ROBERT WELLES RITCHIE
THE JEWEL is in the lotus . . ." That is the prayer, or shibboleth, or simple declarative twaddle whichever way you're constituted to construe it. The phrase is written in countless repetition, on thousands of paper rags to hang in Tibetan prayer cylinders. You push a little capstan bar, the prayer cylinder creaks a whole revolution and behold! your devotion has been multiplied automatically ten thousand times in the eyes of the Great Buddha of Gandenthat Great Buddha which stands seventy feet, to look out of golden eyes through slots in his gold-fluted tower upon Urga. the accursed, and a land dotted with skulls where it rises to meet the yellow7 horizon of Gobi -land whence Genghis Khan leaped to blaze his way across half a known world by pyramids of enemy heads.
As I look back, it seems that once I was no more than a wasp of paper in such a prayer cylinder, with a careless Hand sending the whole twirling. That girl of steel and rose leaves, Vera Constantinovna, her brother Serge, the
White Russian, and I whirling—whirling. Yes, and flapping, tangling with us were other limp pajx-r rags, fate-driven, marked with the names of the Bloody Baron I'ngern. old General Pao Lin-chun with his frog mouth, squat and dangerous little Hamatori who always smiled. Come to think about it, life for all of us Whites, Red and Yellows was nothing short of a merry-go-round, with no accent on the merry, that dreadfully mad autumn of 'eighteen. Our carrousel—the French call it that had a swing from the Golden Horn to Siberia’s bitter heart, and down to the yamens of Manchuria. Its revolutions carried through mass murder, individual robbery, comedy government by clowns, and desperate stratagems by governors turned demons. All helter-skelter, of no piece, plot nor plan . . .
“The jew’el is in the lotus ...” Y’ery well, let it stay there. 1 want none of it.
ARBIN, the Manchurian city, on a scorching evening in early August. The sun's hot banners of retreat still burning the domes of the Russian churches though the hour is near nine -and setting flame to the endless fields of kaoliang bounding the horizon.
Harbin, the Russian capital of the Manchus’ ancient realm. Like Venice, built on piles; but the sea about and beneath it is the sea of an Orient people, and the piles are but an insubstantial foundation once driven by a Czar to anchor his outpost territory. Harbin with its New’ Town of neat brick and cosmopolitan jauntiness, its trams, electric lights and self-conscious parks; its Chinese Town stinking as if no hint of Europe were within a thousand miles; between, its execution ground where of early mornings rifles cracked.
This August of the bitter year ’eighteen, with the new
Red tide of Russia lapping hungrily at the last citadels of the Czarist régime in Siberia to the north, Harbin was a city of despair. Haven of refugees from the blood welter across the Amur who choked its streets and tenements, crying for bread. Chinese saw their own beggars jostled by once proud whites women, even, who had nothing left to sell but themselves -and laughed in their sleeves; the foreign devils were “losing face.”
Facing the killing boredom which unattached whites in Harbin suffer when their noses are not buried in business, I |uit my flat after late dinner and drove my car down Bolshoiprospekt and over to the Railway Club’s private park. It was Tschaikovski night there; All-Russia night. The orchestra of eighty pieces in the open-air grandstand under the lindens was full at it. giving a creditable imitation of before-the-war nights in a St. Petersburg square.
Crowds strolling, seated on the club verandah over iced drinks, filling the benches before the shell-shaped sounding board of the bandstand. Uniforms of the old Czarist armies, medals of honor, Paris frocks and chic millinery. One just off the train and knowing nothing of Harbin in that time of tragedy would have believed himself in Vienna’s Tiergarten before 1914. But I knew, as did others of our small non-Russian foreign colony, the tragic farce of it all--the childish, wilful make-believe so essentially Russian.
For these strollers in shoulder straf» and gauzy chiffons were homeless beggars—homeless, landless, penniless. Generals without a kopek; grand dames eating their pearls one by one. according as the moneylenders were lenient or stem. Pitiful puppets they, stranded here in the ultimate surviving fortress of their vanishing caste. Playing at parade, with the bony arm of hunger linked with theirs.
Russian. So pitifully Russian.
Seated where the stream of strollers crossed before me, I amused myself picking out acquaintances and debtors. Here was pompous old General Polinov, with a string of medals as long as Kitchener’s across his breast. He lived in a box car on a railroad siding, and his tight-buttoned tunic concealed the absence of a collar. There came Madame Strenovich, pallid, lustrous in immaculately pressed blue. My oath she was still living on the “loan” I made her two weeks back and hiring a Chinaman to press those pleats, even if that meant a skipped meal.
It happened as if by stage direction.
The girl suddenly sat down on the bench beside me, made a fluttering gesture with her hands, then with a sigh toppled against my shoulder.
