Doctor Nikola (Windsor Magazine, 1896)/Chapter 6
ON THE ROAD TO PEKIN.
AS we left the last house of the native city of Tientsin behind us the sun was in the act of rising. Whatever the others may have felt I cannot say, but this I know, that there was at least one person in the party who was heartily glad to bid good-bye to the town. Though we had only been in it a short time we had passed through such a series of excitements during that brief period as would have served to disgust even such a glutton as Don Quixote himself with an adventurous life.
For the first two or three miles our route lay over a dry mud plain, where the dust, which seemed to be mainly composed of small pebbles and camel dung, whistled continuously in the dawn wind. We rode almost in silence.
Nikola, by virtue of his pretended rank, was some yards ahead, I next; Laohwan came behind me, and the baggage ponies and the Mafoos (or native grooms) behind him again. I don't know what Nikola was thinking about, but I'm not ashamed to confess that my own thoughts continually reverted to the girl whom I had been permitted the opportunity of rescuing on the previous evening. Her pale sweet face never left me, and I found that she monopolised my thoughts to the exclusion of everything else. Though I tried again and again to bring my mind to bear upon the enterprise on which we were embarking, it was of no avail; on each occasion I came back to the consideration of a pair of dark eyes and a wealth of nut-brown hair. That I should ever meet Miss Medwin again seemed most unlikely; that I wanted to I will not deny, and while I am about it I will even go so far as to confess that not once but several times I found myself wishing, for the self-same reason, that I had thought twice before accepting Nikola's offer. But one moment's reflection was sufficient to show me that had I not fallen in with Nikola I should in all probability not only never have known her at all, while, what was more to the point, I should most likely have been in a position where love-making would not only have been foolish but quite out of the question.
When we had proceeded something like five miles Nikola turned in his saddle and beckoned me to his side.
“By this time,” he said, “Prendergast and Eastover will have received the telegrams I requested Williams to despatch to them. They will not lose a moment in getting on their way, and by the middle of next week they should have the priest of Hankow in their hands. It will take another three days for them to inform us of the fact, which will mean that we shall have to wait at least ten days in Pekin before presenting ourselves at the Llamaserai. This being so, I shall go to a house which has been recommended to me in the Tartar city. I shall let it be understood there that I am anxious to undertake a week's prayer and fasting in order to fit myself for the responsibilities I am going to take upon me, and that during that time I can see no one. By the end of the tenth day I should know enough to penetrate into the very midst of the monks, and after that it should be ail plain sailing.”
“But do you think your men will be able to abduct this well-known priest without incurring any suspicion?”
“They will have to,” answered Nikola. “If they don't we shall have to pay the penalty. But there, you need have no sort of fear. I have the most perfect faith in the men. They have been well tried, and I am sure of this, if I were to tell either of them to do anything, however dangerous it might be, they would not think twice before obeying me. By the way, Bruce, I don't know that you are looking altogether well.”
“I don't feel quite the thing,” I answered; “but it will pass off.”
“Well, let us push on. We must reach the rest-house to-night, and to do that we have got a forty-mile ride ahead of us.”
It is a well-known fact that though Chinese ponies do nor present a very picturesque outward appearance, there are few animals living that can equal them in pluck and endurance. Our whole cavalcade, harness and pack-saddles included, might have been purchased for a twenty-pound note, but I very much doubt if the most costly animal to be seen in Rotten Row on an afternoon in the season could have carried us half so well on our way as those shaggy little beasts, which stood scarcely more than 13 hands.
In spite of our camping for a couple of hours in the middle of the day, we were at the rest-house, half way to Pekin, before sundown. And a wretched place it proved—a veritable Chinese inn, with small bare rooms, quite unfurnished, and surrounded by a number of equally inhospitable stables.
As soon as we arrived we dismounted and entered the building, on the threshold of which the boorish Chinese landlord received us. His personality was in keeping with the external appearance of his house, but observing that we were strangers of importance he condescended to depart so far from his usual custom as to show us at least the outward signs of civility. So we chose our rooms and ordered a meal to be prepared at once. Our bedding was unpacked and spread upon the floor of our bedroom, and almost as soon as this was done the meal was announced as ready.
A Chinese inn, particularly in the interior, is seldom a cheerful place, and this example was certainly no exception to the rule. It was, as I have said, villainously dirty. The food with which we were served consisted of almost raw eggs, tough fowls and a curiously-cooked mess of pork. The last-named dish, as everyone knows who has had anything to do with the country, is one of the staple diets of all but Mohammedan Chinamen. Swarms of beggars, loathsome to a degree, infested the place, begging and whining for any trifle, however insignificant. They crawled about the courtyards and verandas, and at last became so bold as to penetrate our rooms. This was too much of a good thing, and I saw that Nikola thought so too.
After I returned to my room, which adjoined that occupied by Nikola, we sat talking for nearly an hour, and then retired to rest.
