ROBERT WELLES RITCHIE
The story : In 1918 the city of Harbin
harbors many White Russians who art plotting to overthrow the Reds. Stacey Horton, a Canadian exporter, finds a Russian girl, Vera Constantinovna. fainting on a park bench. He relieves her distress and learns that her brother. Serge Constantinovna, has been taken off the train at Chita by the soldiers of General Semenov, a brutal commander who calls himself the Liberator of Russia. She fears he has been killed.
Falling in love with Vera, Horton decides to attempt the rescue of her brother. Securing a pass from the Chinese general. Pao Linchun, he goes to Tsitsihar and there meets Major Hamatori, a Japanese.
Hamatori thinks Horton is Baron von Stemburg from Semenov's army. and. hoping to learn something of value. Horton does not undeceive him. The two are talking in Hamatori's room when the real von Stemburg enters.
UNGERN VON STERNBURG, bitterest of the White Russian partisans, in a short year had made his name a terror from Irkutsk to Vladivostok. When first he started fighting the Reds he was called “The Mad Baron;” before long and with a weight of dreadful circumstance prompting the adjective was changed to "Bloody.” At the head of his band of guerillas renegade Chinese soldiers, savage Mongols, .laps and antiSoviet Russians the Bloody Baron choked the Black Dragon River with corpses and turned peasants’ villages to black ruins.
Ungern von Stemburg, a sadistic monster 1 was on my feet before the midget interpreter could sputter to Major Hamatori the identity of the intruder. Instinctively my hand dropped, to close round the butt of the automatic in my pocket. I think 1 was the coolest of the four in that little room. Had to be, for the situation was packed with dynamite.
"Who is this impostor?” Baron Ungem repeated. "What have you fools been telling him?” He turned his face, with its look of a conger eel. from me to Hamatori. who by nowhad scrambled to his feet and stood gazing fascinated upon the Russian's ghastly caricature of i mouth.
"1 am a Canadian,” I said to him before the interpreter could speak. "Horton is the name. I am not an impostor. Quite involuntarily I have become a receiver of information —very interesting information from this Japanese, who says he’s an army officer from Tokyo.”
I was keenly alive to Ungem’s hand - the hand which gripped under the guard of his sabre. A few inches of blade showed above the scabbard. That hand twitched, causing a little rattling of the hooks attaching sheath to sword belt. Hot murder was in the eyes now lancing into mine. But caution filmed over the impulse instantly when the Bloody Baron saw a significant bulge in my coat pocket.
“Hah ! You would think of shooting, eh?”
“The very instant you thought of sabring. Ungem.”
"Major Hamatori say to the honorable Baron Ungem”—the half-portion interpreter was clicking bad Russian like a coffee-mill—"he say he greatly distress because this man deceive him. He believe he speaking with your honorable self.”
A quick glance at the major’s face confirmed his confessed distress. Never have I seen a Japanese with guard so completely down. The man in the kimono w'as flabbergasted.
"Who are you?” Ungem’s mad eyes turned back to me again. “What is your game, passing yourself as the Baron Ungern von Stemburg?” He wiped a trickle of saliva from his chopped slit of a mouth. Though he trembled in impotent rage still, the man had himself more under control. His voice rasped like a drill sergeant’s. 1 rasped back at him :
"It was your friend. Hamatori. who mistook me for the Mad Baron. No design of mine. I assure younor compliment, either. And. speaking of friends, it will interest you to know we have a mutual one in the person of General Pao Lin-chun.”
That unexpected thrust narrowed Ungern’s eyes. I went on casually:
“Yes. old Pao. who already has declared himself in on a certain business matter this Major Hamatori was just talking over with me when you interrupted. Yourself, Pao Lin-chun. the Japanese major and I—that makes four informed and interested persons, does it not?”
HIGH HAND . . . Well, you see I just had to carry the high hand over those dangerous moments. That was my single prop of safety, my slender advantagekeeping the spotlight as long as I could and preventing the baron and the major getting together, keeping this Russian maniac guessing the extent of my knowledge until I could build a moment for escaping this room of imminent death. I heard Hamatori reeling off something for the interpreter’s handling and desperately plopped another bombshell at the Bloody Baron :
"And since we’re on the subject of Pao Lin-chun. Baron tTngem. I wonder if he’d like to know that the major here and your good self are planning to double-cross him? At
least, Hamatori indicated such a course to me when he thought I was Ungern von Stemburg.”
Eyes in a fish-white face blazed white hot. That was a lie neatly placed. A lie and a threat. I accented the latter character to make it doubly protective.
"It happens.” I said, "that I have no interest in the proposal our Japanese friend was outlining to me. I merely refer to General Pao’s interest in it and Hamatori’s care, to let you know I could wam Pao Lin-chun if I wished.” "Svolotch!" hissed the baron. Not a pretty word for translation.
“I see no reason to tell Pao,” I continued with an ease I was far from feeling, “unless you gentlemen force me to do so by interfering in my affairs. My silence may apply to Semenov as well. He would like to know what brings you down to Tsitsihar. baron.”
"Five thousand devils!” the Russian exploded. “How should I know what rot you talk about? Sit down until I find from this Jap how much you think you know.”
"Major Hamatori, he say—” came the little mud turtle's timid pipe.
“Curse Major Hamatori for an idiot!” stormed Ungern, and his slit mouth was twisted to a dreadful grimace. “Ask him how much else this fellow knows.”
“Isn’t that a matter,” I put suavely as I could, “you and the major would prefer to discuss alone? I think, baron, the moment has come for my ‘good night’ . , . No, baron, I would leave the sabre in its scabbard if I were in your place.” The Russian’s eyes leaped again to the bulge of my automatic, then back to mine. I shook my head and smiled.
“You don’t know Ungem,” he snarled, and dashed a hand up to swab his drooling slit of a mouth. “By the holy saints you will, though. When I have you—when you fall into my hands, it will be my pleasure to—”
I gave him a bow, tossed at Hamatori the only Japanese word I knew, which was the sayonara of farewell, and stooped to pass through the tatters of the paper door frame. W ith my face to the baron, you may be certain. Yes, taking my leave backward, as if from the presence of a king.