No word spoken. Not even an outcry of f>ain. Yet there was her head on my shoulder and her face blanched as death.
I slipped my fingers down to one wrist. The pulse was fluttering. I whipped off my straw liat and started fanning her face vigorously. Strollers. I noted out of the tail of my eye, cast casual glances toward the girl and me. Americans would have surrounded us immediately with offers of aid. Not those Russians. What they saw was too common. Just another of their kind going under.
AFTER A MINUTE she opened her eyes very blue t eyes under heavy brown lashes and with narrow scorings of brows. Her eyes caught mine and she made a futile stirring as if to pull away from my arm.
“You must excuse. I I seem to have become a little ill.” (Ten years in Harbin had given me a fair working knowledge of her difficult language. Hers was the high-class Russian, a sweet sounding tongue when spoken as she used it. )
"1 must get you to a dcx tor,” I said,
“No if you please. It will pass. Just a weakness very foolish." With an effort she straightened herself and, womanlike, put up a hand to tilt a modish straw hat back into place. She essayed a weak smile as if appreciating the triviality of this little vanity. I saw her full face.
It would have been round but for the pinched places over cheekbones and the chin’s marked salience.
Patrician is a clumsy word: nobody knows just how to use it. If |>atrician betokens high temix’r, g<xxi bkxxJ. a schooled will “class,” we clumsily say then lier features were patrician. And with a mouth wholly feminine and fetching.
I’ve said already her eyes were blue. Well, the unusual blueness, with quick changing violet lights behind the blue. The dazzling, destructive fascination in them condones a second mention.
“I have a car outside the park,” 1 told the girl.
“When you feel able to walk there—it’s only a little way—I’ll take you home.”
A ghost of a blush spread
over her pale cheeks and she shook her head doubtfully.
“Thank you, that will not be necessary. I— feel—” Then her head toppled over on my shoulder again.
I gathered her up she was a light burden—and strode wrathfully through the crowd of uncaring Russian dummies to my car outside the park palings. Some Chinese ragamuffins there grinned knowingly at me. I eased the girl down on the seat beside me, and drove one-handed through the centre of the New Town.
To a hospital? No. Hospitals in Harbin were killing people daily. To the home of one of the few American women in town? No, again. The handful who’d remained in Harbin over the hot season would all be at the concert.
To my own apartment we went. Conventions in wartime Harbin were not those of my home town. Anyway, this was not a matter for conventions. 1 knew what ailed this blue-eyed Russian. I’d seen too many act like she had. She was starving; that was all. She could be fed in a bachelor’s flat, by a bachelor, better than in any hospital.
And I fed her; she lying on a couch where the slight evening breeze through opened windows stirred the tight dark curls about her forehead, propped up by my arm and sipping warmed-up soup which my China boy had left on the kitchen stove, taking afterward hot milk laced with some very special brandy. The girl made no pretense of refusing what I offered, no silly protestations of not needing it. She was starving, and in that stern circumstance Nature whisks away all reticences. She would have accepted soup and hot milk from a coolie.
I did not bother her with talking, for her preoccupation with putting food in her stomach was obvious. When the last of the fortified milk was gone, two spots of color began to creep into her cheeks. The girl lay back on the cushions with a sigh. She gave me a fleeting smile and said something in French. I shook my head. In Russian she repea ted:
“You are very kind. I believe I would have died tonight without food.’’
“As bad as that?” A silly response, but I could think of nothing less banal. She lay there looking at me appraisingly, quite frankly in a manner of stocktaking.
“This is your—home?” she asked.
I nodded. Her eyes roved the room. Any woman could have seen at a glance, as did she, that it was a man’s room, quite devoid of what is quaintly characterized, “the feminine touch.”
“You are an Englishman, then?”
“No, Canadian. My name is Stacey Horton.”
She repeated the syllables. They sounded oddly off her tongue.
"I am Vera Constantinovna, once of St. Petersburg and Paris. Now”—here a slight lift of shoulders against the cushions and the veriest shadow of a smile—“now of Harbin.”
PALE LEMON reflection of the day’s afterglow against the walls of my living room was curdling into clots of darkness in the comers. Evening breeze through the windows stiffened. I watched it stirring fugitive tendrils of hair above the face on the cushions, now become a vague oval of whiteness with two round pools of shadow marking the eyes.
Curious situation, eh? Stacey Horton, comparatively respectable Canadian exporter of Harbin, with a beautiful Russian in his flat. A woman brought home from the streets like any sick kitten picked up in compassion. Such the surface aspect, at least. But what was the tragic quirk of fate behind this crassly obvious picture? How came this girl with softly cultured saecli and all the tabs of refinement to be starving, an outcast thrown upon the charity of the first person to possess a spark of pity?