But though I disrobed myself of my Chinese garments and stretched myself out upon the blankets, sleep would not visit my eyelids. Possibly I was a little feverish; at any rate I began to imagine all sorts of things. Strange and horrible thoughts crowded upon my brain, and the most uncanny sounds spoke from the silence of the night. Little noises from afar concentrated themselves until they seemed to fill my room. A footfall in the street would echo against the wall with a mysterious clearness, and the sound of a dog barking in a neighbouring compound was intensified till it might have open the barking of a dozen. So completely did this nervousness possess me that little by little I found myself discovering a danger in even the creaking of the boards and chirrup of an insect in the roof.
How long this sort of thing continued I cannot say. But at last I could bear it no longer. I rose from my bed and was about to pace the room, in the hope of tiring myself into sleeping, when the sound of a stealthy footstep in the corridor outside caught my ears. I stood rooted to the spot, trying to listen, with every pulse in my body pumping like a piston rod. Again it sounded, but this time it was nearer my door. There was a distinct difference however; it was no longer a human step, as we are accustomed to hear it, but an equalised and heavy shuffling sound that for a moment rather puzzled me. But my mystification was scarcely of an instant's duration. I had heard that sound before, the same night that a man in an adjoining room in the hotel had been murdered. One second's reflection told me that it was made by someone proceeding along the passage upon his hands and knees. But why was he doing it? Then I remembered that the wall on the other side of the corridor was only a foot or two high. The intruder, whoever he might be, evidently did not wish to be seen by the occupants of the rooms. I drew back into a corner of my room, took a long hunting-knife, that I always carried with me, from beneath my pillow, and awaited the turn of events. Still the sound continued; but by this time it had passed my door, and as soon as I had settled this to my satisfaction I crept towards the passage and looked out.
From where I stood I was permitted a view of the narrow corridor, but it was empty. Instinct told me that the man had passed into the room next to mine. Since I had first heard him he would not have had time to get any farther. The adjoining apartment was Nikola's, and after the fatigue of the day it was ten chances to one he would be asleep. That the mission was an evil one it did not require much penetration to perceive. A man does not crawl about lonely corridors, when other men are asleep, on hands and knees for any good purpose. Therefore if I wished to save my employer's life I knew I must be quick about it.
A second later I had left my own room and was creeping up to where the other man had undoubtedly gone in. Reaching the doorway I stood irresolute, trying to discover by listening whereabouts in the room the man could be. A moment later there came a sound of a heavy grunt, followed by a muttered ejaculation. As I heard it I rushed into the room, across to where I knew Nikola had placed his bed. As I did so I came into contact with a naked body, and next moment we were both rolling and tumbling upon the ground.
It was an uncanny experience that fight in the dark. Over and over we rolled, clinging to each other and putting forth every possible exertion to secure a victory. Then I heard Nikola spring to his feet, and run towards the door. In response to his cry there was an immediate hubbub in the building, but before anyone could reach us with lights I had got the upper hand and was seated across my foe.
Laohwan was the first to put in an appearance, and he brought a torch. Nikola took it from him and came across to us. Signing me to get off the man whom I was holding, he bent down and looked at him.
“Ho, ho!” he said quietly. “This is not burglary then, but vengeance. So, you rogue, you wanted to repay me for the beating you got to-night, did you? It seems I have had a narrow escape.”
It was exactly as he said. The man whom I had caught was none other than the beggar whose persistence had earned him a beating earlier in the evening.
“What will your Excellency be pleased to do with him?” asked Laohwan.
In reply Nikola told the man to stand up. He looked him fairly in the eyes for perhaps a minute, and then said quietly—
“Open your mouth.”
The man did as he was ordered.
“You can't shut it again,” said Nikola. “Try.”
The poor wretch tried and tried in vain. His jaws were as securely locked as it would be possible for human jaws to be. He struggled with them, he tried to press them together, but in vain; they were firmly fixed and defied him. In his terror he ran about the room, the perspiration streaming down his face, and all the time uttering strange cries.
“Come here!” said Nikola. “Stand before me. Now shut your mouth.”
Instantly the man closed his mouth.
“Shut your eyes.”
The man did as he was ordered.
“You are blind; you cannot open either your eyes or mouth.”
The man tried, but without result. His mouth and eyes were firmly sealed. This time his terror was greater than any words could express, and he fell at Nikola's feet imploring him in inarticulate grunts to spare him. The crowd who had clustered at the door stood watching this strange scene open-mouthed.
“Get up!” said Nikola to the miserable wretch at his feet. “Open your mouth and eyes. You would have murdered me, but I have spared you. You have tasted of my power; take care I do not make you blind and dumb for ever. Try again what you have attempted to-night and both sight and speech will be instantly taken from you and never again restored. Now go!”
The man did not wait to be bidden twice, but fled as if for his life, parting the crowd at the doorway just as the bows of a steamer turn away the water to right and left.
When only Laohwan remained Nikola called him up.