Which, in truth, the Bloody Baron was -king of all the fiends in hell.
I DID NOT need to I be a prophet or the son of one to foretell my death before morning if I were foolish enough to go to the hotel after escaping the trap so narrowly. There was but one such place for foreigners— like as not Ungem would be lodging there himself—and just so soon as he learned from Hamatori the full extent of the dangerous knowledge I possessed he would seek me out there: he or some of Hamatori’s Japanese bullies. Object, murder.
By the same token, there was no Chinese hostel I dared try; they would all be thoroughly combed by midnight. Nor had I a friend in this dreary frontier towm whom I
could call upon for sanctuary. But wait—one; old Pao Lin-chun, of course. In his yamen I’d be safe as in my own bed in Canada. The firefly glow of my w-ristwatch told me it was eleven o’clock. Pretty late to be knocking old Pao from his bed. But either that or walk the tricky streets till dawm.
I set off at a stiff pace in the direction I believed Pao’s official residence to lie. More than once I stepped into a shadowed doorway and strained my ears for the pad of feet in the dust of my back track. Á11 quiet. Tsitsihar was pretty soundly asleep at this hour.
As I hurried on I speculated upon what sort of story I’d tell Pao in explanation of my request that he put me up. The old fox could not be deceived easily. He’d want to know' why a gués» who’d left his yamen at nine should come clamoring back two hours later.
Should I tell him that a trick of fate had put me in possession of a secret which he shared together w'ith the Jap major and the Bloody Baron? Hamatori had said, it will be remembered: “General Pao has make demand to share in our business.” Should I tickle the old boy’s suspicions by hinting that Hamatori and Ungem were planning to doublecross Semenov—and, by logical induction, doubtless himself as well?
One thing definite: Pao would never hear from me that I’d already embarked on a mad hazard for $2,000,000 of the Czar’s gold when, through tonight’s crazy comedy, I had suddenly discovered that I wras not alone in that enterprise: had learned from the wooden-skuUed Hamatori that l was deep in a game wherein the Tokyo Government. Baron Ungern and Pao himself had drawn hands already.
Vera Constantinovna’s story, told to me two nights previously, and tonight’s surprising confirmation those strangely bracketed circumstances almost passed belief.
I think the girl must have undergone some sort of spiritual reaction and shattering of all reticence in a burst of relief, following desperate strain of months, when she discovered that I, a stranger, could do the decent thing by her without proving a cad. Something like that, else she wouldn't have revealed the startling narrative of Serge Constantinovna, her brother - how faithfulness to his trust imperilled his life: how barrels of golden rubles and fat bars of gold bullion had become the pawmof rascally plotters.
There in the dark of Tsitsihar I could hear again Vera’s deep-toned voice with its timbre of a bronze bowl smitten:
"When the Kerensky régime in Petrograd was engulfed by Trotzky’s madmen, when all is bltxxl and shooting and my brother comes back from the front to save my life, then we fly to Penza, where the Czechs are gathering . . strange, wonderful men released from war prisons and coming together from all over Russia; strangely coming together to defend themselves from the bolsheviks and to fight their way home, even if it must be across Siberia. There we find dying from wounds the Baron Rosen, faithful servant to the Czar, who has not yet been murdered.
“ ‘Go with the Czechs to Kolchak in Irkutsk.’ says the near-dead Rosen to my brother Serge. ‘I give you the Czar’s gold in chargegold for Kolchak to buy arms from England, from France, to hold Siberia for Holy Russia and the Czar. Honest men, good men, the Czechs. They will guard the gold with their bayonets. Yours the responsibility to deliver it to Kolchak.’ ”
Riding the railroad when they could; trudging afoot or bumping in carts when the line was broken or held by superior masses of the Reds; over the Urals, fighting, starving, dodging. That was all in Vera’s story told under the lamp. How they reached Kolchak at long last, doughty Czechs guarding the treasure in her brother’s trust all the wray.
“We come slowly eastward.” she continued, “around the great lake, Baikal. Our Admiral Kolchak must get that Czar’s gold to Vladivostok, where British and French agents are ready to deliver guns and ammunition in return for it. But he dares not ship it over the Trans-Siberian, for he knows Semenov and Baron Ungem bestride the rails, plundering trains in the name of Holy Russia. They would not let such a fat prize past. So Kolchak sends trusted men overland through Mongolia with camels—the gold rubles in barrels, and gold bars in tight boxes, on camels' backs—
they to circle the roost of the hungry robbers and come back to the railway behind them.
“A stem journey through a wild land, with savage Mongols to be dodged and always bands of Chinese robbers under the flags of the Red Beards lurking in the mountain passes. But our Kolchak,” said Vera, “must be assured that this gold, last hope of his battle against the Reds, does not fall into the hands of traitors and the greedy Japanese whose pawns they are. Twenty days the gold will be on the trail, he believes; twenty-five at most. A code message by wireless from Vladivostok to Kolchak’s headquarters will tell it has arrived.”
CAN YOU understand how, as the story unfolded there in my Harbin flat, I was caught up in the epic sweep of it, meshed by threads of intrigue and high enterprise? Gold in bars and minted coins, last of the treasure of a fallen empire, creeping eastward across limitless Siberian steppes to pour life into the veins of a despairing hope. Yes, that tortuous track of gold turning from the highway of steel to grope a perilous way through the desert country of the Gobi; twisting, doubling through untracked wilderness to avoid predatory hands spread to seize it.
I tell you the glimmer of that golden lure fascinated me, even as did the girl telling the story. This Vera Constantinovna, in whose shadowed eyes the spectres of horror and bitter experience still lurked, tolling out with her bell-like voice a tale to recall Marco Polo or I lakluyt . . .
