Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command Pursued By Bloodhounds

With a smothered ejaculation of bitter disappointment Frobisher recoiled a few steps in sheer despair, bringing up rather sharply against the iron-plated door through which he had just emerged; and the next instant he realised that he was doubly trapped. Escape was cut off in front of him by that broken glass, and he had been in such haste to get away from his prison that he had never thought of removing the key from the inside of the door, or of taking precautions to prevent the door from closing behind him and cutting off his retreat, as it had done.
Retreat, after he was once clear of the walls, had naturally never entered his mind. But now he would have been glad enough to have been able to return to his cell unobserved. It would be intensely humiliating to be obliged to wait there, in the small space between the door and the glass-sown path, until his jailer arrived, some twenty-four hours later, to release him. Yet there seemed to be no alternative.
How careless, how criminally foolish he had been to allow himself to be trapped by so transparent a device! thought Frobisher. He ought to have suspected a trap directly he discovered that his boots had been removed, and he might have known that such jailers as he was dealing with do not leave cell doors unlatched by accident, or leave keys to open other doors hanging on walls in conspicuous places, just where an escaping prisoner would be most likely to see them. How those pirates would laugh and jeer at him on the morrow, when they arrived and found him there, shivering with the bitter cold of night in that climate, at that time of year! The mere thought of such humiliation caused Frobisher to grit his teeth with anger, and he had almost made up his mind to chance a quick dash across that cruel barrier, trusting that he would not injure himself so severely as to make escape absolutely impossible, when something occurred which caused him quickly to change his mind, and made him shrink back into the shadow of the door, pressing himself up into one of the corners, to avoid observation and consequent discovery, if possible.
He had caught sight of the figure of a Chinaman emerging from the shadow of the jungle which surrounded the fort on its landward side. The man's figure stood out plain and clear-cut in the moonlight, which was so bright that Frobisher could easily distinguish his every movement, could even see how the man was dressed; and he wondered what the fellow could be doing there at that time of night.
In that part of northern China, especially at that season, men do not wander about in the jungle at night, or indeed at any other time, if they can help it, having a very natural objection to being caught and eaten by prowling, hungry tigers; and it was therefore not a little strange that this man should arrive at the fort by that way, particularly as it could be reached much more easily by the road which the pirates had constructed for their own convenience. It would almost appear as though the man bad come by this route in order to avoid the pirates' observation; and the longer Frobisher considered the matter, the more certain did he become that this was actually the case, and the more he wondered what the reason might be.
The man had only stood in full view for a few brief seconds, just long enough to convince the Englishman that he was real, and not a figment of his own heated imagination. Then he had stepped back quickly into the shadow of the jungle, crouching down beside a clump of bamboo, where he was so well concealed from observation that Frobisher could just distinguish the outline of his stooping body. Indeed, had he not kept his eyes on the man the whole time, it would have been impossible to detect his hiding-place, so well did the colour of his clothing blend with the vegetation which formed his background.
The Englishman's heart began to beat with excitement and hope, for a thousand possibilities at once presented themselves to him. It was morally certain that the hiding man could have no connection with the pirates, or he would have come forward boldly and demanded admittance; and if not a friend of, or connected with the outlaws, he must necessarily be opposed to them. Ah! if it were only possible to attract the man's attention without also attracting that of the pirates, escape should be a simple matter, thought Frobisher. He was already practically as good as outside the walls, and all that was necessary was that something should be laid down on the top of the glass over which he could walk without cutting his feet, and the thing was done; he could be miles beyond the possibility of pursuit before morning broke, if only the preliminaries could be put in hand immediately.
It did not take him long to decide that he would make the attempt to attract the man's attention. If the latter were a friend, and the attempt were crowned with success, all would be well, and he would be free within an hour; while if the man should after all prove to be an enemy--well, he might as well be discovered and taken back to prison now, as wait all night in the cold. One thing was quite certain-- without outside assistance escape was impossible; so he decided to put his fortune to the test and risk his freedom, if not his life, upon the turn of the die.
