on the other side of the table.
Pai Lang! Pai Lang! After all our wanderings, all our struggles we were at the mercy of the great Chinese robber at last.
"Yet shalt Thou bind them up that were broken,
O Lord our God."
GOOD Lord! Pai Lang! Pai Lang! After all! I laughed, though God knows it was no laughing matter, and I saw Rosalie looking at me wonderingly. If it hadn't been for her I should have emptied the barrels of my automatic pistol and ridded the world of a pair of blackguards, run for it and taken my chance. I'd have felt my account was square anyhow.
But I was bound to consider Rosalie. Ling Cheong seemed to have much satisfaction in pointing out to us the great robber chief.
He was a tall man not yet thirty years of age, clad in the silken robes of a high-class well-to-do Chinaman, but even as he lay there indolently there was about him a suggestion of force, which is foreign to the average Chinese. Instead of wearing a queue his head was covered with a short growth of hair that stood on end. It looked as if someone had gone over it with a blunt razor, and only succeeded in getting off two hairs in every three. For a moment I was puzzled, then he opened his lips and I understood. He addressed me in German.
"Swine of an Englishman!" he said.
I put a hand on Rosalie's shoulder and felt with the other for my pistol. I said nothing. "Keep your last cartridge for yourself," is an injunction one always remembers in China. Well, I must keep two, for the girl beside me depended on me and I must not fail her.
"Barbarian!" said the man on the cushions struggling up and gesticulating with vile oaths and truly German precision—he there and then told me what he would do to me and the woman beside me. He had perfect command of the German language, and though he and I were the only two who understood what he said—luckily—he seemed to take a fierce joy in going into details—in enlarging on the subject. I fixed my eyes on his distorted angry face, and the passion in it had the effect of making me calm. The ragged bodyguard were close; their numbers gave me a certain confidence because there could be no question what I must do. I owed it to the good comrade who had stood by me at every turn, to the woman I loved. Every ghastly detail the fiend before me was pouring out in guttural German but stiffened my resolution. The man mouthed on, desecrating the perfect summer night, but the faint temple bells, the whispering breeze in the cypress branches had another message for me too. With that automatic pistol in my hand I was not helpless. We had been adventurers for the last six months—now we would start on another adventure, the greatest of all—together. He should not have his victims.
She stood there, leaning close against me, clasping her little dog, afraid certainly, but still, I think, vaguely comforted because the man was speaking in a European tongue.
"Why you are smiling!" she said.
I had not known I was smiling, but after all why not?
"We will do him," I said. "Don't be afraid." And she too smiled.
I think it angered those two men looking on, playing with us as a cat plays with a mouse.
"Damned English swine!" cried the Chinaman, "I will make you afraid!" and he changed to Chinese and Rosalie started, looked at me and understood. Her face hardly changed, but I felt her hand pressing my arm.
"There are many subjects for elegant conversation," said Ling suavely, "and doubtless the illustrious ones will understand what will be a just and enlightened conclusion of this affair."
I looked at him, soft and pawky—him I could deal with as he deserved. No, nothing that I could do would give him his deserts. But, at least, never again should he oppress the wretched. Not if I could help it.
It was strange how quiet I felt now that all uncertainty was over, now that there was really no choice. It was such a simple thing that I was going to do. I did not explain, did not ask her pardon. I felt so sure that Rosalie would understand. I had the pistol hidden in the wide sleeve of the Chinese coat I wore, and I moved it so that she might see it and smiled, and she smiled back at me, God bless her. If I think about that moment now, the sweat is cold on my forehead and salt on my lips, but then—thank God, it only seemed natural to be glad I had the means of outwitting those blackguards.
Oh, the Temple of Everlasting Peace had a message for me after all. The bells rang softly and the scented breeze caressed our faces.
And as if in answer to my thought, the German Chinaman rose to his feet in his anger, casting off his indolence, and flinging out his hands he came towards us mouthing his words and shouting in Chinese, but what he said I could only guess by the pressure of Rosalie's fingers. Her face hardly changed, only grew whiter in the moonlight. I thrust her a little behind me. When he was dead would be time enough——
And then a strange thing happened. As he came on I raised my pistol, but before I fired—I wanted to make quite sure—a cloud seemed to fall over his face and all expression died out of it. He hesitated a moment. I had him covered. Then his eyes closed, the long slit almond eyes of a Chinaman, and he staggered backwards and fell among his cushions again with his eyes half open, a look of serene content upon his face, and he settled himself there as if he needed rest and were about to take it.
For a moment, a second, I stood surprised and dumbfounded, then as Ling bent over him I saw my advantage.
"Mr. Ling," I said, "you move off those people of yours or you're a dead man. Quick! I give you two minutes! Look sharp now!"
He straightened himself up and looked as if he were about to defy me, and found himself looking right down the barrel of an automatic pistol. The surprise and dismay on Ling Cheong's expressive countenance were good to see.
"This unworthy person——" he began.
"Quick! Your orders! One minute gone!" I knew now we could die. It was quite simple, so simple I could dare almost anything. I had six cartridges. I would have used one on him without a tremor.
I heard a clatter behind me and I guessed the men behind were thinking about using the old blunderbusses they carried, but the bright white light also showed me fear in Ling's self-satisfied face, and he was chattering and shrieking, and gesticulating in a manner that was really unbecoming in a gentleman of his ample proportions.
I still held him covered.
"You move at your peril," I warned him, and I asked Rosalie, "Are they going?"
"Yes," she said, "yes." And then she took a hand. "Stand out of the moonlight. You can keep him covered just as well."
I must admit I was beginning to wonder what the dickens the next move was to be. I rather thought I'd better truss up the famous robber and make Ling carry him. Of course there were disadvantages—I was beginning to feel a bit light-headed at the unexpected turn of events, and Ling Cheong was recovering his equanimity to a certain extent.
"The just and insatiable Pai Lang," he began, "being moderately overcome by the devouring fumes of the beneficent poppy it remains for this unworthy person to recount to the distinguished gathering a matter which merits the favourable consideration——"
There was a sound outside, a sound of rushing feet. Ling turned to listen, and I reminded him that my pistol held something for him.
"There's a knocking at the gate," said Rosalie's voice with the first shade of anxiety in it I had heard since we had come into the moonlit garden. Ling Cheong was listening too, the ragged following had vanished at his bidding, among the shaded scented aisles, only Pai Lang was peacefully resting in a semi-conscious dream, and the singing girl sat staring ahead with the fixed simper on her vacant face. She had been engaged for the evening and her time was not up yet.
I kept Ling where he was. He at least was safe, and if the worst came to the worst, I could kill him, and——
I thought I heard a word I understood. In the medley of sounds it seemed to me—could I be dreaming?—a calm voice said, "Break down the gate!" and spoke in clear precise English!
The tumult was growing. Someone was battering against the gate furiously.
"Do you hear?" I said to Ling at a venture, "the foreign lord comes to our help."
"There will be no necessity then," stammered Ling, who was, I could see mortally afraid the pistol would go off, "for this unassuming person to undertake any further acts of benevolence, but the exalted ones remembering acts which merit pleasing and satisfactory consideration——"
The gate gave and there came along the pathway where the lanterns and the moonlight made it light as day twenty Chinamen, well-set-up drilled men, and leading them was a tall man in a Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers, Englishman written all over him. He carried a pistol in one hand, a cane in the other, and the moonlight fell full upon his bare head and his neat torpedo beard.