She told how the twenty-five days allowed for the transit of the Czar’s gold to Vladivostok lengthened to thirty, to forty, and no word of its arrival came from the Pacific port , how Kolchak sent scouts along the gold trail into nothingness because none returned. Then was he convinced that the renegades, Semenov and Ungern, had caught wind of the stratagem and moved to intercept the precious caravan.
“A week ago Kolchak summons my brother, Serge Constantinovna. ‘You must go,’ says he, ‘to the headquarters of Semenov at Chita. I wall give you dispatches to him to account for your coming. While you are with Semenov, keep your ears open. If that scoundrel has intercepted two millions in gold you may be sure there wall be clear evidence of it about his headquarters—champagne fx>ttles served at mess, new jewellery and furs for his women, and the talk which comes when many bottles have been opened.’ ”
The girl gave me no accounting as to why she should have accompanied her brother on so delicate a mission beyond saying, "Many times a woman can wán where a man fails.” She finished her story with the spreading of her hands in a meaningful gesture.
“Hardly has our train drawn into the Chita station when Semenov’s guards enter our compartment. My brother shows his dispatches from Kolchak to Semenov. They have no weight. ‘Forged,’ says the lieutenant of the guards. ‘A Red spy !’ I hear the soldiers mutter. Then Serge Constantinovna goes away amid bayonets with the cry on his lips for me to continue on to Harbin; that he will join me there. The soldiers wall not let him give me money. 1 have just enough to pay my fare . . . And then,” she had concluded with a pitiful catch in her voice, “you found me an outcast and starving.”
There you have it—Vera’s story, as 1 rewove it out of the ghostly shadows of Tsitsihar’s night as I hurried to seek sanctuary of Pao Lin-chun.
Why was I in Tsitsihar at all? Why had 1. a sober business man. dropped my money-grubbing and hurried here to put my neck in the noose of a killer? You ask those reasonable questions, eh?
King Solomon admitted centuries ago four things he’d observed in life which bafiled him the way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.
After his experience w ith maids, the King of Israel should have known better about that fourth one. I really believe he meant to reverse the last five words.
Apply my amended version to me.
THERE AGAIN sat old General Pao under the crawling purple dragons and. again, opposite him across the teak sat 1. As if two-and-a-half hours chock full of adventure for me had not intervened since we finished our second domino game, and 1 had not stepped plump into a nest of snakes in the interim. Pao sat there, giving no sign of having been
routed from bed by his yamen guard carrying my insistent demand for admittance. His round, oleaginous face was like pale cheddar, unmarked by the least flicker of interest. Long fingernails played a whispering tattoo on the teak.
General Pao Lin-chun, military commander of Heilungkiang Province, fisher in troubled waters, snapper-up of dubious opportunities, w'aited calmly to discover how much he could assess me in trade for asylum for the night.
“And so,” I concluded a highly deleted account of my experience in the Japanese hotel, “your Excellency can see your hospitality for the night represents the only safety I can find in Tsitsihar.”
“The Russians," purred Pao, “are very crude in their manner of assisting a man to join his ancestors. They do not know the niceties of freeing the spirit, softly as the falling petal from a ripe lotus flower.”
"You yourself must know Baron Ungem is difficult to deal with,” I hazarded with a look of innocence.
Old Pao’s nails fluttered a faster tattoo.
“Why should I know'?” he asked warily.
“Because you have had recent dealings with him—very recent.”
That nearly caught the old scoundrel off guard. Left him. too, wondering what advantage of information I held over him. With so sharp an intriguer as Pao Lin-chun, every least hint of privy knowiedge of his schemes in possession of another meant he’d have to offer something in trade to discover how much was known. Quickly I determined to pile up more of my blue chips in a bluff.
“Hamatori, the Jajxmese major,” I said, “spoke as if you were a full partner with Baron Ungern and himself in the
plan to assist Kolchak in finding the Czar’s gold, so mysteriously lost.” 1 delit>erately cloaked my meaning with polite euphemism; one does not use the word “steal” in dealing with a Chinese official.
Though the general’s round face betrayed not a sign, I caught a quick shifting of the bland light in little black eyes. For a split second tiny devils of anger j)eeked out, then hurried back to their dungeons in Pao’s skull.
"The classics,” murmured Pao Lin-chun. "say a bee rode up a mountain on a bull’s horn and then said, ‘Father, we are good climbers.’ ” He put his hand to his bald forehead and rubbed the skin there.
"1 do not find any horns there,” said Pao. and his thick lips jxirted to give me the full battery of his teeth. "Do you think me a bull?”
“But Excellency w ill admit a bee can be very troublesome —if he wishes."
There the old boy had it. If the bull didn't care to give a
bee a ride on his horns, that bee could make a hot spot somewhere on his hide. Now Pao knew I was aw'are he wras engaged in a crooked game with Ungem. WKLt price did he care to pay for my silence -or a silent partnership?
But did he come to that point directly? Not Pao Lin-chun. "I have very slight interest in the doings of this Russian and the Eastern Dwarf you saw tonight.” he began. -‘I believe 1 did say to the Russian if he needed a guard to take him through the wild country of my province. I would be happy to give him one.”
I took my cue from him.
“Your Excellency’s position matches mine exactly. 1 have no interest either, except to guard myself against a madman wrho thinks my amusing adventure of the night leaves me with information dangerous to his interests.” "But you are going to Siberia nevertheless, as you determined?”
"Certainly. Tomorrow on the Irkutsk Express.”
“But if the Russian should take that train also?”
“I have your protection paper,” I countered. “Ungem would hardly dare meddle with one who bore such a paper from you, his good friend.”
PAO CUPPED his chin in palm and studied the w'rithing dragons on the ceiling. Could he afford to let me go north without bargaining further for the price of my silence; without, at least, further easing the itch in his soul which demanded to learn how much I really knew? Could he afford to let me go at all? I had no illusions about Pao. He wouldn’t hesitate a moment to facilitate the release of my soul, “gently as a falling lotus petal,” if he thought that necessary. Something like this was running through his mind as he studied the dragons.