I confess that, knowing Harbin as I did, I was thoroughly familiar with the artifices and shameless impositions of the high-caste Russian émigrées who daily came winging for that safe refuge from the destruction of their own privileged world beyond the Urals. Thoroughly conversant I was with the wiles of soft-eyed maidens who cast aside their pretensions together with their raiment to appear in Harbin's cafés chantants. With this background, I say, I found myself speculating there in the dying light.
Yes, I told myself; and what about the girl, this Vera Constantinovna? That quick glance about the bachelor’s living room; that steady appraisal of me which her blue eyes made when the cravings of hunger were blunted and she was able to orientate herself in strange surroundings.
Of the twain, which had the more reason to face the situation with doubt? There was a fair question.
“You were thinking—what does this mean?" Her thought came in the shape of a simple declaration—and have I said Vera Constantinovna’s voice was compelling? It was pitched in a low register; had a deep, humming quality like the overtone from a Japanese bowl-bell cushioned on silk.
“I was thinking,” I defended, “I am glad I went to the Railway Club’s park this evening—and that you need another glass of milk.”
“You are not honest in the first statement,” Vera said with a direct challenge in her deep irises. “Perhaps I shall admit you are more correct in the second.” And when I’d brought the refilled glass from the kitchen the same pretty little problem of mutual doubt lay between us. I lighted a
shaded lamp and sat down near the couch; once more to find shadowed eyes fixed upon me with a disconcerting steadiness.
“You are wondering where your kindness leads you,” Vera broke silence: and again her voice evoked an image of a great bronze bowl on a red cushion—a bowl struck by a softly padded stick. “You are saying to yourself, ‘This Vera Constantinovna—so she calls herselfhas fainted on my shoulder where all the Russians could see. She permits me to bring her to my home; and here, after I have fed her, she is in my home with me, alone. What then—?’ That, my friend, is what you think.”
I did not like that, possibly because it hit so close to the truth.
“You have a blunt way of putting your thoughts, Vera Constantinovna,” I said, perhaps a little brusquely.
“My way—always my way,” was her comment. “And when I tell you I am homeless in this Harbin; that I slept
last night on a bench in the railroad station, with moujiks and their brats crawling around on the floor like vermin, then will you say to yourself, ‘Hah! The dancing girls of the cafés also tell that story.’ ”
“THAT SHOT was unerrI ing. I did have exactly that thought. Suddenly the girl thrust both liands out under the lamplight, where their softness was revealed.
“See. the rings are all gone. Pawnshops have them. The shops from Samara east to Chita. Each ring, so much food, so many miles on the railroad. The last food was at Chita two days ago—black bread and a piece of Mongol cheese of camel’s milk. And my brother—” There a sob welled into her throat and she stopped short.
“Your brother?” I prompted.
“—Taken oif the train by Semenov’s men at Chita day before yesterday. Arrested by Semenov’s orders as a Red spy . . . He called to me as they surrounded him with bayonets. ‘Go to Harbin,’ cried my brother, Serge Constantinovna. ‘They cannot hold me indefinitely. I shall join you there.’ ”
Semenov, the ignorant, bloodthirsty White Russian with his mongrel horde of Mongols, Chinese, Japanese and former soldiers of the Czar, in Japanese pay and striding the line of the Trans-Siberian across the Black Dragon River. So this girl had slipped through the meshes of that foul net. And before that—what?
During those days in Harbin incredible tales were as common as dust storms off Gobi. Gently bred women, whirled in the hurricane of civil war, were tossed through pestilence and bloodshed, survived under the drive of a stamina unbelievable in their frail bodies. Through butcheries and mass rapine they came, miraculously and with their old pride of caste burning bright. What of all this had been the experience of this girl with the uncanny forthrightness of speech?
Unless you command, I shall not tell more of myself— what the year of revolution has brought to me.” Again Vera picked up my line of thought as if it had been written on a blackboard. “Here in Harbin you must hear so many stories. It is hard for you to believe—all.”
I murmured some disclaimer of the indifference charged. (Why was I appearing such a prissy ass just because the situation did not square with my Ontario puritan sense of the proprieties? I could have kicked myself.)
So it appears, ’ Vera went on levelly, “that your kindness at the park this evening gives you the embarrassment of an unweácome guest. Until my brother comes ”
“But you do not understand, Vera Constantinovna. 1 am alone here. I you I mean ”
"You are commanding me to go back to the railway station and the bench there?” The girl swung her feet off the couch to the floor and attempted to rise. I saw the trembling in her arms where they braced themselves for the effort. I found myself on my feet and my hands were pushing her back.
“You can’t do that!” My denial was genuine at last; somehow forced from me despite myself. The girl’s eyes turned up to mine were grave as a nun’s.