I heard Rosalie give a sob, Ling stood like a statue because he dared not move, the singing girl still sat impassive and the great robber lay wrapped in his opium dream. But for these three we had the moonlit garden and the deep shadows and the cypress trees all to ourselves. The Englishman came towards us.
"My look see foleign lord," said a self-satisfied voice we knew, and Chung appeared beside the newcomer, who marched straight up to us.
"All here," said he.
"Good Lord!" I said, "you're just in time."
The Englishman looked at the man among the cushions.
"Pai Lang," I said.
"We can't shoot an insensible man," said he—"besides the Chinese must settle their own little difficulties. And this gentleman?"
Ling Cheong, with an anxious eye on me, made an elaborate obeisance.
"He ought to be shot," said I, "but I owe him a lot of money."
"Then that settles it," said the newcomer, and I lowered my pistol, and Ling Cheong making deep obeisances backed himself into the gloom of the temple behind.
"You will pardon haste, madam," said our deliverer turning to Rosalie, "but discretion is the better part of valour. If you will allow me to suggest——"
But Rosalie was sobbing passionately, and I could only put my arm round her, and surrounded by the little band, lead her out of the Temple of Everlasting Peace.
"Blossom of broom will never make bread,
Red rose leaves will never make wine."
IT is no good supposing the others will ever understand. Rosalie Grahame has her own views of right and wrong, and when you live in accordance with them you may bask in the sunshine of her approval, but if you deviate one little step from the line of conduct she has laid down you may as well walk in outer darkness. Your slip will not be forgiven you. As for talking to her about worldly wisdom—these young American professional women are just silly. I shall say nothing, but at the back of my mind is always the knowledge that at the cost of great discomfort and suffering to myself I saved their lives.
For, oh, the life in Ling's house! The long, long days when there was nothing to do, absolutely nothing, nothing to look forward to, nothing to hope for, nothing to amuse one, not even a book to read, not even a bath to be had! When I got up in the morning a slave brought me a basin with a little warm water in the bottom of it, and that was a great concession, for I verily believe the rest of the household all gave themselves a smear from the one basin with the same dingy rag.
There were heaps of women about, Mr. Ling's three sisters, and all the various slave-women Chinese ladies have to attend upon them. The sisters had bound feet and only spoke Chinese, which just shows how completely Ling's mother had gone over to her husband's people, and most of the others had bound feet too, but not quite so bad. They, the sisters, and the slaves too, for that matter, had children, though I never saw their husbands. I suppose it would have been bad taste, though I don't know why. One Chinese more or less couldn't have made any difference to me, man or woman. I hated them all equally except Mr. Ling, and him, once I realised how wickedly he had deceived me, I hated and feared more than all the rest put together. I couldn't talk to the women—I didn't want to—and there was not a creature I could exchange a word with. I was expected to sit on the k'ang where I slept the livelong day, unless I went and lay in the garden. A blind story-teller came and amused the women and sometimes sang songs in a high queer falsetto, and naturally that didn't amuse me. All my meals were served on a tray on the k'ang table. I was supposed to eat them lying down, and all the food was in little basins to be eaten with chop sticks or a china spoon. It wasn't bad—Chinese, the rich ones do live well—but I soon grew to hate it, and every day seemed to stretch itself out into a year. After a week I felt I had lived there for a hundred dreary monotonous years. No one can possibly guess what an awful time I had. And yet if it hadn't been for me and my self-sacrifice the others would—well, I suppose they would have been dead.
I shall always maintain that the only thing to do is to forget all about those awful days at Li Hsien, to forget all about China altogether if possible.
Well, after all the sacrifice I made it would be the worst possible taste for anyone to talk about China to me.
After I found out how deceived I'd been I felt I would have done much better to stay at that horrid farm. As a rule I am cheerful and make the best of things. Now I felt that all the good had gone out of life. It did not seem as if I were ever to have a chance to get away.
Then a curious thing happened.
Ling's eldest sister and the old doorkeeper came tottering in one day, and making signs to me to be quiet, they led me along a narrow passage—it was a rabbit warren of a place—till at last we came to a little dark dirty room. Just as I was going to protest, I heard, oh, I heard two people talking, and they spoke English!
How it was I didn't shriek out I don't know. One was Ling, but the other had a soft pleasant cultivated Englishman's voice! Except for Martin Conant I hadn't heard an Englishman speak—for—oh it seemed like years! The women crept up softly and looked through a crack in the wall, and beckoned to me to do the same. Naturally I did. And there, seated at a high Chinese table on which was tea and fruit, was my—Mr. Ling and a tall, good-looking middle-aged man, very thin, with long thin fingers and a neatly cut grey beard. His hair was grey too. But what I noticed about him was that he sat there as if he were master of the situation. Ling Cheong was bowing down before him and treating him as if he were somebody of great importance. He looked as if he were. What would I not have given to rush to him and throw myself upon his protection. I leaned up against that dirty wall with my heart beating, and it took all my strength to prevent my calling out to him. He looked so certain of himself, so safe—I think I should have risked everything, but I heard him say quite distinctly,
"Well, I'm at the Temple of Everlasting Peace, and I shall be there for a few days, so if you do hear anything you might let me know."
At the Temple of Everlasting Peace! It seemed to me that if he were stopping in this little city I might get away and throw myself on his protection quietly. It would be so much better than making a scene.
"This person," said Ling Cheong, in his very best manner, "has acquaintance with the pleasing fact that the much enquired for Heaven-sent ones have taken their departure from this excessively evil and ill-regulated district. This unworthy one has been the beneficent means of supplying the exalted ones with a plentiful supply of despicable and contemptible cash."
"Well, if you did——" said the pleasant voice, evidently trying to cut short his periods. But you couldn't do that with Ling.
"They were insatiably and intensely desiring to journey forth," went on Ling, "they skedaddled with unpresentable efforts in order to realise their anticipations."
"Did they indeed?" said the quiet voice. "Then I presume——"
"This unworthy person," insisted Ling, in the most respectful and engaging manner, "ventures to suggest to the great Lord, that he should follow the valuable suggestion of the lowly Ho Ting and shake off the dust of this most unworthy city from the soles of his venerable feet."
"And why?" asked the other coolly.
"The valorous Pai Lang," came the answer, "is about to visit this city, and it is his pleasing and inalienable custom to torment with firebrands and——"
The Englishman smiled slowly.
"I don't think I have much to fear. My men are drilled soldiers by now, and when it comes to tackling a robber band——"
Ling waved his hands in that way he has which has got on my nerves.
"This person is overwhelmed with confusion," said he, "in unworthily reminding the great Lord that it is an unfortunate coincidence that while passing along the roads at this season many inconsiderate and unthinking bowmen are apt——"
"The road due east along which I came and along which I shall go back presently," interrupted the Englishman, "is likely to be safe enough. A child might go that way for a week," and he spoke with confidence. "You see they know I am coming."
"The words of the great Lord gladden the heart of this individual," said Ling with his oily smile, "and raise from it an unbearable load. The heaven-sent ones unfortunately travel in mean garments, and unattended, but by one elegant slave. After listening to the dignified narrative of the mighty Lord this person will anxiously await news of the polite meeting with the lonely ones fleeing from avaricious persons along the—but," he broke off, "I cannot conceal from myself I am becoming intolerably tiresome with my commonplace talk."