“Suppose I should hold the Russian in Tsitsihar until the next train?” he mused aloud for my benefit. “It could be easily done. My runner to his hotel early tomorrow could tell him he dines with Pao Lin-chun.”
“You would tell Ungem, then, you had seen me tonight?”
“If I should think that wise.” Pao gave me a frank grin, meaning much; meaning indeed, that if it served his ends he could test Ungem’s fair dealing with him by quoting me in any wildly concocted tale.
“No matter,” I said airily as I could. I arose. “Now, if your Excellency will have a servant show me to my bed. The hour is late and your sleep has been too long disturbed.”
Pao put out a hand to stay me.
“You,” he said, “have the wisdom of the tortoise. 1 hold you in deepest esteem. Perhaps you will find Pao Linchun a staff for one walking blindly.” “As always I have in the past.” My bow was deeply respectful.
“Come then,” soothingly from Pao; “you have not told me all you learned from the Japanese military man who mistook you for the Russian. Did he tell you he knew where the gold of the White Czar is?”
Pao out in the open at last. Now the moment for trading had arrived. I smiled meaningly at him.
“Nor has Excellency confided in me what Baron Ungem told him in the same matter.” Pao wrinkled his forehead at me humorously to say he realized I w'as not a novice at horse trading. “My friend, I see that your interest in this affair matches my owm. We shall deal fairly with one another, and then see if two heads cannot contrive better than one.”
With every evidence of sincerity, then, the commander of Tsitsihar told me how rumors had come to his ears two weeks before from the far western borders of his province, where the barrens of Gobi lay, to buzz of a mysterious gold caravan which had disappeared in the wilderness. Men killed by Red Beards, so Pao was informed; camels seen wandering with empty packsaddles but no sign of plundered treasure. He straightway had summoned to him a chief of the western bandits —“whose life I hold between my fingers”—who had sworn by all his ancestral tablets that he knew naught about the theft of Russian gold beyond the report that it had been buried somewhere in the wild lands bordering the desert before its guardians were slain.
"Then.” Pao went on, “comes the Russian baron only yesterday to ask me for a protection paper to carry him safely through the bandit strongho’ds in the wrest of my province. I give the man to unders, jad I share the secret prompting his request. We agree to work together—and
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share together. He says, this Russian fellow, he knows the gold is hidden near Urga. chief city of the Mongols; a Buriat camel driver who escaped the general slaying has told him the exact sjxit where the bars and gold coins are buried.”
“See, I play fairly with you. my friend.” old Pao continued unctuously. “But I susjxîct this Russian dœs not do the same by me . . . This Japanese from Tokyo who,' mistaking you for the baron, begins to talk gold to you Ungern told me nothing of him. Tell me, did the Japanese profess to know where that gold is buried?”
I gave a truthful answer; told him Hamatori was just pointing on the map where the treasure lay when the Bloody Baron crashed into the room.
“His finger,” I explained, “was just over the wild lands of your province. It hadn’t yet marked an exact spot.”
Pao’s eyelids came so close together that only a streak of white showed between them.
“A-ha! And the Russian told me it was at Urga, far west of my province. See now, as I suspected, a Russian madman and an Eastern dwarf commence to make a fool of Pao Lin-chun. Better they try to peel stripes from the tiger.” I íe mused up at the dragons for a minute, then: “You go to Siberia”— shrewdly “to follow some track of this gold you have not cared to tell me about?”
“Your Excellency knows,” I replied quickly, “I planned going to Siberia before my adventure tonight brought revelation of all this gold mystery. I am going to Chita,”
I told him hohestly, “to attempt to get a man out of Semenov’s prison.”
Pao’s eyebrows went up and he rubbed his hands together under the thrust of an illuminating thought.
“Good! Tomorrow, when you leave my yanten I give you a letter to the Russian. Semenov. Anytxxiy who asks a favor of Semenov must be armed. My letter will have weight with him. And”—he gave me a swift, monitory look —“it gives me happiness to hear you do not pursue the gold track farther. A «wallow does not fly with hawks.”
He arose to strike a gong. A soft-footed servant entered to show me to my bed.
“The Russian madman will not be on the train with you tomorrow,” was Pao’s good night.
I N THAT nightmare autumn of 1918 no I Moscow express ran from Yellow Sea ports over the Trans-Siberian. Through Manchuria, Japanese and Chinese lines -the latter patrolled by Chinese bravos—operated with fair regularity; but across the Siberian frontier schedules were on a war footing. Depending upon the eastward drift of the Reds from European Russia and the condition of tracks and rolling stock, a three-days-a-week train pushed westward; sometimes as far as Omsk, again only to Irkutsk. I found a compartment on such a train the noon following my very full night in Tsitsihar. With Pao’s dubious blessing and his final injunction: “Watch Ungem
when I let him return to Chita. Should he slip out of Chita to westward, send me by telegraph one word, ‘Happiness.’ ”
Off for Chita, first sizable town beyond the border and present headquarters of Semenov and Ungem, White partisans and pawns of Tokyo. Chita, and beyond that ... ? Pao’s two letters, each stamped with the portentous vermilion seal, were pinned inside my shirt.
At Tsitsihar station of the spur running eighteen miles down to the main steel highway, a little splatter of comedy marked my springboarding into the unknown.
I had found a seat in the American-style coach before the guard’s tin trumpet sounded. With that impudence which the white man learns to cultivate in the Orient.
I had my bag on the seat beside me. denying place to standing Chinamen. The jerkwater train was already pulling out when the car
door opened a few seats behind me, and I was conscious that a belated passenger, heavily winded from running and throwing himself on to the moving platform, was pushing down the aisle. I looked up as the man drew opposite.
Major Hamatori ! Behind him his faithful interpreter.
The Japanese, in mufti and bowler hat, gave me a startled look of recognition which almost instantly was erased. I smiled and bowed, lifted my bag from the seat beside me in gracious invitation for my strangely met acquaintance of the night before to be seated.