"I have told you. sir, the last of my rings is gone. My last kopek also. Yet my silly body demands food and shelter . . . I—I am a woman of the world.” (Her eyes of a young girl and her unspoiled mouth cried the lie to that.) “I know —a man expects—there is nothing I have left to pay with except—”
Goat that I was, I laughed then. Crazy, pitying laughter. I know a handsome declamation after the Hollywood manner would have been more standardized, if equally inappropriate, in the occasion.
First a crease of wonderment drew a mark between her brows. Then an indescribable light crept into the eyes verydark now - looking up to mine. Somehow, without a word, understanding, which seemed to have been delayed for a long time, came to us both.
She took my hands and impulsively pressed them to her lips—her way of accepting what I did not have to say. A naive, wordless way, sparing each of us useless, difficult speech.
Then I rustled sandwiches, a cold salad and a bottle of old Burgundy from the icebox. (God bless my China boy for stealing the night to go gambling!) In our newfound comradeship Vera talked freely. I listened to a story which was
to launch me with a whoop down the mad corridors of adventure.
It was late when I paused at my bedroom door to give her goodnight before setting out for the club. She leaned a little toward me and turned her cheek. The kiss I gave it was a seal on our extraordinary compact just made.
I N THE YAMEN of old Pao Lin-chun two nights later. I General Pao Lin-chun, crafty commander of 2,(XX) Chinese troops guarding his segment of the Chinese Eastern Railway and the Siberian border beyond Tsitsihar. This the Manchurian town where Pao engaged a cat-and-dog struggle for supremacy with an opium-stuffed laolai of this, the northernmost of the three provinces which the world may learn to call by the Japanese-grafted name of Manchukuo. Behind me, in Harbin, stayed Vera Constantinovna, mistress of my Hat and of my reputation equally, as well as of a sadly confused China boy, my factotum and cook. Here now in Tsitsihar, a day's ride north, the yamen of Pao Lin-chun a take-off on the dizziest roller-coaster of events I ever hope to ride.
Pao, the old rascal, fingered for an instant a yellowed ivory domino tile on the teak wood table between us, then Hipped it over and quickly shoved it into the pattern of the game.
“A gentle wind blowing over fields of poppies,’’ he murmured as he cast a sly eye at me. Pao Lin-chun’s fatlidded eyes always appeared drenched with sleep, like a drowsy tabby’s before the fire; when they were sleepiest, old Pao’s brain was working its fastest.
“Your Excellency shows little mercy to the foreigner.” I said in my best Mandarin poor enough at that. “Even though I have ventured at times to play this ancient game
Continued on page 38
Continued from page 7
with his Excellency the Viceroy at Mukden, that hardly fits me to compete with so expert
"My worthy master, Chang Tso-lin. never loses at games -rarely at anything else,’’ purred General Pao as his long nails rattled amid the counters. "Heaven gives him peace at heart because his enemies hardly commence to plot before their heads are removed.” A gentle ripple of laughter ran over the great bulk of padded brocade opposite me, finishing with a tremor of puffed eyelids. His wide mouth, with its pouting, moist lips, stretched to give me a flash of perfect canine teeth.
“Heads, your Excellency, appear easily removed these days,” I said as I took a count of fifteen with my double-six. "I would find it difficult to insure mine for any great amount.”
The defender of the Siberian boundary gave me a quick stare. He was wondering if I made some covert thrust at the stability of his head. He grunted and took a whole cup of Hankow tea at a gulp.
“Your head, worthy friend, is protected by your British passport flag. Moreover, the removal of heads is not modern. Nowadays a rifle barrel under the right ear—”
We played on in silence with that unfinished sentence hanging unpleasantly over the pattern of the tiles. Of course, Pao Lin-chun won. He knew he was going to win. I knew it, too, before we sat down to the table. It was one of General Pao’s little foibles for him a definite factor in a world of shifting uncertainties—that he always won at Chinese dominoes against any adversary lower in rank than the Viceroy. Just one of Pao’s genteel ways of taking tribute, or "squeeze” as we say in China. Had one to do business with General Pao-particularly if the business opportunity had been created by the wily general himself through some high-handed piece of chicanery a domino game always was preliminary to discussion. Pao named the stakes. His opponent invariably paid. Simple like that.
Many’s the time I’ve sat under the florid dragons crawling across the ceiling of Pao's smoking room in Tsitsihar and gone through the ceremony of the dominoes to arrive at my own private ends. Always for a sizeable cheque on the Anglo-Chinese bank in Harbin, payable in British gold. This night Pao was easy on me. He did not know in advance what favor I'd come to ask. so was unable to assess the damages before we commenced playing.
He folded my cheque at the end of the game and stowed it in some pocket inside his padded gown. He clapped his hands. A servant padded in and set before us little ceremonial tables of preserves and cakes, fresh pots of tea. The military commander of the province leaned back in his chair in an attitude vaguely expectant.