The Englishman only muttered something in reply, and I stepped softly away, evidently to the great disappointment of the women who had brought me. But it would not have been wise—no, I knew it would not have been wise to rush in then. The thing would be to get into communication privately with this Englishman. It made me hot and cold all over just to look at him. Oh if only I could get to him—could get away from this awful place!
But, of course, there were many things to be considered. If I let Martin Conant and Rosalie know, they would give this man their version of how I came to be where I was. There is no saying what Rosalie was capable of blurting out. I could not bear—no, as I looked at that nice handsome clean-cut face I felt I must have a fair start with him. It would be too cruel if he should get things wrong. Oh it was a difficult situation.
I got the women to bring me pen and paper—Chinese pen and paper—and they nodded and smiled, but still I couldn't make up my mind what to write or whom to write to, and I was simply sick with the anxiety of it when Rosalie came to see me. I debated whether I'd tell her, but Ling was there, and even if I could have managed it I couldn't trust Rosalie. She has no gumption. She is one of your frank open young women, who prides herself on speaking straight out. She thinks she has nothing to conceal unless it is the fact that she is desperately in love with Martin Conant. Still when she was gone I flung myself back on the cushions in despair.
And just as I was in the depths of misery, in through the door again came Mr. Ling's eldest sister, and the old woman doorkeeper hustling in, of all people in the world, Chung! That old sister thought a great deal of herself, and yet here she was behaving like a common coolie. I always disliked Chung, but still he was a straw. Evidently he had been brought in while Ling was going through those silly Chinese farewells at the gate. So that whatever I had to say must be said at once.
And it made me mad to think that Rosalie might meet that nice Englishman before I could arrange things.
"Mus' makee haste," said Chung. "My run 'way Missie ni' time?"
I nodded, though of course I didn't want to run away with Chung. But the thing was to get away.
"Have got monies," he said, and I was nearly frantic. Of course I hadn't any money. My heart sank down when suddenly Ling's eldest sister bent over me rudely and held up the string of pearls I wore round my neck. They represented money. I saw Chung's eyes glisten, and I wondered if I was safe to trust him. I really am a brave woman.
"Can do one, two three pearls," I said. After all I would have given him the half if it got me away.
"Can do," said Chung. "Missie go ni' chop-chop."
I nodded again and in a moment the sister was pouring out a rapid flood of Chinese, evidently arranging with Chung, and before I had time to say anything more he was gone.
My feelings may be imagined.
Well, the night came before I had made up my mind what to do. By the light of a horrid smelly kerosene lamp came those two women again, and made me strip and change into the ragged dirty coat and trousers of a coolie woman. Awful! I could have screamed but for one thing that gave me a gleam of hope. They thrust the string of pearls into my hand. They wanted to get rid of me and this was a sort of bribe. They twisted up my hair tight round my head and tied a strip of blue cotton rag over everything, and then Ling's sister with some words which I felt sure were an insult, handed me over to the old doorkeeper, and she took me along by a winding passage to the courtyard before the main gate of the house. And there was Ling standing in the doorway talking to the handsome Englishman. I caught the words "heaven-sent ones," and guessed they were talking about us. Badly I should like to have listened, and I could have done so quite easily for neither of them would have paid the least attention to two women-slaves, but the old woman pushed me roughly outside, and the gatekeeper slammed the gate in my face.
It was horrible, but Chung was there, and I felt the pearls, and my courage returned. I am a brave woman. There and then in that filthy narrow dark street I made up my mind what I would do. Of course I didn't know whether I could trust Chung, but I'd got to. First I must get some decent clothes. It was madness to think of meeting the Englishman in filthy rags, and then I would make Chung get me a cart and I would go along the road and let the Englishman overtake me. I would write a letter to Rosalie telling her about him, but I would tell Chung not to give it to her for a day at least, because it would be so much better they should not know anything about me when Ling went there to look for me. Of course he would go there for me, and—why, goodness me—they might think I ought to go back!
Anyhow, there, in that horrid dirty, smelly street, all in the darkness, I managed to tell Chung what I wanted. I told him I was going along the road to Peking and the Englishman who was with Ling would overtake me, but I didn't want to see him till I had decent clothes. He was going to meet me. I said that because I was afraid Chung might intend to murder me for my pearls. Chung was to get me a cart, and the clothes, and I would give him a letter to Missie Grahame, but he was not to give it to her till the day after to-morrow. Then they could join the Englishman as he was starting. I gave him five pearls there and then, and I must say, much as I hate them, Chinese servants are clever. He understood at once.
"Missie come my," said he, "start to-morrow chop-chop."
And then we walked miles. He took me up the wall by a steep ramp by the gate, and we walked along one side until we came to a break where the water had pushed out the bricks. Don't ask me how I got down it, but I did. I slipped and slipped, but I held my tongue when I hurt myself for Chung declared the guards would kill me if they discovered us, and at last we arrived at the rotten little suburb opposite the farm. Of course I only found this out next morning, and Rosalie and Martin Conant must have got their breakfast late, for Chung was busy getting me a cart, an old woman to sit in front and some clothes. They were only coolie clothes, but they were new and I hoped it was only for a few days. It was a wonderful plan for a woman.
Of course I never should have dared it if I hadn't heard the Englishman say the road was safe. Safe—it was about all it was. Anyone who knows China can imagine my awful sufferings during the next two days. Chung took me to a horrid little hole of a house built against the wall. I wrote my letter and changed my clothes there, and then I went off in the cart. Awful! There's no other word for it. Pretty early that day we were overtaken by a company of men, and my carter without saying anything to me went along with them. I didn't dare look out, I just sat in that cart, most utterly miserable, wishing I'd gone straight to the Englishman, wishing I'd waited for an answer from Rosalie, wishing all manner of things. I wasn't even sure I was on the road to Peking, and for all I knew these men all round us might be robbers.
Oh, I put in a cruel time, a terrible time, and then on the third day, to my utter surprise, peering through a crack in the tilt of my vile Peking cart, I saw the Englishman riding along!
Well, it only took a minute. I was outside that cart waving and calling to him. I was awfully ashamed of my dress, of course, but I think my hair flowing all over my shoulders in a great cascade of gold made up for it. I told him afterwards I'd just been brushing my hair when I caught sight of him, and of course I couldn't wait. I drew half over my shoulder and began plaiting it as we talked.
He was surprised. I didn't want him to ask questions, so I asked them.
"But where is Rosalie Grahame? And Martin Conant? Oh, where are they? They were so anxious to get away."
"My dear lady," said Sir Charles Marston—of course he told me who he was afterwards—"who are you talking about? The lost missionaries? Ling Cheong assured me they were on the road ahead."
"He's a bad man," I said. "He wants to keep them and get more money out of them. He never said you were in Li Hsien. Only I went to see his sister"—I thought I'd better put it that way—"and I saw you—and—and—I didn't dare speak to you because his sister was so frightened, and I promised—I promised—and I wrote to Rosalie and told her you were there. Didn't they come to you?"
"No," he said, "I heard about them, but when I enquired of Ling he assured me they'd gone away a week ago."