Hamatori might have been a Japanese tailor’s dummy —if there are such things— for all the heed he gave my invitation. He did not even favor me with another glance, but began worming his way through the pack in the aisle as if my presence were pollution. I put my bag back on the seat. I watched his ridiculous bowler hat. of a tenyear vintage, bobbing to the sway of the train as he stood wedged in discomfort amid Chinamen for nearly an hour to the junction point.
You have guessed the Bloody Baron was not with Hamatori. Pao evidently had made his invitation to dine so compelling that Ungem couldn’t weasel out of it. Score one for Pao's promises.
But what of Hamatori, he who had just caught the train by an eyebrow? When we reached the junction with the main line, would he go north with me to Siberia or catch the first train south into Japanese territory below Mukden? And had he made his belated decision to quit Tsitsihar because he and the baron suspected I would be dusting out after my unmasking at the Japanese hotel?
I wondered what had passed between Hamatori and Ungern after my retreat from that pa per-walled room; how they remapped plans for their drive on the Czar’s treasure in the knowledge that a rank outsider had stupibled into their plot. Yes, and how would the seed of suspicion I’d sown in Pao’s mind last night be bearing fruit, now that, at this noon hour, the Chinese commander had the Bloody Baron across the table from him under the purple dragons, his advisers?
Outside the car window, a sweep of Egyptian com called kaoliang stretched russet to a white horizon—a veritable jungle of rank growth. A tall man could get himself lost in there; wander for hours and never find a way out. The yellowing green was trackless, engulfing, infinitely extended. Moles, I thought, or their Manchurian equivalent called marmots, could wander aimlessly through that interminable maze, never seeing the light until harvest.
What of me? Another mole blundering into a labyrinth of intrigue, with a new twist and turning revealed at every step. Over my head strange shadows closed to shut out the sun. Conflicting winds gave those shadows changing patterns. Now it was a creeping wind from far-away Tokyo, now a deceptive zephyr from a yamen in Tsitsihar. or a whirlwind straight from the mad heart of a man who had earned the title of “Bloody.”
Shadows closing over me; winds blowing over me with whispers of warning, of menace. And why? Because a strange girl found starving in Harbin had bewitched me. With the compulsion of an indomitable spirit coupled with an allure powerful enough to move a bronze statue from its pedestal. Vera Constantinovna had sent me skv-hooting off into this dangerous jungle of intrigue.
And mighty glad was I that she had! Living; that’s what it was. For the first time in the ten years I’d been west of the setting sun, I was free of the thraldom of invoices, railway squeezes, consular fees, customs duties; free of all that and playing in a thundering big game. Doing, if you please, what the boy that lives in every man
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is burning to do—hunt dragons and come to the aid of beauteous maidens in distress.
MAJOR HAMATORI took the Siberian train with me. With his pee-wee interpreter at his heels like a Cairn terrier, he descended with me twenty-four hours later at the Chita station.
First thing I saw when I stepped down to the gravel was a battery of guns swinging out from an artillery park near the station. Little brown Japanese in nondescript uniforms were riding the wheel horses, sitting stiff as manikins on the limbers. A group of shaggy bearded giants in green trousers and the white astrakhan caps of Cossacks sat on the ground, staring listlessly as the guns rumbled past. The old spirit of Siberia and the new in contrast.
I saw nothing of Hamatori when a droshky dropped me at the Hotel Versailles on Chita’s sandy main street. He had melted into the mob of passengers struggling to board the train: he and his shadow with him. Nor did I catch so much as a glimpse of the worthy major for two days, though I kept my eyes peeled. Perhaps the reason for the Tokyo agent’s shyness lay in a discovery I made before 1 was two hours in town - Semenov was somewhere along the railroad line west, and was not expected to return before Saturday. Thursday was the day of our arrival. Hamatori, I guessed, had business with Semenov, even if it was only to convey a message from Ungern accounting for his delay in Tsitsihar.
I, too, was handicapped by the Russian partisan’s absence. What I had come to do in Chita—attempt to win freedom for Vera’s brother — could only be accomplished through Semenov. I confess the delay irked me, because I felt certain Hamatori would wire Ungem, awaiting the next through train out of Tsitsihar. my presence in the Siberian town. The baron might take it into his head to send back a message commanding my arrest. That I was not molested was pretty conclusive evidence in support of what Hamatori had revealed to me the night before last in the Japanese hotel—that he and Ungem were working behind Semenov’s back. Neither dared denounce me for fear I would spill what I knew of their duplicity. Also blotting out a British citizen had not yet been tried in these parts, particularly since British troops were expected daily in Vladivostok.
Pending Semenov’s return, I had to content myself with absorbing the mongrel atmosphere of a Siberian city in war garb.
Newness had not yet worn off Chita, dropjxid in the wilderness by the Czar’s railroad builders not a quarter century back. But for the bulbous minarets of its Orthodox churches, this sprawling array of brick and stone, with its wide, sandy streets, its steel bridge over a sparkling river, might have ¡xissed for any up-and-coming boom mining town of Ontario. Illusion was helped by the beetling, pine-clad ridge behind the city, upon the slopes of which stone residences of the well-to-do peeped out of a yellow mist of larches.
But the shifting panorama of the streets was a million miles from Ontario. There strode Buriats— the Northern Mongols — with pigtails dropping from beneath conical felt caps, their padded coats girt about by cartridge belts, wicked looking knives stuck handily in the folds; big fellows with the faces of wild boars. Chinese irregulars— Hong-hutzes—and mercenaries sold by war lords south of the border swaggered down street. Their little fingers sparkled with jewels cut from the hands of slaughtered women in Semenov’s raids against Bolshevik villages. Most pervasive of all were the small Japanese soldiers in grotesque Russian uniforms cut down into sags and folds about waist and boot-tops; tough little beggars who read already the secret intent of their government at Tokyo and strode with the air of conquerors.