“You come from Harbin to Tsitsihar to hunt ducks, then. Horton?” Pao made his first tentative exploration.
“Aren’t the ducks nearly all in Siberia, your Excellency?” I answered casually.
Just a flicker of an eyelid in the smooth, fat face across the table; that face round and greenly pale as a cheddar cheese.
"They fly this way. I’m told,” murmured General Pao.
“Very fat. I’m told.”
“And,” I ventured, "the Eastern Dwarfs are after them?” I used the colloquial Chinese designation for their Japanese neighbors.
"The Eastern Dwarfs are right across the path.” the Chinese commander said with a slight twitching of one mouth comer. “They come up the railroad to Manchuli by every train; some days ten or fifteen; other days thirty. Dressed like coolies, like small business men. Not dressed like duck
I SMOKED in silence, permitting Pao I Lin-chun to speculate as to what lay behind my questioning. It doesn't pay to be
in a hurry with military commanders of Manchurian provinces. Not when they are as shrewd and as avaricious as this master of 2,000 tough troops in charge of the Siberian border.
The old boy met my manoeuvre with one of his own. He put some questions as to the financial health of the Manchurian Trading Company—my own business baby bom in Harbin ten years before and in this frantic year of ’eighteen fighting for its life against all the uproar and shifting balances in wartom Siberia. Pao wanted to know what price we were allowing on rubles down in the provincial capital, what delays on our freight the Japanese were contriving on their South Manchurian line. He professed to have forgotten my interrogations. He could play at my game of waiting better than I, and he knew it.
I switched back to the main issue.
"Your Excellency says the Russians—the White Russians—are coming east.”
“They are the ducks the Eastern Dwarfs hunt,” he chuckled. “And fat ones. They carry much gold. The Czar’s gold. I’m told.” “So I have heard,” I agreed. “And the Eastern Dwarfs are coming through here to cross the river and catch them at—”
“To join with Semenov, the White Russian,” General Pao caught me up. “They ride the trains as laborers, but when they get with Semenov they put on pretty uniforms and shoot his artillery for him.” He paused to swill tea. One fat hand waved to point his information. “This Russian, Semenov, is the bear’s head; the Japanese are the claws. When the time comes the claws will destroy the head. That is always the way with the Eastern Dwarfs.”
Pao knocked ashes from his little pipe with a definitive gesture as if to mark the limit of his revelations, as if to say, “For your respectable loss at dominoes I give you so much information. The deal is finished.” I was not quite ready to put that construction on it. After all, he’d told me nothing I did not know already.
“I understand, Excellency, this Semenov has been holding up shipments on the TransSiberian billed through to Harbin and sometimes taking whatever strikes his fancy.” Pao’s dumpling face became Buddhalike. He reached for a preserved plum and pouched it.
"You, then, are not receiving some goods from Russia which you expect?”
“That is very sad.” sighed Pao.
“And,” I added, “I’m going up to Semenov’s army to find them.”
Two little wrinkles of surprise scored Pao’s forehead.
“That will be,” he said, “very difficult. Perhaps dangerous, my friend.”
Then I plumped at him the object of my mission to Tsitsihar.
“I want a protection paper from you. Something to show any bandits who might make trouble.”
OLD PAO grinned his pleasure. Now he knew he’d not made the domino stakes high enough.
“But,” he parried, “what good can a protection paper from Pao Lin-chun bring you when you are across the border; when you are in the country where white men kill white men like dogs?”
"Your Excellency knows the Honghutzes, the ‘Red Bearded’ ones, recognize no boundary between Manchuria and Siberia. Semenov has plenty of them in his pay. But they know your name—and fear it everywhere.”
General Pao bit into a piece of watermelon rind as he gave me a bland twinkle.
“I must consider this. Perhaps I may have to bring the matter before Wong Tso-ming. the taotai. A serious matter . .
I waited patiently while Pao’s eyes roved over the scaly purple dragons crawling across the ceiling as if he sought counsel from them.
“But come,” he finally chirped briskly.
“Why should we let the tortoise ef heavy affairs crawl over our hearts when the tiles here invite us to the pear garden of chance?” He shuffled the ivories. A sly laugh lurked behind his eyes.
"The same stakes, of course.” I hazarded carelessly as I could.
The fat Chinaman purred at me:
“But. my friend, how selfish of me that would be to deny the loser his chance at least to recover what the tiles have taken from him. We double the stakes.”
An hour later Pao Lin-chun tore into little bits the first cheque I’d given him and graciously deigned to accept a second, whereof the figure was just thrice that of the other.