"It wasn't true," I said, and then I told him how thankful I was to meet him, and how White Wolf had broken up the mission, and the Mongols had killed my husband, and Martin Conant had been nearly killed by the Tibetans, and all that we had suffered, and how I couldn't come to him and couldn't go to the farm-house because I was so terrified of Ling, who wanted to marry me, and I couldn't bear he should even know where I was, and I know it was all dreadfully confused, but that didn't really matter. A woman who hasn't been in touch with the outside world for such an eternity may be excused if she is a little confused, and really Sir Charles didn't seem to mind. Oh he was nice and deferential and charming. I suggested he should send back some of his men for Martin and Rosalie, but he shook his head and said he'd have to go with his whole force because he had heard White Wolf was coming down on the town.
I cried then—I just cried hopelessly. Anyone will admit I'd had enough to bear, and the thought of going back was too much for me. Sir Charles was really tender. I suppose I did look forlorn and helpless, and after all beautiful golden hair helpless and in trouble is much more interesting than the woman he probably expected to meet, your average missionary, with her drab locks dragged back in a tight little knot behind.
Of course I had to go along with them. I couldn't be left, and Sir Charles was awfully good to me because I was so tired and so frightened, and he promised faithfully he would take care not to let Ling know I was with him, or that he had ever seen me. It was the best I could do, and my sufferings can be imagined as we went back. Sir Charles told me not to be afraid. He said he had come to China to get coolies to work behind the lines in the great war in Europe, and as the coolies were going by sea and he could go across Russia, he had thought it might be useful to see into the state of the country, and as he had to have a certain number of servants he had drilled them like soldiers.
"It's quite simple," said he, and he spoke quite tenderly, "I'd like to see the robber band that would stand up to my fellows."
Of course it wasn't the robber bands I was exactly afraid of, but I let it go at that.
Well, I could only hope it would be all right if I didn't show my face, and we arrived at the farm exactly four days after that old woman had pushed me out of Ling's house. I stayed in my litter, of course, and presently back came Sir Charles in a great state of mind with Chung.
"They went into the city," he said, "just before the gates closed."
"Chung pay master missie's chit?" I asked.
I didn't like it, of course, there's no good saying I did, but I had to put a bold face upon it.
Luckily, oh luckily things were all right. I never can be thankful enough. And it just shows one ought to do the right thing, and everything will be well in the end.
Chung fiddled and twisted and pranced from one leg to the other, and tossed his pigtail about, and finally out it came.
"No hab pay piecey chit. Pai Lang in Temple an' six piecey soldier at gate. So no hab pay."
My heart sank. Unless I directed Rosalie and Martin what to say there was no knowing what they might blurt out. Still, of course, if Pai Lang had got hold of them, they might be dead. I looked at Sir Charles.
"Oh, they've never got my note," I said. "Why didn't I go myself?"
Chung smiled blandly.
"Small dog catch chit," said he. "Missie catch chit, master missie go look see temple one time."
Sir Charles looked at me puzzled. He didn't know anything about that little beast MacTavish, and I laughed—I was so relieved. They had the letter then, and probably they wouldn't say anything.
"Gone to the Temple of Everlasting Peace!" cried Sir Charles, "and Pai Lang in the city!"
"Chung knows a way in," I said.
They owe their lives to me. They'll never realise it, but they do.
And I waited there alone for hours. Sir Charles says I'm the bravest woman he knows.
"Oh, roses for the flush of youth,
And laurel for the perfect prime,
But pluck an ivy branch for me,
Grown old before my time.
Oh, violets for the grave of youth,
And bay for those dead in their prime;
Give me the withered leaves I chose
Before in the old time."
IT seemed as if the story that began in the clinic with Hop Sing's letter would end when Sir Charles Marston came to our rescue so opportunely.
We left Pai Lang lying like a log in front of the temple, with the singing girl staring at him vacantly; Sir Charles said he could not kill an unconscious man no matter how much he had deserved it, and he had not the time to mix himself up in the country's private dissensions. At least that's what I understood afterwards. At first I was too shaken to do anything but follow blindly. With twenty drilled men there was no difficulty in making the guards open the gate, and we went on for ten miles before we had rest and refreshment. I remember Martin Conant saying something about Stella, and Sir Charles answering with his grave precision,
"Ah, the brave little missionary who sent me here! She is quite safe and awaits you with impatience. We owe your lives to her."
We did. We owed our lives to Stella, and when we met she flung herself into my arms and kissed and cried over me, and begged me to get us out of China as quickly as I could and forget it all.
But I am never likely to forget the Temple of Everlasting Peace, and Martin Conant standing between me and a fate too awful to contemplate.
But if it hadn't been for Sir Charles Marston we might have been in Kansu yet, if we escaped at all, and I am extremely grateful to him quite apart from the gratitude Stella thinks I ought to extend to her. When I was a little girl we always thought of an Englishman as rather a solemn prig, a man who expressed no emotion, and calmly went his own way as if the rest of the world did not matter. I used to hate that Britisher, but my typical Englishman materialized was kindness itself. It might seem ridiculous to apologise for the absence of wine at our first supper together, when I at least was still quivering in every nerve, for the use of tinned milk with the coffee. I would have accepted rice and hot water and been thankful. Everything tasted like ambrosia, or was it sawdust?
But his attitude did more to restore us to the normal than any amount of excited sympathy could possibly have done. You'd have thought that picking up a pretty lady wandering around China and rescuing two people from imminent death was part of the day's work, and nothing to make a fuss about.
He told us about the war, and why he had come to China. He mentioned that he was a widower and that his only son had been killed at Mons, and took it for granted that Martin Conant would join up directly he reached England. Mr. Conant said something about making good, and Sir Charles looked at me and smiled in his quiet superior way and said,
"You will make good. I have no doubt of that," and Martin Conant flushed a little, and I knew I liked my typical Englishman immensely.
It took us a month to reach Peking. We had an escort of twenty well drilled men, and a gang of servants that kept up Sir Charles' dignity as a very great lord in the eyes of the Chinese. There really couldn't have been better propaganda for the Allied cause in China, if Pai Lang's ragged hordes, and I suppose they did, represented the Germans.
I really think the only thing that troubled me were the relations of Stella and Sir Charles Marston. And Martin Conant shared my discomfort. Of course if Sir Charles were going to marry her, and, long before we reached Peking it looked as if he were, I would be thankful, but I doubted very much whether he would if he knew about Ling. And he ought to be told. But who was to tell him? I suggested to Martin Conant that he should, and he asked if I couldn't persuade Stella to tell him herself. It would come so much better from her. It would, of course. I put it to her one evening, and to my immense surprise she said she had. She had told him soon after she had met him, and they had agreed never to mention the subject again.
I was surprised and said so, and Stella began to cry. I tried to soothe her, for I saw Sir Charles coming to call us to dinner. We had dinner in the evening now, and all sorts of luxuries that we had not been accustomed to for many a long day. We were sitting in the courtyard of a little temple, and Stella wiped away her tears and smiled up at Sir Charles, then to my dismay broke down again, as if she were trying to stop and couldn't. Sir Charles looked very uncomfortable but very pitiful.
"My dear lady, my dear child," he began.