The Russians—huge blonde oafs recruited from the former régime of railroad guards and remnants of garrisons that had not gone Red— hunkered down on curbs and sprawled ( asleep around the railroad station. Just
well-fed. witless hulks of men, ready to fight if driven to it. but preferring flies and a peaceful spot of sunlight. Their officers, some with corsetted waists and the airs of palace guards of pre-war indolence, still held to pride in their caste and all the graces of the old régime. Nightly the restaurant of the Hotel Versailles roared with their regimental songs, and squadrons of drained champagne bottles marked the casualties of these engagements.
I WAS HAVING luncheon in my hotel I room the day another train from Manchuria was due. My eyes were idly surveying the street scene beneath my window. A knock came. At my “Come in,” the door opened and in stepi>ed my little friend, Hamatori. He gave me a stiff bow as, with the alacrity of surprise, I arose.
"Mister Stacey Horton—sir.” He spoke English in the curiously choppy manner of his race when wrestling with our difficult tongue.
I downed my first startlement and waved him to a seat. He roosted like a squab pigeon on the very edge of the chair and teetered his bowler hat on one knee.
"I need no interpreter, Mister Stacey Horton, sir, now I know you is Canadian. Ver’ foolish mistake”—he tittered in falsetto—"I to sink you is Russian.”
I nodded agreement and waited.
"The Baron Ungern—our frien’—he make to return to this Chita ver’ quick. I sink his train com ver’ soonly now. So I take liberty for come and have talk.” This nervously and with flitting smiles meaning nothing.
“You did not seem to care to talk to me on the train leaving Tsitsihar,” 1 reminded the major.
“Yiss,” he twittered and left that episode buried. “I sink better before the Baron Ungem come we have talk. He ver’ radical man, this Baron Ungern.”
“You mean, major, better for me?” I put the question guilelessly.
“Yiss.” A train whistle sounded down by the station. Hamatori started nervously. “Not much time for talking now.”
“Well, major, you begin,” I encouraged.
“So desuka. You say to me what you do in Chita.”
That was a blunt opening wedge. I determined to meet it with equal bluntness.
"I am here,” I said, "to talk business with General Semenov.”
Hamatori was hardly prepared for such frankness. He sucked in his havrake mustache and chewed it nervously. His ridiculous bowler hat teetered faster with the jerking of one crossed leg.
“Certain business,” he began hesitantly, "is—ah ver’ dangerous for talking to this Semenov.”
“Really? You’re very kind to wam me, Major Hamatori. But what would you do if you were in my place—and a business man?” The little Jap pondered the implication in my question for a full minute, then:
"The Baron Ungem is—how you say?— ver’ hot-rage man. Me, I am man of peace. My advices is better. I say if you tell Semenov some things you know, ver’ likely you never leave this Chita except”—he gave me a sickly smile—"in one long box. I say advices better you make your business with us, Mister Stacey Horton, sir, instead with Semenov.”
“Meaning by that—?”
"We need clever Canadian business man. I come before the Baron Ungem return to say mos’ likely the baron and I, Major Hamatori, make you—what you call it?— attractive offer.”
"That,” I commented with a laugh, "sounds better than the long box proposition. Suppose when you’ve talked to the baron, you do me the honor of another visit.”
“Yiss. I sink—”
A scattering cheer in the streets. Two or three revolver shots. I sprang to the window.
A droshky was just drawing up before the hotel curb. In it, stiffly erect and with hand at salute to acknowledge the cheers, sat
Continued on page 38
Continued from page 36
Ungem. Beside him, radiantly beautiful, coolly at ease—Vera Constantinovna!
VERA CONSTANTINOVNA come to Chita; riding up Chita’s main street by the side of the Bloody Baron like any light lady become his latest favorite !
I tell you that carried a high-voltage shock sufficient to shatter a steel robot. Rooted at the window and gazing down at I Ungern handing Vera to the curb—and, oh, that possessive grin on his shark’s mouth ! —I did not even know when my Japanese visitor closed the door behind him. When I turned to find the room vacant, the bed 1 and the bulbous Siberian stove in the comer had become icebergs floating in an undiscovered sea, and my heart was the biggest, coldest berg in the lot.
So this was Vera, the girl whose blue eyes, violet shadowed, were windows to a i clean heart; Vera Constantinovna, guileless refugee, who cast herself so prettily on the mercy of a Canadian gentleman of Harbin after he’d shown himself to be a safe Galahad.
I think I laughed then. (Laughter, you know, is a powerful disinfectant needful to j be sprinkled in the soul’s dark comers.) For i a thought volplaned to a three-point landing inside my skull.
My money ! Yes, my precious refugee left as chatelaine of my bachelor flat in Harbin, with ample provision of yen and rubles, had invested a good part of my providence in a ticket to Chita. And, of course, had brought along the surplus for incidentals.
“Surplus?” I echoed the thought aloud. “Why, everything that isn’t nailed down is j now in a Chinese pawnshop.”
Reaction from my first shock of surprise ! brought results even more unpleasant than ! my first fleeting cynicism. Slumped in a chair and with my pipe trying to whisper its sure-fire consolation, I commenced to feel sorry for myself. That’s bad.
If I hadn’t thought this level-eyed, cleanfeatured girl miles above the shrewd minxes — refugees, too—who put themselves up for sale in the Harbin dance halls with less shame than the clothes they wore; if, listen[ ing to her story of heartbreak and high endeavor in my fiat, I hadn’t gone clean off i the dock and plunged headlong into love— j well, this moment wouldn’t have been so j black. I, thirty-five years old, all these years since college counting myself a smart dodger of women’s wiles, to have been made j a boob of by a Russian chit with a fast 1 line . . .
A whole pipeful went to the ceiling before I began to get back sound sense, began to analyze this surprising new situation.
Why had Vera come to Chita by the j first through train out of Harbin after the i one taking me north on my voluntary mission in her behalf? Why, indeed, unless she deliberately had sent me ahead to draw all the fire of the intriguers?