“The man of wisdom.” intoned the stuffed old rascal, “counts wealth even as leaves which can be blown from the sturdy tree by the winds of adversity. Let all the leaves be blown away, say the classics, and still the rugged tree stands with its roots in the soil.”
“But not yet ready. Excellency.” I droned in the same pious manner, “to put forth more leaves to be blown away.”
Again old Pao’s frog mouth split to give me a view of gleaming teeth.
“Even you, a foreigner, have learned what comfort our books of wisdom can give. Too bad there are not more like you from across the seas.” He clapped his hands and directed a servant to bring his ink-stone. For a few minutes he was busy with a camel’s hair brush. Finishing, he put a portentous vermilion seal at the bottom of a long rice paper tracked with ideographs, folded the whole like a fan and handed the unofficial passport to me.
“My poor bridge,” said Pao Lin-chun, “to carry you over a gorge of many dragons.”
I began to make my formal adieu after the Chinese manner. My host showed me the favor of accompanying me to the door giving on to the courtyard of his yamen. Something was on his mind. He lingered between the doorposts. He added unnecessarily to the prescribed formula of farewell. Suddenly he clapped me on the shoulder.
“You are an understanding one,” he said. “I have known you long and hold you in esteem.”
I gave him the low bow the moment demanded, wondering what make-weight the tricky old general planned to throw in the balance against my cheque.
“If you go across the Black Dragon River to the Russians’ country,” he said slowly, “you will meet many dangers. I know you do not go merely to pick a dried lotus pod from a beggar's garden. The greater the prize you seek, the more dangers you will encounter.” Pao paused in a last-minute hope that I might be minded to reveal the enterprise beckoning me across the border, but I was not giving secrets to a grafting Chinese general. Beady eyes acknowledged defeat with a squint.
"You will have many to fear,” he continued, “but most of all a man who is in Tsitsihar now. Walk warily when you meet one whose smile is always open like a beggar’s wound.”
“TSITSIHAR at night; a town of dreadful I shadows and lurking menace of surprise. As thoroughly Chinese as Harbin is Russian. Tsitsihar. with its superficial aspect blurred by darkness, might be the reincarnation of any bad prairie town of our Western cattle country seventy years ago. Just streaks of light from shuttered windows pointing chuckholes in dirt roads; sounds of jangling disharmonies from a sing-song house; huge, prowling dogs as likely as not to pull down and devour any pedestrian not armed with a stout stick. Most dangerous of all potential menaces, the wandering gangs of Pao Lin-chun’s soldiers, usually drunk, sometimes armed and always ready to show a foreign devil his place.
I should have accepted Pao’s offer of his car to take me to the single hotel for foreigners which Tsitsihar boasts, perhaps a mile from his yamen. I do not know why I declined unless 1 was prompted by a desire to get a lungful of fresh air before I hived myself up in a stuffy mausoleum of smells. Perhaps if I had ridden—well, in retrospect
it appears to me that nothing could have disturbed the ordained progression of my adventures, which commenced with that moment at the band concert when I found a soft head on my shoulder.
I was well down in the centre of town when darkness suddenly spawned uproar. A cry of stark terror, followed by the swift pad-pad of many felt-booted feet in the dust. Out of an alleyway darted a running figure a little man who ran crazily and with arms flung over his head. Not two steps behind the fugitive charged eight or a dozen Chinese soldiers. They yelped gleefully. The nearest cut at the stumbling figure with bamboo staves.
The pursued one caught a glimpse of me where I’d halted under a glass lamp over a restaurant door. He whirled and ran at me. screaming protection. Without thought I put out a hand to jerk him by the collar into an angle of masonry behind me. At the same instant I had my automatic out and clamped against my hip with its muzzle slowlyswinging over the half-circle of Chinamen.
The yellow ruffians recoiled as if already they felt stinging steel in their vitals.
"Get out of here!” I y-elled in the Mandarin dialect —partly intelligible to these coolies in khaki, probably Shantung men. But the round, silent mouth of steel at my hip was capable of a universal language which all could understand.
They snarled at me and brandished their staves, but they fell back. Some in the rear started a stealthy flank movement to cut me ; off. I felt the hands of the whimpering victim behind me clawing imploringly.
The situation was far from pleasant. If; the Chinamen cared to screw up their ; courage, a concerted rush would finish us j both. I saw swift exchange of glances about1 the circle of yellow faces which signalled j just this tightening of resolve. Inspiration clanged in my skull. I put my free hand inside my jacket and whipped out old Pao's protection paper, shook the folds free and held it up under the light of the lantern overhead so that the big red splotch of the commander’s seal burned like a gout of blood.
That did the trick. Those bullies whirled about and ran as if all the hornets in Manchuria were riding their shirt-tails. They gave me a good laugh. I folded up this paper lightning with which Pao had armed me and turned to the fugitive behind me.