"Rosalie won't understand I can't bear that awful time at Li Hsien to be mentioned," she sobbed, "she will drag it up. I told her I had told you about that horrible man Ling—and that I was so ashamed—so disgusted—" more passionate sobbing—"and that you had promised never—never," and she went on crying again hopelessly, "but she will—she will—insist——"
Sir Charles looked at me and I felt a culprit. If he knew, of course he would rather——
"We needn't go back to it," insisted Stella, looking up at him with streaming eyes, and she did look pretty. I remembered the days when she had won me.
"Certainly not," he said, looking at her and then at me. "We'll never mention Li Hsien or Ling again, Dr. Grahame. We must all do our best to make this poor little woman forget she has ever been in China. Poor brave little woman! Come to dinner," and he made me feel an unfeeling brute.
And so we went east to Peking, and in the train at the Chien Men bade farewell to Chung.
Chung, like Stella, was quite sure he had been instrumental in saving our lives. He took occasion to point out to me that he had led Sir Charles and the soldiers across the gap in the wall, and now that we were safe there seemed no point in reminding him, or Stella either for that matter, of the days of anxiety their secret machinations had caused us.
He came to see us off, carrying my new handbag and MacTavish, much to the latter's disgust. But Chung was so anxious to make himself useful that I sacrificed my little dog's feelings for this occasion only.
"My lich man," proclaimed Chung prancing along and tapping his chest with the unwilling MacTavish, then insinuatingly, as he placed him on my knee,
"Missie getting mallied?"
"I have never thought of it, Chung," I said untruly.
Having placed my bag and cushion in their proper place Chung produced a fan and was himself again. He bent forward, shielding MacTavish from the eyes of the officials on the platform and spoke in a whisper. He wished to have a hand in guiding me to the last.
"My tink," said he, "more better put small dog in blasket so no pay monies."
"But I have paid, Chung," I said, and he stood back, fanning himself wildly and reproachfully at the thought of such extravagance.
It was a last proof of devotion, and as the train steamed away from under the piled masonry of the great Tartar Wall my last view of Chung was of that immaculate servant running along the platform, his pigtail flying behind, fanning himself vigorously and crying,
"Missee coming back he wantchee velly good boy!"
"Thank goodness," said Stella as the platform vanished, but I shall always remember that I owe a great deal to our Chinese servant.
And then we went all across Asia and Europe, and Stella completed the conquest of Sir Charles—no, that is wrong. I believe she was right, the conquest was complete when she stepped from her cart with her golden hair over her shoulders, and flung herself on his protection, but at least the two of them were absorbed in one another, and Martin Conant and I—well we were happy too.
And after awhile Stella and Martin Conant and I, and of course MacTavish, found ourselves at Archangel on board a collier, the Elizabeth Victoria—her captain explained she was called after two great queens—-bound for Cardiff in Wales. It was the only way I could take MacTavish, as dogs from Russia were not allowed to enter Sweden.
Stella had offered at once to come with me.
"Don't you fret, Rosalie," she said. "I'll keep you company and you can land that beast you're so fond of without going to Sweden at all."
And Martin Conant, after discussing the matter with Sir Charles, had decided to come too. Sir Charles regretted, he said in his courtly manner, not being able to come himself, it went to his heart to break up such a pleasant little party, but he had stretched his time to the utmost, he was absolutely obliged to return within the week.
And Stella did not mind leaving him.
"My dear," she said confidentially to me, "you needn't thank me because it really will look much better if he meets me. Of course I shall miss him"—she was most becomingly sentimental—"but think how delightful it will be when he meets me on the wharf. MacTavish, you're a very ungrateful little dog. We're doing it for you, and you don't like me the least little bit in the world."
She amazed me with her confidence and her happiness. "A wind from the wilderness" had blown over Stella, but it might have been a softly scented breeze. Those long anxious weeks, those dreary months, seemed to have been blotted out of her life altogether. I might have thought she had forgotten them, but that she always cleverly changed the subject when Martin Conant and I mentioned them.
Once when we were on the collier Martin said something about the farm at Li Hsien, and Stella at once became violently interested in a queer metal thing that hung in a rack in the saloon.
"Dinna touch yon," came the skipper's voice, "yon's a grenade and gin ye get they pin oot it'll blow ye to kingdom come."
"O—o—oh!" Stella sat down in horror, but she was quite pleased to forget about Li Hsien, "but what have you got it for?"
Officers and crew both treated Stella as if she were a dainty denizen of another world, and she, with Sir Charles in the background, was sweetly gracious to them. Oh, life went on oiled wheels those days, those days that I look back upon with tender remembrance!
"Ah! little leddy!" said he with a laugh, "my nevvey gie'd it me—brought it back fra France, an' telled me if A cud pit they wee ballie in a German boat there'd be a pretty muckin' up."
"Oh, but surely," began Stella.
"Deed yes, little leddy, A'm hopin' there'll be no need to theenk on such. Dod A'm no sure——"
Martin Conant went up and inspected the little metal thing, and the skipper showed him how it was used, but when I asked him if he could really use it against a submarine he laughed and said no, he thought a depth charge would be more useful, but he had kept the grenade because his nephew, of whom he appeared to think a great deal as a sound fighting man, had given it to him.
"An' A'm thinkin'," said he, "the young beggar had no right to the disposin' of it. Anyhow he thocht o' me and there it is."
They were kindly men those merchant sailors, and the first days on board were very pleasant, a pause before Martin Conant and I should be obliged to take up the world's work again.
In a measure Stella must have felt the same. The weather was strangely calm.
"Eerie," said she with a little shrug of her shoulders, "after all the turmoil, to come into this."
"Restful," I said, but I think her word described it best.
It was eerie. We were off the west coast of Norway, steaming south. The sea was curiously calm, so calm it was like a mirror. Here and there were streaks across it like the marks on watered silk, grey watered silk, for everything was grey, still and grey, overhead a wide sky stretching far to an horizon where sea and sky met without a ripple, and not a thing in sight save the disc of the sun, strangely broadened and pale, like some great uncanny moon that we could look at with ease. I suppose there must have been a mist in front of it, but it did not seem so. It made the strangest picture I have ever seen, the vast still grey sea broken here and there by those streaks which were not waves but simply marks upon its still flat surface, marks that showed us how vast was the space in which we found ourselves. A great wide silent empty world, with a ladder of silvery rays stretching across it from the little black collier to the faded sun that hung in the heaven above.
We were the only blot on the still grey seascape, and Martin Conant and I hanging over the side hushed our voices as we spoke. Martin Conant and I were always together these times. I felt he was very near to me.
"Do you remember," said he, "the scent of the juniper fires at Kama Miao?"
Did I not remember it? We had stood side by side on the glorious winter night and looked at the temple across the moonlit snow.
He looked away over the sea.
"When we smelt the juniper wood," he said, "I was beginning to think you might like me."
"I do like you," I said. And I felt as if a faint breath were touching my happiness.
"Oh, my dear," he said, and gladness came to me again, "do you think I don't understand. It has been growing upon me ever since Sir Charles showed me what a terrible thing this war has grown into. You always thought I was wrong until out of the kindness of your heart you forgave my shortcomings in remembering I tried to do my best for you."
"Oh but——" I began, and he silenced me by turning and laying his hand on mine.
"If I'd been worth it," he began.