“Are you aware,” said Nikola, “that but for my friend's vigilance here I should now be a dead man? You sleep at the end of the passage, and it was your duty to have seen that nobody passed you. But you failed in your trust. Now what is your punishment to be?”
In answer the man knelt humbly at his master's feet.
“Answer my question! What is your punishment to be?” repeated the same remorseless voice. “Am I never to place trust in you again?”
“By the graves of my ancestors I swear that I did not know that the man had passed me.”
“That is no answer,” said Nikola. “You have failed in your duty, and that is a thing I will never forgive. In an hour's time you will saddle your horse and go back to Tientsin, where you will seek out Mr. Williams and tell him that you are unsatisfactory, and that I have sent you back. He will decide what form your punishment shall take. Fail to see him or to tell him what I have said and you will be dead in two days. Do you understand me?”
Once more the man bowed low.
Without a word the man rose to his feet and went toward the door. In my heart I felt sorry for him, and when he had left I said as much to Nikola.
“My friend,” he answered, “there is a Hindu proverb which says, 'A servant who cannot be trusted is as a broken lock upon the gateway of your house.' But while I blame him I am forgetting to do justice to you. One thing is very certain, but for your intervention I should not be talking to you now. I owe you my life. You will not find me ungrateful.”
“It was fortunate,” I said, “that I heard him pass along the passage, otherwise we might both have perished.”
“It was strange, after all the exertions of the day, that you should have been awake. I was sleeping like a top. But look at me. Good heavens, man! I told you this morning you were looking ill. You're worse than ever now. Give me your wrist.”
He felt my pulse, then looked anxiously into my face. After this he took a small bottle from a travelling medicine-chest he always carried with him, poured a few drops of what it contained into a glass, filled it up from a Chinese water-bottle near by and bade me drink it. Having done so I was sent back to bed, and within five minutes of arriving there was wrapped in a dreamless sleep.
When I awoke it was broad daylight and nearly six o'clock. I felt considerably better than when I had gone to bed the previous night, but still I was by no means well. What was the matter with me I could not tell.
At seven o'clock an equivalent for breakfast was served to us, and at half-past the ponies were saddled and we proceeded on our way. As we left the inn I looked about to see if I could discover any signs of poor Laohwan, but as he was not there I could only suppose he had accepted Nikola's decision as final and had gone back to Tientsin.
As usual Nikola rode on ahead, and it was not difficult to see that the story of his treatment of his would-be murderer had leaked out. The awe with which he was regarded by the people with whom we came in contact was most amusing to witness. And you may be sure he fully sustained the character given him.
After halting as usual at midday we proceeded on our way until four o'clock, when a pleasurable sensation was in store for us. Suddenly rising above the monotonous level of the plain were the walls of the great city of Pekin. They seemed to stretch away as far as the eye could reach. As we approached them they grew more lofty, and presently an enormous tower, built in the usual style of Chinese architecture, and pierced with innumerable loop-holes for cannon, appeared in sight. It was not until we were within a couple of hundred yards of it however, that we discovered that these loop-holes were only counterfeit, and that the whole tower was little more than a sham.
We entered the city by a gateway that would have been considered insignificant in a third-rate Afghan village, and having paid the tolls demanded of us wondered in which direction we had best proceed to the lodgings to which our friend in Tientsin had directed us.
Pressing a smart-looking youth into our service we were conducted by a series of tortuous thoroughfares to a house in a mean quarter of the city. By the time we reached it it was quite dark, and it was only after repeated knockings upon the door that we contrived to make those within aware of our presence. At last the door opened and an enormously stout Chinaman stood before us.
“What do you want?” he asked of Nikola, who was nearest to him.
“That which only peace can give,” said Nikola.
The man bowed low.
“Your Excellency is most welcome,” he said. “If you will be honourably pleased to step this way all that my house holds is yours.”
We followed him through the dwelling into a room on the left-hand side. Then Nikola bade him call in the chief Mafoo, and when he appeared discharged his account and bade him be gone.
“We are now in Pekin,” said Nikola to me as soon as we were alone, “and it behoves us to play our cards carefully. Remember, as I have so often told you, I am a man of extreme sanctity and I shall guide my life and actions to that end. There is, as you see, a room leading out of this. In it I shall take up my abode. You will occupy this one. It must be your business to undertake that no one sees me. And you must allow it to be understood that I spend my time almost exclusively in study and upon my devotions. Every night when darkness falls I shall go out and endeavour to collect information for what I want. You will have charge of the purse and must arrange our commissariat.”
Half an hour later our evening meal was served, and when we had eaten it, being tired, we went straight to bed. Next morning when I woke my old ailment had returned upon me, my skin was dry and cracked, and my head ached to distraction. I could eat no breakfast, and I could see that Nikola was growing more and more concerned about me.
After breakfast I went for a walk. But I could not rid myself of the heaviness which had seized me, and returned to the house feeling more dead than alive. During the afternoon I lay down upon my bed and in a few minutes lost consciousness altogether.