He was grinning through blood trickling down from a wide cut through the hair line. That grin identified him, even if other national characteristics of feature had not been patent. Japanese grin over every emotion, pleasant or otherwise. It is their common reflex.
He began to chatter in his native tongue.
I shook my head. He switched to bad Russian. “Your kindness, sir! Accept my poor thanks.”
“It is nothing,” I answered in the same tongue. “Better let me go with you to your lodgings. They might swoop on you again if you go alone.”
The little Jap said something unintelligible, and to avoid useless unscrambling of | what he was trying to tell I nodded. To my ! surprise the midget made me a low bowaccompanied by that sharp insucking of breath which with the Japanese is the height of politeness.
“Oh. sir, have the goodness to come with j me," he murmured. “You are expected.”
Surprise there. Expected, eh? Well, why j not discover by whom expected? I nodded acquiescence.
Swabbing his cut head w-ith a handkerchief. the little man who’d been so near death trotted to the pace of my long legs. Down a side street and up a broad alley, and there was a glass lantern with Japanese ideographs in black against the light. A Japanese hotel was our destination; the national odor of pickled daikon laid its identifying assertiveness over the place like a Sun Flag.
IN A TINY upstairs room with paper walls j and clean matting, my guide waved me j to a cushion beside the inevitable smoking | hibachi with its ashed coals of charcoal and
half-buried stubs of cigarettes. He was all excitement, this little half-portion with the bloodied head. Clapped his hands and. when a moon-faced Japanese maid answered, rapped out orders. Tea and little thick blue saucer-cups, with pink rice cakes on the side, were hustled in on a dwarf table.
"Have the goodness to excuse me,” I managed to translate my new friend’s tangled Russian. “I go to tell Major Hamatori you are here.”
This, I thought as I filled my pipe, was beginning to be interesting. Major Hamatori? Who might he be? And why should he be interested in knowing 1 was waiting in a Japanese hotel here in God-forsaken Tsitsihar? I'd thought when I accompanied the little Jappy fellow that he might have some idea of setting up the drinks in celebration of his escape from death. But why did he drag in a third party?
My speculations were broken when the paper door slid back. There was my little mud turtle, behind him another Japanese dressed in his night kimono after the manner of his countrymen taking their ease between ! bath and bed. Both cropped heads bent i low. The kimonoed one was taller than his companion, had a thin, nervous face and a hayrake mustache. His head was the bullet shape of the Prussians.
“Major Hamatori say he deeply honor to meet you,” chirped my man, evidently pressed in the rôle of interpreter and thinking Russian my native speech. (All white nationalities l<x)k alike to Japanese eyes.)
I gave fitting answer after the polite Russian formula. Major Hamatori curled himself down on a cushion near mine, took a cigarette package from his kimono sleeve and lighted one on a live coal in the hibachi. He poured himself tea, waved the cup at me ceremoniously and sucked in a long swallow. Perhaps politeness dictated I do likewise. I played safe. The man in the kimono twittered to his interpreter.
"Major Hamatori say he thank you for assisting me against Chinamen. If I die it be very inconvenient for him and for you, he say so.”
“What's that?" I hurriedly asked myself.
1 “Inconvenient for me? Something dark j here.”
“Major Hamatori say, if convenient, j perhaps you show him your credential before he talking business. It is customary with i Russians, is it not, to exhibit credential and j identification before such important business j is transact?”
Now some mighty tall thinking for me! And speedy. I was a Russian. I was here to j talk business with a major in the Japanese army. What kind of business? For whom could I be mistaken?
You don’t live very long in the Far East I Ix'fore you learn it is perfectly respectable to I play it low on the other fellow, given ¡ opportunity. Ethics be hanged ! No ethics j west of the 180th longitude stripe. 1 lere was my chance, perhaps, to learn something
which would be a mighty help in my imminent leap into Siberian darkness into the maze of intrigue between White Russian and Jap; between Jap, Englishman and Czech irregular.
“Major Hamatori must know,” I began stiffly, "it is not wise for any Russian these days to carry identification when he travels beyond the circle of his own bayonets. Too many have been shot for doing just that.” A long pow-wow followed the translation of that choice bit of skullduggery. The interpreter finally turned to me.
“I have told the major you possess very jxtwerful document for terrifying those Chinese toughs. Perhaps, he say, if he might see the same ...”
“Certainly” graciously from me. "It was given me by General Pao Lin-chun.” With that I passed over the protection paper. Here I was taking a chance. An educated Japanese, one conversant with the Chinese classics, can read Mandarin Chinese even though he cannot speak that tongue. If Major Hamatori were a well-educated man he’d read in Pao’s document proof of my imposture; for, unquestionably, the equivalent of my name in phonetics was somewhere therein. The major gave but a passing glance at the script, letting his eyes dwell on the big seal. Tie refolded the paper and passed it back to me with a formal bow. His pride would not let him reveal his lack of a classical education.