But privacy is very difficult in a little ship, and at that moment the captain came up. I wanted to tell Martin how much I thought he was worth, how a friendship and comradeship between man and woman when something more is added is the mightiest thing in the world, and I think my eyes must have told him something for his face lighted up and the mark on his cheek that I had tended so carefully burned redly. But I did not mind the skipper's interrupting us for I think sometimes when a woman is prepared to surrender everything she is a little afraid and is glad of any excuse to put off the desired moment. I can't say why this should be, only I know my heart was singing, and I was glad, and yet I could turn to the old man and greet him with a smile. My amiability was not well received.
"It's all very well," said he, "for you passengers. I suppose you're admirin' yon."
"Well," I said, and I wondered there was not something written upon my face, "even if it's bad it's well it has one good quality, for it is beautiful."
"Eh, I thocht ye'd say so," said he, "ye that 're tucked in saft an' warrm in your bunk ilka nicht. The next thing 'll be fog and whaur'll we be then?"
Martin looked at me, and looked away again at the wide still grey sea.
"I suppose we shall be here, only going slowly," I said, and all the while I was thinking of the man beside me.
"'Going slow,' says she," went on the skipper, "crawlin' more like, an' no bunk for me inside o' a week maybe, an' if I soun' the horn it'll fetch up a damn U-boat hand over fist, and if I dinna some beastly old hooker 'll come buttin' into us, an' how'll you like this pretty grey sea for a permanent abiding place, my pretty lassie?—tell me that noo."
"I'm rather in love with life," I said, and I was glad because it sounded like a message to Martin. The old man looked at me under his bushy grey eyebrows, and he looked sternly and pityingly.
"Ah ye that now?" said he, and his voice rang kindly. "It's a fair temptin' o' Providence to say so. Well we're safer in thick weather an' gin the fog rises——"
"If the fog rises," said Martin, turning round, and his face looked happy and hopeful and confident—my dear! my dear! "you set that old fog horn of yours going, and if a German does turn up, send me on board to interview him, I speak the lingo, you know, and with that hand grenade of yours, and my automatic pistol——"
"An' what'll become of ye?" asked the skipper dourly.
"I'll swim off to you," he answered lightly, "the sea's calm enough," and the skipper shrugged his shoulders and went back to the bridge.
"He thinks you're fooling," I said, "and this is too serious a matter for jesting."
"But you don't think I'm jesting, my dear, my dear," he said, turning round and suddenly taking both my hands in his. "You understand that if I could redeem myself—make up for—for——"
"Oh, but I couldn't bear it," I said, and when we turned and looked at the sea he pressed both my hands against his breast. My love, my sweetheart, in all the years to come, can I ever forget the joy of that hour we stood together looking over the ship's side saying all the things we had left unsaid in these months we had been together, and when we said nothing aloud we understood each other just as well, standing silent watching the grey fog close down upon us.
It was like veils of soft grey chiffon, oh something finer, more impalpable than chiffon, and moment by moment the veils fell till the sun faded to a point of light, and even that died out and the width of sea grew smaller and smaller, and the movements on board ship seemed to grow muffled, the voice of the skipper calling orders and the responses of his officers and men were muted, and a hush and silence hung over all, broken only, now and again, by the dragging of the rudder chains on deck. Most often only the clanking of those chains broke the stillness. The ship went slower and slower, feeling her way in the dense obscurity. Then the fore part vanished, swallowed up in the fog, the little house over the hatchway vanished—we could not even see the sea below the rail over which we leaned, we two were alone on the little ship on which I had thought there was no privacy, and he took me in his arms and there was no need of words between us, my comrade and my friend was my lover, and surely in this world woman can have no greater joy. Surely on those Tibetan Marches we had forged a bond that would hold all our lives—our lives in this world and in the world beyond.
Stewards and cooks, as I have said before, go on just the same whatever happens, and presently the tea bell rang, muffled but most certainly the tea bell. It was not exactly dark, it would not have been dark anyhow this summer weather, but the fog made a cold and clammy obscurity, and Martin said with a little lilt in his voice,
"Are we to go down to tea?"
"I suppose the world will go on just the same," I said, and somehow the world seemed to have changed so for me I wondered if anything could ever be the same again. It never has, no, it never has.
"Things must go on, my darling," he said. "You remember I must join up."
"Oh Martin! Martin!" But I knew he must. I should not have loved him if he had not wanted to. How can such things be? And yet they are, and I can write about them—and bear them.
"And remember," he said, "perhaps you will have the hardest part!"
But I did not feel that and I said so.
"You must remember healing is my job, and whatever is your job is never quite so hard as it seems to other people."
"You must remember that too, sweetheart," he said in his old whimsical way, "when I am a Tommy in the trenches."
And then the tea bell rang again more insistently than ever, and we went below into the little saloon, and there sat Stella and the second mate. The second mate was a huge Shetlander, and he adored her, and she held the teapot in her hand and looked over at us archly and meaningly, and strangely, oh strangely I didn't even resent her looks. All the world was bliss at that moment. I loved that little stuffy saloon with a lamp burning dimly and the fog making its way between the tightly closed doors and ports. A rack hung across the table, with glasses stuck in it, and the light gleamed upon them and upon the skipper's little hand grenade.
"You two," said Stella, "are driving the steward frantic. Everybody's temper's spoiled by the fog. Now don't tell me you've forgotten MacTavish!"
I had! I actually had! We had shut the door and MacTavish, unaccustomed to such conduct on the part of his mistress, was scratching furiously at the panels and telling me in unmistakable tones what he thought of me.
"Oh MacTavish," I cried hastily.
But Stella waited for no more. She set down that teapot and flung herself into my arms.
"Oh you silly dears! You've done it at last," she said, and promptly kissed us both.
* * * * * * *
We crawled through that fog, and it lasted forty-eight hours, forty-eight blissful hours, when Martin and I said to each other all the things we had left unsaid ever since we had met at the mission station. Always I shall remember those days of the fog when the skipper paced up and down the bridge in the obscurity, with his temper on hair springs, when the damp clung to my hair in drops and made my new serge frock a limp rag. But I was happy, oh I was happy, it seemed to me nothing could go wrong in such a beautiful world. The thought of Martin beside me set my heart beating, and all the terrible days in China were well worth while because they had led to this.
Oh life was well worth living. We even laughed at the skipper's fears, and we laughed at MacTavish, who has no sense of humour and cannot see a joke against himself, till he scratched wildly at my skirts with his little white paws and demanded to be taken in my arms and assured of my unaltered affection.
Then there were the moments on deck in the obscurity of the fog—oh it was a glorious happy time! I felt young, young, I remembered it afterwards, I was young. I am for that matter, I suppose, nobody seems to think seven and twenty very old, but I think that was the first time in my life I felt thoroughly irresponsible and care-free. I just lived for the moment and so did Martin. We would not look forward—not yet, there was no need for perhaps a week, and for the past it was good to go over it again together. We even talked about my two engagements, and we laughed over them, and I wondered I had been miserable or minded in the least the defection of those two shadows. How happy I was! How happy!
"Eh, ma lassie," said the skipper looking over the screens at us as we sheltered abaft the bridge outside his cabin.
"You ask him, MacTavish," I said, "why we shouldn't be happy?"
He stamped up and down the bridge, up and down, and every time he came to our side he leaned over and shook his head, but he was a kindly old man, and I think was sympathetic. I liked to see his crumpled old face peering at us through the fog.