With this idea, he drew his handkerchief from his pocket and was about to step forward and wave it, when he saw a movement among the clump of bamboo, and the next instant the Chinaman rose to his feet and ran like a deer toward the very part of the fort in which Frobisher's cell was situated. He ran noiselessly, on his toes, and bent almost double in the effort to make himself as small as possible. And he did not slacken speed until he had reached the walls of the fort, where he again crouched down in the shadow, almost directly under the window of Frobisher's cell, about twenty yards away from the spot where the Englishman himself was concealed.
The latter, in the face of this new move, determined to watch a few minutes longer before revealing himself, and kept his eyes on the crouching figure with the greatest interest. Was the man going to prove friend or foe, rescuer or would-be assassin? Scarcely the latter, the Englishman thought, for there seemed something strangely familiar in the man's movements and in his whole appearance; and Frobisher experienced the sensation of having met, or seen, this man somewhere before, though under what circumstances he could not for the life of him recall. He was something of the same build as Ling; but Ling, he knew, was dead, for he had seen the man's body. Then, again, he might pass at a distance for Quen-lung, the interpreter; but from what Frobisher had already seen of that person, he did not for a moment believe that Quen-lung was at all the kind of man to risk his skin on a midnight excursion to a pirate stronghold.
Suddenly Frobisher's attention was disturbed by the sound of a very low whistle, undoubtedly proceeding from the Chinaman. That whistle was beyond question a signal of some sort, and was just as certainly intended for himself. To hesitate longer would have been the height of folly, for the longer the delay now, the greater would be the danger of discovery; so, putting his fingers in his mouth, Frobisher replied with another whistle in exactly the same key and tone as the Chinaman's. The latter leapt to his feet, took a few steps backward, and looked up at the window; but seeing nothing there, he proceeded to glance round him anxiously.
Frobisher gave another low whistle, and, as the man now turned his head in his direction, fluttered the white handkerchief. The Chinaman instantly caught sight of the movement, and commenced to run toward the prisoner, coming to a sudden standstill as he encountered the outer edge of the carpet of broken glass. A low exclamation of "Phew!" escaped him as he understood the meaning of the obstacle, followed by a subdued execration in English; and on hearing this, Frobisher at once knew who it was that was risking his life in an endeavour to save him. The man was none other than Captain Drake!
How the little skipper had come to hear of his friend's predicament, and how he had contrived to travel some three hundred miles in disguise undetected, Frobisher could not guess. All he knew was that at last he had again a stanch comrade by his side--one who would not forsake him, even in the last extremity; and in his relief he could scarcely help shouting aloud for very joy. But fortunately he remembered in time the absolute necessity for strict silence, and contented himself with calling in a low voice:
"That's you, Drake, surely?"
"It is that same," responded the little man, in a tone as subdued as Frobisher's own; "but where the dickens are you? I saw something move just now, but I'm hanged if I can see a thing now."
"I'm here, just beside this door," replied Frobisher. "I should have been away an hour ago, if it had not been for this confounded glass."
"But couldn't you manage to get across, if you take it coolly and walk slowly?" whispered Drake. "If you plant your feet carefully and balance yourself well before each step, you ought to be able to do it. But watch you don't slip; that's where the danger comes in."
"D'ye think I should not have done that long ago, skipper, if it had been possible?" Frobisher whispered. "The thing is impossible, because they have taken away my boots, and the thin wrappings I have round my feet would be cut to ribbons in half a dozen steps."
"I might have known," replied Drake. "That's an old game of theirs. Well, you must be got across somehow, that's clear, and quickly. There's nobody on guard up above us as yet, but there's no knowing when they may take it into their heads to post a sentry. H'm!" pulling at one of the pieces of glass, "the stuff's stuck in too securely to move, so it's no use thinking of trying to get over the difficulty that way. And there's neither time nor opportunity to collect anything to lay down on top of it. There's only one way that I can see, and so let's try it."
Without waiting for Frobisher to ask his plan, the little man commenced the dangerous voyage across the pavement of glass. He had a thick stick in his hand, and Frobisher saw that he was wearing thick, wooden-soled Chinese boots. Thus provided, Drake succeeded in making the journey in safety, and in a few minutes stood unharmed by his friend's side, shaking his hand as though he meant to pull his arm from its socket.
"I'm glad, glad indeed to see you again, laddie," he murmured heartily; "and more than glad to see that those yellow-skinned pirates have not deprived you of any of your limbs. That is quite a common trick among the Chinks."