Why, too, had she joined herself so flagrantly with the Bloody Baron boarding her train at Tsitsihar—Ungern, doubtless equally responsible with Semenov for imprisoning her brother and setting her adrift? I What answer but the good old Russian game i of double-cross; and with a wise sap named | Stacey Horton elected to hold the sack. That deduction solidly arrived at, I straight!
¡ way went into another conference with ’ myself on the subject of the immediate future.
“Well,” said Right Hand to Left Hand, | “she got you into this business of rescuing a j jailed brother and finding a two-millioni dollar pot of gold; where do you go from j
“Appears to me.” good old Lefty piped up, "rescuing brother granting there is j oneis now out of your hands. You're clean on that. But you're pretty deep in the gold
i “Ye-ah?” dubiously from Right Hand.
“Surely,” urged the radical member of ; the firm, “you've accumulated as much or ! more information about the lost gold as I Ungem and Hamatori themselves know. :
! Pao Lin-chun already has indicated a ! willingness to play right along with you. ¡
Now Hamatori talks about an attractive offer from his side. Go to it—and devil take the hindmost!”
Just one shrinking scruple delayed my decision. There was Vera: the story she’d told me of the golden worm track inching itself across Siberia to be swallowed up in the wild lands south of the border. Could I enter the game against her. after all. without violating the trust she’d imposed on me?
Well enough to argue Vera Constantinovna had cancelled all obligations by showing herself here in Chita, brazenly under the protection of Ungem. Even so, before I took the field against her I must give the girl a chance to explain herself. She knew I was coming to Chita; could not expect to avoid meeting me in this tiny oasis of life in the wilderness of the steppes. Some story, good or bad. prepared in extenuation it was her right to tell me. Very well, she would have her chance to tell it.
I WENT downstairs into the restaurant, which in Russian hotels is also the bar and lounge. It was filled with White officers and their gaudy lights of love -shameless camp followers of a lost cause. An orchestra was fearing Tsehaikovsky to thin rags. That childish gaiety which comes second nature to Russians filled a large room. I walked down the main aisle between tables.
There, midway, sat Vera. Opposite her and leering at her over the rim of a wineglass was the tight-buttoned Ungern von Stemburg. The girl was not dressed as I’d last seen her that night when she gave me her cheek to kiss in farewell. A light straw picture hat dropiied its wings to frame her features saucily, and—“More of Stacey Horton’s money,” I said to myself—a gown of some light blue stuff clinging snugly to her figure was new to me.
Vera was facing my approach, the baron quartering on me. The girl’s eyes met mine when I was less than six feet distant ; met mine and looked unwinkingly straight through me.
I could feel the blood climbing my neck as I strode past, matching her cool, casual look with one of my own. The little devil ; so that was how the land lay !
An empty table beyond and a little to the left of Vera’s gave me a vantage point. As I was giving my order for a bottle of Rhine wine I caught a sharp movement out of the tail of my eye. It was the Bloody Baron’s head snapping up in recognition as he caught first glimpse of me. For an instant that cold, dead-white face with its gargoyle mouth was turned full at me. Small blue-white eyes under pallid brows lanced at me in javelin thrusts of hate. But there was no formal sign of recognition. Fair enough. I didn’t miss it.
Ungern leaned toward Vera, nodded his head my way and said something with a wicked twist of his slit mouth. Her eyes came slowly round to mine, lingered for a breath and then turned back to his again. Impudent detachment in that glance. But I boiled when I saw a playful smile reward a sally Ungem made. Yes, Vera had a wide stock-in-trade of smiles—for me the wan and spirituelle, for Ungern the teasing and provocative.
I sipped my wine in saturnine enjoyment of a situation possessing handsome elements of comedy. (Fool men who’ve loved take morbid satisfaction from having their hearts trampled on.) Nor was the comedy situation diminished when little Hamatori slipped unobtrusively to a vacant table and bought himself a bottle of champagne with his lunch. All that was needed now to complete our cast was for old Pao Lin-chun, brocaded and perfumed, to waddle into the picture.
Pao did not come, but Semenov did. All in the restaurant rose when the short, squat figureof theCossack pawn of Japan appeared in the doorway with two aides. The orchestra swept into the national hymn of Holy Russia. Semenov stood with one hand raised to the vizor of his forage cap, his right under the dolman he invariably wore to cover the readiness of his concealed hand on the pistol grip in his belt. The leader’s face was swarthy, with restless, darting
black eyes under puffed lids. Buriat blood 1 in him was unmistakable.
Semenov sat with his aides to stoke himself heartily with smoked fish, borsch and beef. He tossed down three vodkas like a man chucking peas at his throat. As he ate. his nervous eyes flickered about the j tables. I saw them rest momentarily on Vera’s face, jump away and then rove back for a longer gaze. Vera was a tea rose in a garden of bursting sunflowers.
Lingering over my wine, I revamped at once my immediate strategy, as Vera’s surprising defection made that necessary. I’d come to Chita primarily to free her brother, then to offer him my aid in seeking the lost treasure caravan. To achieve the first object I’d relied upon Pao’s letter to the White partisan, believing the commander of Tsitsihar would not have offered such a letter if he did not know it would be potent. But now the freedom of Serge Constantinovna was no affair of mine. Let Vera care for her own. How could I use Semenov, then?
Why, by playing a bold stroke. Here before the eyes of the Bloody Baron and
Hamatori I’d stage a little play acting.....put
on a show to throw a scare into them. I f the Japanese was sincere in his tentative offer to include me in his and the baron’s schemes, I’d make it apparent I was not one to trifle with. Either they clinch their deal with me at once orso I hoped they would read my bluff—I’d go after another alliance.
I wrote in Russian on one of my cards: “Having the honor to present a letter from Pao Lin-chun.” I unpinned that letter from its anchorage against my shirt and sent card and letter by a waiter to Semenov. Of course, the Russian could not read Pao’s missive without the services of his interpreter, but I banked heavily on the power of Pao’s name to win me immediate recognition.