The fog had lasted forty-seven hours before anything out of the common happened. It was weird on deck; and merry party as we were in the cabin the laugh died on our lips when we stood there leaning out into the dense obscurity. The silence could almost be felt. I could hear the clank, clank of the rudder chains, the tramp stamp of the skipper's never ending march, and then strangely harsh and grating a laugh rang out.
"It was someone on board," I said hardly above my breath. But I knew it was no one on board.
And now indeed was the world's war being brought home to us. We did not know where that laugh came from. We ran the risk of being run down as we crept slowly through the fog, but we heard no engines, the U-boat could hear the steamer coming through his microphone, and he was lying on the surface with his engines stopped. So said the mate, and the skipper swore bitterly.
Stella came creeping up to me and clung to me, and I, holding MacTavish close, was thankful to feel Martin's hand on my shoulder.
"Oh, surely, surely," moaned Stella in sudden terror, "nothing could happen now! Oh, my God! it would be too cruel!"
Yes, too cruel! But Fate is like that.
But no hail went up from our ship in answer. The laugh in which there was no mirth was like an ill-omened portent dashing across our happiness. I wanted the spell broken by some commonplace happenings. But nothing happened. There was the clammy moist obscurity, that hung on our hair and eyelashes in drops, and made MacTavish rub his funny little nose against my shoulder, and strain our ears as we would we could hear nothing more. Then we two sat ourselves down behind the house and forgot everything in our own concerns till perhaps an hour later, when I raised my eyes and looking up saw the fog hanging, torn and dishevelled in rags, and a spot of sparkling blue where the sun was touching the sea.
"Why, the fog is going!"
There was just the very faintest breeze, and presently we saw again in more places than one the sunlight on the sea, and the sea was no longer still and grey and calm—oh, but I shall always remember with tenderness that still grey sea—it was deep dark blue, and where the sunlight caught it it danced and sparkled, and the sun himself showing through the rags of fog was no longer the faded old sickly pale yellow orb we had bade farewell to the day before yesterday, but he had renewed his strength, he was young and strong in a new-born world. That shifting of the fog was glorious, the sunbeams, the golden sunbeams, were tearing it to ribbons, and we wondered what we should see when it was gone. I had loved the fog, but it was good to see it go. We kept drawing into our lungs great draughts of fresh pure air, and we looked at one another in the sunlight as if we were beginning a new life together.
There was a hail from the look-out man,
"Something broad on the starboard bow, sir."
"Aye, aye," came the response from the officer of the watch.
"About four points."
We came out then and joined the others on the deck, and there directly in the sun's rays right in the middle of one of the pathways of sparkling blue water that ran directly up to that new young gay sun that seemed to symbolize my life, was something—something long and grey, going very slowly along, leaving a very slight oily wake slightly parallel with us, and a murmur of dismay ran through the ship's company.
You who read must remember that I write as a woman. I know nothing of sea terms or sea ways, I can only tell the story as I think it happened, and God knows it seems as if every moment were written on my eyeballs, graven on my brain, and I could never forget.
With his glasses the skipper could, of course, see much better than we could, and he looked at his mate.
"Eh, Mister," he said, "they set the crew of the Pretty Prissy adrift in the North Sea in a leaky boat."
Then the fog closed down and everything was blotted out, and a great sigh went up from the company. I heard the engine room telegraph bells and we were speeding away through the fog.
"If they dommed fog'll only hold," said the skipper.
If it would hold—if it would only hold. Could we lose ourselves in this thick darkness? No, it was going, and the next minute we were looking down a long lane where the sunlight was pouring. Behind us was the long grey——
There came a whirr and a crash, the timbers of the bridge were splintered, the railing smashed, and a man sank down on the deck in a pool of red that spread and spread. I went to him, but he was past all human aid, and when I looked round again the bridge was deserted and the skipper was bending over the skylight talking down into the engine-room. He looked round and spoke to the mate.
"We maun stop, Mister, we maun stop," he said, and I saw the misery in his old eyes. "They can blaw us oot o' the water."
The breeze freshened behind us and the fog rolled up before it like a blind or a curtain drawn by a string. Before us—around us—was a waste of blue water sparkling in the golden sunshine, and quite plainly to be seen was the long slate-coloured thing with a periscope—clear it was in the brilliant sunshine—the pirate of modern times, the mean marauder from whom no mercy could be expected.
"Run him down," cried Martin.
But the skipper shook his head,
"He'd sweep oor decks before we reached him. Puir Tamson's gone."
So we were to be adrift on the sparkling sea. You know how in moments of danger all your body seems to creep together and cold water trickles down your spine while you try to keep a calm face and speak as if it were all in the day's work. It seemed so hard, so hard just when we were reaching safety. Stella shrieked, and I could hardly find it in my heart to stop her. I could have shrieked too if I had felt it would be any good.
And the submarine came quite near.
"Ram her," Martin kept urging, "ram her."
"Dom you for a fule," said the skipper and there came a voice from the U-boat, a guttural voice hailing us. He hailed us in German, and of course the captain did not understand. Neither did I for that matter. Martin turned to the skipper.
"He says you're to lower a boat and go on board him."
We were all clustered round the engine room skylights, and the skipper threw up his hands in despair. Martin seized the situation.
"You don't know any German," said he, "let me go."
The old man looked at him doubtfully.
"Look here, make as much fuss as you can," said Martin, "let 'em see you getting ready to abandon ship. Make out you're in a blue funk."
"A am thot," said the skipper.
"What's the good of going on board when you can't speak the tongue," went on Martin. "Here——" he jammed on the skipper's cap. It was the only sign of uniform he ever wore, "I'll go as the skipper."
He raced down below and was back again in a moment, I saw the pistol he was hiding, while the skipper was giving orders to lower a boat. The U-boat had passed quite close on our beam, and I could see the green weed on her as she rolled slightly floating out on the water, and drawn back again close against her sides.
"She's a bonny target," said the skipper mournfully, shaking his head, "an A'd like weel to avenge puir Tamson."
"Mon, ye're a born fule."
There came a shout from the U-boat. We could see the men on the little deck at the gun.
Martin turned and shouted something in German. As he leaned over the side the sunlight gleamed on the gold lace on the skipper's cap. There were two men in the boat and some of the crew were at the falls clearing it away.
"If I make confusion will you ram?" asked Martin preparing to get into the boat.
"An what'll become o' ye?" asked the skipper.
"I can swim," said Martin emphatically. "Mind, I'm a good swimmer." It was the second time I had heard him suggest this to the skipper, and I could see it made an impression on the old man.
Then there was a moment's hesitation, and an impatient voice from the U-boat.
Martin waved his hand, turned to the skipper again and took my hand. Oh, my dear! my dear! It was comforting to feel his strong firm grip. We had come through so much. We had been in a worse place in the Temple of Everlasting Peace. After all I felt it might be all right, and I looked up at him and smiled.
"My brave girl!" he said. He turned to the skipper.
What he said I don't know. My mind didn't seem able to think properly, but afterwards the skipper said he was exhorting him not to take to the boats till he was absolutely obliged, but to make believe they were getting ready so as to keep the U-boat quiet. The last words I heard were, "When you see your chance, ram him." Then he drew me towards him before them all and kissed me.
"My love, my dearest, my own," he whispered, "God bless you."
