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   Chapter 1 MISSIONARY AND RED-HEADED BEGGAR

The Devil's Admiral By Frederick Ferdinand Moore Characters: 12507

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Captain Riggs had a trunk full of old logbooks, and he said any of them would make a better story than the Kut Sang. The truth of it was, he didn't want me to write this story. There were things he didn't wish to see in type, perhaps because he feared to read about himself and what had happened in the old steamer in the China Sea.

"Folks don't care nothing about cargo-boats," he would say, taking his pipe out of his mouth and shaking his head gravely, whenever I hinted that I would like to tell of our adventure of the Kut Sang. "They want yarns of them floating hotels called liners, with palm-gardens in 'em and bands playing at their meals and games and so on going from eight bells to the bos'n's watch.

"It was mostly fighting in the Kut Sang, and the mess you and me and poor Harris and the black boy there got into wouldn't be just the quiet sort of reading folks want these days. It was all over in a night and a day, anyway-look at them Northern Spy apples, Mr. Trenholm!"

He wanted to forget the Kut Sang and the awful night we had in her. He imagined he didn't figure to advantage in the story, and he winced when I mentioned certain events, although I always insisted that he was the bravest man among us, having a better realization of the odds against us. Those who have faced danger know it takes a brave man to admit that he is beaten, and still keep up the fight.

We all have better memories for our brave moments than for the fear which threatened for a time to prove us cowards. The man who has faced death and says he was not afraid is either a fool or a liar; and, if only a liar, still a fool for telling himself that which he knows to be a lie. The bravery of the seaman is that he fears the sea and knows its ruthlessness and its ultimate victory, and accepts it as a part of his day's work. This is a sea-story.

Captain Riggs had log-book stories that were good, and they might have served him for a volume of marine memoirs. But I was with him when we freighted the Kut Sang with adventure and sailed out of Manila, so his musty records of rescues and wrecks lacked life for me. In the old logbooks I found no men to compare with the Rev. Luther Meeker; or Petrak, the little red-headed beggar; or Long Jim or Buckrow or Thirkle. I never found in their pages a cabin-boy like Rajah the Malay, strutting about with a long kris stuck in the folds of his scarlet sarong, or a mate whose truculence equalled the chronic ill-humour of Harris, who learned his seamanship as a fisherman on the Newfoundland Banks. And in all his log-books I never found another Devil's Admiral!

Riggs is dead, and I can tell the story in my own way; for tell it I must, and the manuscript will be a comfort to me when I am old and my memory and imagination begin to fail. Not that I ever expect to forget, because that would be a calamity; but I want to put down the events of the day and night in the Kut Sang while they are fresh in my mind.

How well I can see in a mental vision the whole murderous plot worked out! Certain parts of it flash on me at off moments, while I am reading a book or watching a play or talking with a friend, and every trivial detail comes out as clearly as if it were all being done over again in a motion picture. The night gloom in the hall brings back to me the 'tween-decks of the old tub of a boat; the green-plush seats of a sleeping-car remind me of the Kut Sang's dining-saloon, and even a bonfire in an adjacent yard recalls the odour of burned rice on the galley fire left by the panic-stricken Chinese cook.

I know the very smell of the Kut Sang. I caught it last week passing a ship-chandler's shop, and it set my veins throbbing again with the sense of conflict, and I caught myself tensing my muscles for a death grapple. To me the Kut Sang is a personality, a sentient being, with her own soul and moods and temper, audaciously tossing her bows at the threatening seas rising to meet her. She is my sea-ghost, and as much a character to me as Riggs or Thirkle or Dago Red.

The deep, bright red band on her funnel gave her a touch of coquetry, but she had the drabness of senility; she was worn out, and working, when she should have gone to the junk pile years before. But her very antiquity charmed me, for her scars and wrinkles told of hard service in the China Sea; and there was an air of comfort about her, such as one finds in an ancient house that has sheltered several generations.

Precious little comfort I had in her, though, which is why I remember her so well, and why I never shall forget her. If she had made Hong-Kong in five days, her name would be lost in the memory of countless other steamers, and there would be no tale to tell. But now she is the Kut Sang, and every time I whisper the two words to myself I live once more aboard her.

Rajah is with me-inherited, I might say, from Captain Riggs. Perhaps he keeps my memory keen on the old days, for how could I forget with the black boy stalking about the house-half the time in his bare feet and his native costume, which I rather encourage-for his sarong matches the curtains of my den and adds a bit of colour to my colourless surroundings.

I am quite sure that if Captain Riggs were still alive he would agree that the story should begin with my first sight of the missionary and the little red-headed man, so I will launch the narrative with an account of how I first met the Rev. Luther Meeker.

He was in the midst of a litter of nondescript baggage on the Manila mole when I came ashore from a rice-boat that had brought me across the China Sea from Saigon. The first glance marked him as a missionary, for he wore a huge crucifix cut out of pink shell, and as he hobbled about on the embankment it bobbed at the end of a black cord hung from his neck.

Quaint and queer he was, even for the Orient, where queerness in men and things is commonplace and accepted as a part of the East's inseparable sense of mystery. With his big goggles of smoked glass he reminded one of some sea-monster, an illusion dispelled by his battered pith helmet with its faded sky-blue pugri bound round its crown, the frayed ends falling over his shoulders and flapping in the breeze.