"And," returned Frobisher heartily, "I don't think I need tell you how glad I am to see you again. But how did you get to know I was here? I understood from the admiral at Tien-tsin that you had gone to England for a cargo of arms and ammunition for the Chinese Government."
"So I did," replied Drake; "and I carried out my contract, too. I've only been back in China a couple of weeks. But we must not stay here yarning; this is much too dangerous a place to be swapping experiences in. These will keep until later, when we are out of this mess."
"That's so," agreed Frobisher. "But the question is, how are we to get away? You saw for yourself what a ticklish matter it is to cross that glass, even with stout boots on your feet and with the assistance of a thick stick to help you to keep your balance; and upon my word I fail to see how I am going to manage the business. You don't propose to carry me, I take it?" he concluded, chuckling, and giving the little man a sly dig in the ribs.
"I would even try that, and succeed too, perhaps," was Drake's reply, "if there was no other way out. But we can do better than that. I thought of a scheme directly I came to the edge of the glass-sown patch and understood the game that the Chinks had been playing off upon you, but I wasn't such a born fool as to stand there and shout it across to you, with the chance that some yellow-skin might be up aloft there and hear me. Besides, I wanted to see for myself whether or not the scheme would work. And it has, for here I am, safe and sound, and not a penny the worse for the passage.
"Now, here it is, just as simple as ABC. You are a thundering big chap, I know, while I'm a little 'un; but I noticed long ago that your boots and mine are pretty much of a size, while these that I'm wearing now are a bit big for me, though they're the best I could get hold of. I just slip these boots off, and you slip 'em on; then, with the help of this stick, you make the passage of the glass, same as I've done, while I stand here to watch you do it, and at the same time keep a look-out. Then, as soon as you're across, you chuck me back the boots and the stick, one at a time, and I'll catch 'em--I haven't been a cricketer all these years for nothing. The rest'll be all plain sailing, and I'll be alongside you on the right side of the glass in two shakes of a lamb's tail. Savez?"
"Excellent!" returned Frobisher in a whisper; "and, as you say, perfectly simple. Only, you must go first. You surely do not suppose that I am going to make good my escape, leaving you here to run the risk of being taken in my stead--"
Drake kicked off his shoes, with a muttered sailor's blessing on Frobisher's head at what he termed the latter's "tomfoolery", and, going down upon one knee, seized first one and then the other of Frobisher's feet, removed the bandages from them, and then thrust on the boots.
"Capital fit!" he murmured, as he rose to his feet and put the stick into his companion's hand. "Now, off you go, my buck, and look sharp about it, or the pirates will have two prisoners to amuse themselves with instead of one."
Recognising that the little skipper was determined to have his own way, Frobisher forbore to protest further. He stepped carefully out upon the broad area of broken glass, and, creeping along close under the wall, was able so effectually to steady himself by it and with the help of the stick that in a few minutes he had safely negotiated the passage which a short time before had appeared practically impassable. Then, running far enough round the outer margin of the glass-sown ground to secure a clear shot in through the doorway, he threw back to Drake first one boot, then the other, and finally the stick, and had the satisfaction of seeing his friend deftly catch each of them. Five minutes later the little skipper was safely beside him.
"Thank God we are both out of that hole!" piously ejaculated Frobisher under his breath, as the pair crept along in the deep shadow of the rear wall of the fort. "Where away to now?"
"Into the jungle first, where we can't be seen by any chance look-out up aloft," answered Drake. "Then, as soon as we are safely hidden, I'll explain."
They made the passage across the open and reached the cover of the jungle in safety, whereupon Drake replaced his boots, while Frobisher swathed his feet again in the strips of underclothing which he had brought away with him. These were serviceable enough as foot-gear, and Frobisher found that they protected his feet much better than he had anticipated, lasting quite a long time before needing to be replaced by other strips.
Having readjusted their clothing, the two men were ready to begin their long and perilous journey back to civilisation, which Drake gave his companion to understand would have to be made overland. But before starting, Frobisher requested Drake to cut him a heavy cudgel, similar to the one he himself was using, so that, in the event of their encountering an enemy, they might have something, at least, to defend themselves with. Drake did so, and, as he handed it to his friend, plunged his hand into one of his pockets and brought out something which he also passed over to Frobisher.