He let me go, sprang to a rope, swung himself over, and was in the little boat alongside the couple of men who were at the oars. It was so quickly done, and it seemed to me it would only be for a short while. Presently he would be back again and we would be adrift on this blue sea, and my mind seemed to be full of many things, but chiefly I think was the feeling of loss, I wanted him beside me again, I longed to feel his strong arm round me and I was seized with a sudden terror of loneliness. All the golden sunshine, all the pure fresh air had lost its charm, all the wide sea was empty, I could think of nothing but him and the dangers he might be facing. All the rest of the ship's company, all the danger and suffering that might be coming for them, were nothing to me if only my man were safe.
I held MacTavish close in my arms as I leant over the side, and as his little warm tongue found my cheek, Martin looked up at me and sent a message of tenderness with his eyes, but his tongue said, "I've got the grenade. Now remember, ram him!"
The skipper cursed, and then he nodded, "Ou aye, if ye do yon, I'll do my pairt. But ye ken that gun's trainit on oor deck."
Then he called orders thick and fast. Stella was shrieking, and only afterwards I realised it, it suited the skipper she should shriek, every time the mate passed the ship's bell he gave it a tug, and it went tolling out over the sea weirdly, the crew were clattering about the deck rushing madly from one boat to another letting go the falls, and the skipper and mate were shouting all sorts of orders. Apparently panic reigned supreme.
It seemed to me at first they must have gone mad till the skipper turned to me and spoke quietly enough,
"Lay ye doon on deck, lassie, an' watch oot through the freeing port, ye'll see better. An' see here, ye'll call to me directly the water shows we're using they propeller."
So there was method in it after all, and for a little a curious cold calm possessed me. I lay down flat on the deck and I felt MacTavish snuggle down close beside me as if this were some new sort of game it behoved him to look into. I put my hand on him and I saw that the skipper was quietly enough giving orders to the engine-room through the skylight. I looked through the square port that carried off the water from the deck and I saw the skipper was right. I could see the U-boat much better from there. At first it seemed to me she was moving slowly ahead of us and then I saw that it was the Elizabeth Victoria that was turning with just a hardly perceptible stroke of her propeller at a time, and her head was gradually swinging towards the submarine.
"Canna ye screech, lassie," said the captain looking approvingly at Stella, who was making the air ring, and I was so surprised that inadvertently I squeezed MacTavish too hard and he gave vent to his feelings in an agonized and indignant yelp.
I could see the boat alongside the submarine now. Martin was on board and the boat was lying off. They were so close we could see everything, and I could hear the skipper keeping up a running commentary.
"God! God! It's a mad scheme. The de'il's in it! The lad's talkin' to yon limmer."
"I can see the white water," I said and my own voice sounded so strange.
"Ay," nodded the old man, "a guid lassie, a wee bit slower, Mac. Odds! Keep her so! It's reet, it's reet! A'm fearin'——"
Clang went the bell again, and a boat swung madly out and swung inboard again, while the mate swore aloud and every man of the crew seemed to be yelling something different. Stella gave another shriek, and I saw Martin climbing up to the top of the conning tower. He was talking to the German officer, and then I saw him raise his arm and fling something down into the submarine. The next moment we heard the faint sound of an explosion, the German officer half fell out of the conning tower, apparently killed, and quick as thought Martin had jumped behind the conning tower and had started firing round it at the 4-in gun's crew on the after-deck of the U-boat.
"He's dune it! God! mon! he's dune it!" yelled the skipper, and it seemed as if everyone else on board the Elizabeth Victoria was yelling the same.
"Full ahead, Mac, full ahead and hard-a-port," yelled the skipper, scrambling for the bridge, and I too rose and ran to the bridge, for it seemed that from there I could see best. My eyes were glued to the man behind the conning tower, who was shooting at the gun's crew, keeping them off their gun.
"'Ane mon dune," cried the mate exulting. "The de'il but he's a nailer! They daurna get at they gun! Anither! Losh! The auld mon'll ram her after all!"
It seemed to me the U-boat was going ahead, but presently I saw it was the ship coming round. The U-boat lay like a log on the water with the German officer's body half hanging out of the conning tower. Why didn't Martin jump now? My heart stood still.
"Losh!" cried the mate again. "Her worrks is derangit! Come you aft, leddy. The auld man's——"
Crash! Smash! The Elizabeth Victoria had hit the submarine amidships and gone right over her. There was a tremendous swirl as the U-boat turned over, and then an explosion which shook the ship from stem to stern. I heard the skipper,
"Her depth chairges is gone off."
It was all over in a second. One moment my eyes had seen the man behind the conning tower in the unaccustomed uniform cap with the little puffs of smoke from the automatic pistol. I saw him give a quick glance our way, put up his hands for a long dive, and then the ships touched, and when the explosion came all seemed to go dark before my eyes. I had dropped on my knees, clasping MacTavish close, and the yelling and shouting of all the ship's crew was in my ears, triumphant shouting, and when I looked again there was the calm sea, and first a bubbling and then huge patches of black oil on the blue sea, spreading—spreading——
Again there was a wild burst of triumph from the men round me. A babel of voices shouting about the reward and the Navy men. The skipper had his hands on my shoulders,
"See yon, my lassie, see yon. Ah, it's guid evidence for the Admiralty. The Navy men'll want to know."
"Hurroo! yon's evidence enough!" yelled the mate.
The little boat was going slowly over the place, and I shut my eyes and—oh, if passionate longing is a prayer, surely my prayer should have counted. I looked again and I saw two men being hauled aboard and my mouth was dry and there was a singing in my ears. The captain's hand was on my shoulder. I felt it trembling like a leaf. The triumphant gladness had died out of his face. There were tears in his eyes and a sob in his voice, but I managed to ask quietly enough.
"Mr. Conant? They've got him? They couldn't have saved the Germans and——"
It was only such a few minutes since his arm had been round me, since I had felt his lips on my face. I wanted him, my lover, my husband, all the world was empty without him.
"A rare capable mon," went on the skipper's voice monotonously. What was he saying? Such a good shot—so steady—he had given his life for the ship's company.
If only there had not been such a drumming in my ears that I might have heard what the skipper was saying. And at last, far, far away muffled and muted like their voices had been in the fog, I heard him.
"Till the sea shall gie up her deid."
And MacTavish's little hot tongue licked my cheek and the last veils of the fog drifted away, and before us was the wide empty sea. Like my life, empty.
* * * * * * * * *
November 11th, 1918. Peace at last!
I know now that Mrs. Wright had got hold of the truth though she may not have expressed it in a way that appealed to me. There is something far, far higher than the merely material, and when my lover yielded up his life for his country he achieved it. It is not always given to us to understand and realise in the first great shock. But nothing in this life is ever attained without effort, and I am sure that the best in the life to come is bought at a mighty price. I went down into the depths of despair because I was so desperately lonely without him. Then I worked because I must. I went to France and saw brave men suffer and die, and I know that hundreds of thousands of women are crying in their grief even as I did: "Why? Why? To what end?"
The Wind from the Wilderness has blown through the world. A devastating wind, but a healing wind too. It has purged away all that is false and untrue. It has left many of us mourning—for a time—I know it is only for a time.
We two loved each other deeply, and love like ours is not lightly snapped asunder. It was sealed by the great sacrifice he made, and it is my constant hope and prayer that I may so order my life here that we two may go hand in hand joyfully in the life that is to come.
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