He was a thin o

ld man, clad in duck, turning yellow with age. When he threw the helmet back it exposed a wrinkled brow and a baldish head, except for a few wisps of hair at the temples. He appeared to be of great age-a fossil, an animated mummy, a relic from an ancient graveyard; and the stoop of his lean shoulders accentuated these impressions. It was plain that the tropics were fast making an end of him.

He was whining querulously as I stepped ashore, and the first words I heard him say were:

"An organ! An organ! An organ in a cedarwood box! An organ in a cedarwood box, and the sign of the cross on the ends! Oh, why do you try my soul? Such stupidity! Such awful stupidity!"

The native porters were grinning at him as they simulated a frantic search for his organ in a cedarwood box, but they probably knew all the time where it was. He was surrounded by baskets and chests; and, if the crucifix were not enough to indicate his profession, black lettering on his possessions advertised him as "The Rev. Luther Meeker, London Evangelical Society." The multiplicity of labels proclaimed him a traveller known from Colombo to Vladivostok, and he must have been wandering over Asia for years, as his luggage was as ancient as himself.

Fighting my way out of the multitude on the river-bank, I gained the cable office near the customhouse and reported myself in Manila, bought all the newspapers I could to learn how the war was going in Manchuria, and to anticipate if possible where I might be ordered next.

I revelled in the noise and crowds as only one can after a week at sea. While I was on the way from Saigon the Russian armies might have been beaten or the Japanese fleet destroyed. There might be orders sending me anywhere, but I hoped that I would leave Manila for the Strait of Malacca to meet the Baltic fleet. What I feared most was the end of the war, for a war-correspondent without a war is deprived of his profession. I was young and ambitious, then, and seeking a journalistic reputation at the cable's mouth.

It happened that I had allowed myself to heed the glib tongue of a hotel-runner before I left the rice-steamer, and he had commandeered my bag and taken it to the Oriente Hotel, of which I knew nothing except that it was in the walled city and across the river from the cable office. To recapture the bag and my clean linen I would have to take an instrument of torture known as a carromatta and drive across the Bridge of Spain.

I could cross the river in a small boat with a Filipino pirate, and go on a hunt for a conveyance on the other side; but thought it better to risk being shaken to death than drowned in the dirty Pasig, so I hailed a cochero. The villain demanded a double rate, and, while we were haggling, a bus of the Oriente drew in sight and I caught it as it was spinning up Calle San Fernando.

When I crawled into the bus I wished that I had struck a bargain with the thief of a cochero, for I found myself in a seat beside the whining missionary. He prayed for his bones over the rough places, and for his life, when the driver took a corner recklessly, and made us all very weary with his eternal complaining. That was not the worst of it-he tried to strike up an acquaintance with me.

There was a letter in my coat-pocket which had been given to me in Saigon to deliver to the Russian consul in Manila. It was an errand for the cable-operator there, who had done me favours, and I was to leave it at the Hong-Kong-Shanghai Bank for the consul, who would call for it. That bank carried an expense account for me, so the delivery of the letter was of no trouble. The envelope was long and official-looking, and it fell to the floor of the bus as I clambered in.

Meeker picked it up and handed it to me, but for the instant he held it he read the address:

Russian Consul,

Care Hong-Kong-Shanghai Bank,

Manila

Courtesy Mr. James A. Trenholm,

Amalgamated Press

"My dear sir," said Meeker, "you have dropped a document-allow me."

"Thank you," I replied, and took the letter, which was quite bulky and sealed with a splotch of black wax imprinted with a coat of arms or a crest, or some such insignia. I fear I betrayed my irritation over Meeker's reading the address.

"No offence, I trust, my dear sir," he said, mild surprise in his tone.

"None whatever," I snapped back; but our companions in the bus smiled and winked at me openly, as if they appreciated my cold manner toward the missionary.

He said no more to me, but remarked to no one in particular that "an austere manner is a poor passport in this country," which implied that I was new to the East, and would learn better if I stayed long enough. I ignored the remark, somewhat pleased that I had rebuffed him, for I well knew he would talk me into a fever if I did not keep him at a distance; and, furthermore, I did not relish the idea of having him intrude upon me at the hotel. My dislike for him was not because he was a missionary, but because he was a common enough type of bore. He was over suave, and his peevishness jarred my none too steady nerves.

The bus was not a pleasant place for me after that, so I dropped off in Plaza Moraga, when I observed the signboard of the very bank mentioned. I cashed a draft and handed the letter to the clerk at the barred window.

"Oh, yes, we have been waiting for that!" he said as he took the envelope. "Mr. Trego! Here are your papers for the consul," he called to a man somewhere behind the frosted glass wall. "We appreciate your kindness very much, Mr. Trenholm."

It was then that I first saw the little red-headed man. He was looking in at the door, but scurried away when the Sikh guard inside moved toward him. The little man wore a white canvas navy-cap; but his appearance was dirty and disreputable, and he had the aspect of a beggar. His visage was wizened and villainous and shot with pock-marks under a coppery stubble of red beard, and his little mole-like eyes were that close together that they seemed fastened to his nose.

The clerk kept me waiting for signatures, and finally handed out my gold. As I filled my purse I was conscious of some one behind me, and, glancing over my shoulder, I saw the Rev. Luther Meeker.

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