"Why," exclaimed the latter in astonishment, "that's one of my own brace of revolvers! How in the name of fortune did you get hold of it?"
"And here's the other," said Drake, showing the butt. "I got them out of your cabin aboard the Su-chen--she got back safely to Tien-tsin, I may tell you; but how I came to be aboard her, or to get up here, is too long a yarn to spin now. Let it wait until we are in less danger than we are in at present."
"Right you are, skipper!" answered Frobisher; "the yarn will be interesting enough, I'll be bound. I'm glad you found these revolvers and brought them along, for they are good barkers, and a man feels a certain sense of security with one of them in his hand. Now, lead the way, since you probably know it best."
Drake took a comprehensive glance at the stars, and then plunged along a narrow and apparently seldom-trodden path through the jungle, seeming to find his way by instinct, for the forest was so dense that the moon's rays seldom succeeded in penetrating it.
They had been jogging along at a steady four miles an hour for about an hour and a half, when the fugitives were startled by hearing the distant boom of a heavy gun, proceeding apparently from the spot which they had recently left. They at once guessed what it meant, and realised the danger in which they still stood. Evidently Frobisher's escape had somehow been prematurely discovered, and that gun had been fired as an alarm. Instead of having, as they had confidently anticipated, about eighteen or twenty hours in which to make a good start, they had gained but an hour and a half; and the pirates would be already on their track. True, it might take them some time to discover in which direction the fugitives had headed; but they would assuredly make the discovery sooner or later, and then it would be purely a question of speed.
"By Jove, Drake!" exclaimed Frobisher, "we must hurry now. Those fellows have discovered my absence; and they will lose no time in taking up the pursuit, you may depend. Do you know of any hiding-place that we can make for?"
"I thought of just this thing on my way here," answered Drake, breaking into a run, "and picked out a spot which will suit us to a T, if we can but reach it in time. It's an old ruined town, goodness knows how ancient; nobody lives there now, and there are thousands of ruined houses and plenty of underground passages where we can hide, if we can only get there unseen."
Breath being precious, the pair wasted no more in talk, but saved it all for the long run before them. Side by side they dashed along at top speed, sometimes colliding with trees, or stumbling over stones and creepers, until they were bruised from head to foot, but never once halting.
When they were beginning to hope that they might be out-distancing the pursuit, a deep, bell-like note floating down the wind warned them that the pirates possessed bloodhounds, and that the dogs were hard upon their trail. Frobisher took out his revolver and spun the cylinder to satisfy himself that it was loaded, and then thrust it back into his pocket. If those dogs came within shot, he would take care that they hunted no more prisoners.
"How far ahead now?" he panted, when they had been running for another half-hour at top speed.
"About five miles," grunted Drake, who was feeling the strain even more than Frobisher. "We should be there in about half an hour at this pace--if we can keep it up. Hope I shall be able to hold out. I'm not in such good form as I once was. Getting old, too. If I can't keep up, you push on, lad; and I'll try to keep 'em back with my pistol."
"Likely, isn't it?" replied Frobisher ironically. "If you can't hold out, of course I shall stay and face it out with you: but do all you can; we must not give in at the last moment."
On and on they plunged, and at last they began to find the jungle thinning out, so that the going was a little easier, and their pace consequently increased; but they could tell by the frequent, deep-throated baying that the dogs were gaining on them steadily. They dashed out of the forest altogether at last; and away in front of them, on the right bank of the mighty Hoang-ho, its houses gleaming spectrally in the moonlight, stood the ruined city that Drake had referred to, not more than two miles distant--a very haven of refuge, as Frobisher could easily imagine, if they could but reach it; for it was of considerable extent, and, once lost in its labyrinthine streets or underground passages, the pirates might search for them in vain.
They had not heard the dogs for some minutes, and, hoping that the pursuit had perhaps been abandoned, Frobisher glanced round. It was well that he did so. The dogs had also left the forest, and, seeing their prey in front of them, were running in silence. They were not more than fifty yards distant, and, grasping his revolver, Frobisher called to Drake, and together the two men turned to face the beasts.

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