“Major Hamatori say this is sufficient. He know you were to receive a paper from Pao Lin-chun. He know, too. Pao has make demand to share in our—ah—business. (Ha ! wily old Pao. A hand in every jackpot !) So you are identify satisfactorily.”
So, that was that. What next?
HAMATORI lighted a fresh cigarette, then brought from his capacious sleeve a long roll of paper. He spread it out, tucking one end under the hibachi for anchorage. The roll was revealed as a large-scale map of Eastern Siberia, Mongolia and Manchuria, with names in Japanese ideographs. He pointed at a red line crossing the TransSiberian Railway a little west of Lake Baikal.
“That,” chanted the interpreter after his superior, “marks present position of Admiral Kolchak and his Czechs. And here”—considerably to the south and east, at Chita, another red line not far within the Siberian frontier— “here is your position, baron, and that of General Semenov.”
Baron! . . . What ho! I was a baron . . . And I had a “position” together with the infamous White leader, Semenov. I nodded sagely at Hamatori. He continued through a limping translation.
“My government distrusts Semenov, baron. 1 can speak plainly. You know the truth. That is reason you receive authoritative invitation from a certain agent of my government last week to come down here to Tsitsihar to meet me who, as you know,
come for purpose of this meeting straight from Tokyo.”
'T also,” I put in sagely, “distrust Semenov. You must know that.” 1 thought this a good place to plant this corroborative evidence of the unknown baron’s willingness to play the old Russian game of double-cross. A double-crossing seemed to be on the cards.
“Quite true.” the major responded. “My government knows your position exactly from the report of its agent. But before we go into the matter of the number of men and guns my government will send you through Vladivostok, shall we reach agreement on um a smaller private matter?”
Major Hamatori gave me a sharp, shrewd look when the interpreter had finished rendering this. He sucked the fringe of his stiff hay rake mustache betw een his lips and lightly chewed the hairs. I wondered if those unwinking black eyes in their halfmoon slits could read any of the high pressure mental gear-shifting going on in my skull.
“This private matter,” I commenced with a hesitancy not at all simulated, “is one concerning Semenov?”
Hamatori’s lips parted in a grin. “Semenov should sink it does— not so?”
I wagged my head in a way to indicate I was devilishly sly, but held my tongue. The other chattered at the inte rpreter.
"Major Hamatori say he sink if you take few trusted men and go west on TransSiberian line . . . You can make Semenov believe it is for spying condi tion of railroad ... If you do that, you will intercept important shipment before Semenov lays greedy hands on same. Of course, such trusted men you take will in elude agent of Japanese government whose name Major Hamatori will give you.”
I cupped my chin on hand and appeared to be pondering this proposal. Knowing the kind of game Japan was playing in Siberia, I ventured to fly a trial kite:
“And when that shipment is intercepted —before Semenov gets it—what—urndivision would Major Hamatori expect?"
The speed with which I got back, “Oh. not the major but his government takes division,” convinced me the man was lying. It began to look as if this Japanese brother thought he was framing with a believed ally of Semenov’s not only to rook the latter but to cross some high Tokyo bandits as well.
“The Czarist government’s gold is said to amount to over two million dollars in bars and minted rubles—”
Bam ! Like that it dropped. The Czar’s gold! Vera’s story, told me in my flat just two nights before. If I did not betray a tremor it was because I was temporarily numbed.
“You mean,” I said casually as I could, “the gold the Czechs got in Penza and are planning to ship to the White government at Vladivostok?”
Hamatori knit his brows at me. He was puzzled at my apparent muddle-headedness. Puzzled, and perhaps just getting the first dawn flush of suspicion. Quickly I interposed a lie; a lie, that is, as checked by Vera's story :
“That gold is now with Kolchak bevond Baikal.”
“No.” Hamatori’s finger started to point a spot on the map. “That gold is now—” A tearing split. The figure of a man stepped right through the sliding door of paper, as a circus rider would burst through a hoop. A preternaturally tall and thinman in the green uniferm of the Czar’s Cossacks. Fishbelly white was the gaunt face. Eyes small and blazing the blue-white of incandescent carbons. Mouth set in a demoniac grin where a sabre cut had lengthened one end by a full inch.
“One whose smile is always open, like a beggar's wound.” Pao Lir-chun’s prophetic portrait.
"Heli’s fire and slaughtered saints!” came in crackling Russian from this startling apparition. “What goes on here? Who is this impostor?
“L” he snapped, “am the Baron Ungern von Stemburg from Semenov’s Army of Liberation.”
To be Continued