Over the edge of my wineglass I watched the White leader scan my card, then break the seal on Pao’s letter and run his eye over the lines of ideographs to rest upon the impressive vermilion stamp at their end. The waiter came back to say General Semenov wished to speak with me. I arose and charted my course through the tables to pass the one where Ungern and Vera sat. Again that calm, impersonal stare from the girl. The baron could not see me until I'd passed, but I felt his gaze stabbing my back as I paused where Semenov was lunching.
His aides arose punctiliously as I made my bow. Semenov, sitting, gave me a curt nod and a growl: “Honored by your
acquaintance.” I murmured a fitting response. The White leader’s stubby forefinger tapped the Pao Lin-chun letter by his plate.
“Why do you bring me a letter from this Chinese?”
“It was, Excellency, at Pao Lin-chun’s own suggestion.”
"Hah! And do you know. Mr. Horton, what General Pao says here which it is important for Semenov to know?”
“I do not even know.” I answered, “that j what our friend writes is important to your ! Excellency.”
“Our friend?” Semenov stressed the ' pronoun questioningly.
“I take the liberty of presuming on the I impression Pao Lin-chun gave me in Tsitsihar a few days ago that he valued your j friendship.”
“Hah! See me”Semenov consulted his j wristwatch—“in my quarters at four | o’clock.” He nodded an end to the interview. '
At the restaurant door I paused and with studied nonchalance looked back. The Bloody Baron sat, ramrod-stiff, glaring at me as if his eyes would freeze me. One eye and a segment of Hamatori's cropped head were visible behind a newspaper used as a screen for his observation.
I KEPT to my room until the appointed I hour; this to give Hamatori a chance. Of course, the major could not know what passed between Semenov and myself, but, I argued, seeing me in conversation with the general might well force his hand and bring that “attractive offer” he'd dangled before
J me a little more than an hour back. With ! something concrete from him, I’d know what line to follow in my second interview I with Semenov: how to make the next move I in this trick game of tightrope walking. But ; no I lamatori.
General Semenov’s staff headquarters comprised three rooms on the hotel’s top; i floor. I presented myself there promptly at I the minute. A sergeant took me past two : sentries guarding with fixed bayonets an 1 inner door of the suite and into a large maphung office. Semenov and an aide sat before a long table strewn with papers. My eye caught a glittering heap at one end. A second glance revealed women's rings— j fully a dozen of them and jewelled—strung on a cord like Chinese cash. Sinister dressing for a general's staff table.
Semenov did not rise at my entrance nor bid me be seated. His right hand still was hidden under the folds of his green dolman. With his free hand he picked up a handwritten sheet and scanned it. Suddenly he looked up at me with a grin on his thick lips.
“Hah, Mr. Horton, you say you are a friend of Pao Lin-chun?’’
I nodded, nettled at his incivility.
“You set a great store by that friendship, eh?”
! ‘‘As great,” I answered warily, “as anyone might.”
The eyes in that russet-ruddy Buriat face laughed into mine with the unpleasant implication of a joke not equally shared between us.
“Why do you come to Chita, Mr.1 Horton?”
I was ready for that question, too, and j answered with a true statement, if not the j whole truth nor the most important truth:!
“I am an exporter, as my card indicates.1 A shipment of valuable furs consigned to me from Irkutsk has failed to reach me at Harbin. I am here to try to trace them through railway authorities.”
“And you got this letter”—Semenov tapiad the manuscript reference on the ! table, evidently a translation —“from Pao Lin-chun because you think Semenov stole your furs, and a Chinese thief would beg a Russian thief to give them back to you?” That was fighting talk. I had difficulty , keeping my anger in hand when I flared back at him:
“That thought is yours. Excellency. I cannot be held responsible for it.”
“My excellent guest”Semenov’s voice was purring like a contented tiger’s— “Many people charge Semenov with being a thief. Usually they are right. But it is not lost furs which bring you to Chita. Hear what your worthy friend Pao writes.” He i : read from the translation :
“ ‘The simple child who brings this letter lends himself to my desire to warn Your Excellency against him.”' Semenov looked up to give me another silent laugh, then continued his reading: “ ‘By mischance or
design, I know not which, he has come upon information dangerous to your Excellency’s best interests, and he comes to Chita to use that information against you.’ ”
Semenov banged his fist against the paper from which he read. Suddenly he was on his feet and roaring.
“Now, you puppy, explain that!”
“You have great confidence in the word of Pao Lin-chun,” I countered, coolly as I could.
“I believe,” thundered the White leader, “what he says in this letter is truth.”
“Then suppose I told you that all the information I have which might be thought dangerous to your interests was given me by IYio Lin-chun himself; would you | believe that, too?”
That was hitting out desperately. Semenov's head snapped up. I could see his ; none-too-alert brain bogging down at this unexpected reply. Finally:
“What did Pao tell you about me?” Semenov challenged.
“I^o Lin-chun gave me to understand,” I I said, le veil y, “you were trying your best to intercept two millions of gold which Admiral Kolchak tried to send to Vladivostok.”
The savage face purpled. I saw a convul-
sive stirring under the green dolman where a hand always was concealed close to hidden revolvers. For a half-second I felt the cold touch of death. Eravado as unreasoned as it was instantaneous forced me to continue.
"Knowing General Pao,” I said, “you can understand why he volunteered to give me this letter; even insisted upon my bringing it to you. He wishes you to know he is aware of your plans to intercept Kolchak’s gold shipment and you’ll have to count him in on that business.”
“Stop !” Semenov’s cheeks were twitching convulsively.
“Else why.” I persisted, “did he tell me all about it. then give me this letter to you? Why, if not to count on your questioning me just as you are doing— and learning just what you've learned?”
Semenov snatched a whistle from the desk and blew a short blast. Instantly the door swung inward and the two sentries with bayoneted guns stumbled into the room.
“Take this man,” Semenov snarled in : Russian like a great cat worrying its meat, j “Put him in the caserne. Your lives if he escapes.”
To be Continued