THE pace of his Excellency Chi Li Chen slackened as he reached the edge of the snow-line, but increased again for a hundred meters or more where his skis fluffed into a pocket of snow that lay in the blue shadow of the Crêt d'y Beau. At the rim of the pocket the brown earth showed an uncompromising barrier, and he turned and checked in a flurry of flying white particles.
For a moment he stood, an odd little figure, leaning on his ski-sticks. His mask of a face was turned to the valley below and the green-gray spread of the lake. Then he shuffled forward to a promising boulder, sat down and, stripping his gloves, began slowly to unbuckle the straps which bound his feet to the runners.
He sat for a long time motionless as though reluctant to leave the solitude of the mountains. Then, searching slowly through the pockets of his woolen jacket, he produced a pipe and as slowly filled it, his thin yellow fingers caressing the polished bowl, his black eyes fixed absently on the valley slope below, white with the white of narcissi. His appearance was unpleasing, revolting almost at first sight. The cheeks were bosses of bone, the skin so tightly drawn over the eyes that they were thin slits, revealing eyes that glittered like black gems. The prognathic jaw out-thrust gave an almost sinister character to his face, and the conventional winter-sports kit he wore, the hairy stockings about his thin legs, the ill-fitting coat that hung loosely upon his narrow shoulders made him something grotesque, ludicrous, if the forbidding face had not stifled laughter in a vague sensed uneasiness.
He lit his pipe, puffing a solemn blue cloud into the sweet mountain air, and he permitted his thoughts to return to a personal matter. The man who had juggled with trained diplomatists at the Lucerne Convention and who had forced his opponents into a corner over the absorbing question of the Shin Chien concessions was as incapable of drifting to a speculation as he was incapable of drifting to a conclusion. He took the matter of the Lady Mi Li Chen from a mental pigeonhole and laid it open with all its memoranda, its cross-references and indices. Nor was it a dog-eared, soiled and tattered memory he produced, slurred with the romantic sentimentalism with which the years soften and color the hard and ugly angles of life. It was new, legible and unamended.
The minister plenipotentiary felt neither anger nor resentment at that moment either against the Lady Chen or his Excellency Viscount Kito. The girl had always hated him. That was a staple of the situation, a truth beyond challenge. From the day he brought her to his yamen in Kiao-Chow city she had been hostile, hateful. This he had known in advance, so that he had faced the drab potentialities open-eyed. Even when he had gone to the family temple to announce his betrothal to the spirits of his ancestors, and particularly to that Lady Chen who was such a model of the domestic virtues that the Emperor Ch'ien Lung had celebrated her qualities in a poem written by his own hand with a vermilion pencil, he had made no secret of his apprehension.
"I inform the noble spirit of Lady Chen that I am taking to my house Mi Chi Lou, a woman of beautiful appearance, but of a stubborn and unkind disposition, and I pray that the blessings of my illustrious ancestors who sleep on the Terrace of Night will bless my marriage," he said, and burned strips of gilt paper suitably and reverently inscribed.
It was a splendid marriage for Mi; for the Chen clan was the most powerful in the Middle Kingdom and was especially favored by the Daughter of Heaven. And Chen himself was not only head of that clan, but had proved himself efficient in the Six Arts. At the age of twenty-seven he had passed the examinations and had become successively Flower of Talent, Promoted Scholar and Fit for Office. Three months after he married her he assumed the proud title of "Dweller in the Forest of Pencils," for he had entered the Han Lin, the highest of the educational orders.
Chen blew a ring of smoke and watched it drifting, a whirling wheel of gray-blue framing for a second the hogback crest of the Juras.
The American university came later, after Mi had vanished from his house. He was too great a philosopher to feel the acute misery of self-pity. He understood without approving the fascinations of the well-tailored attaché at the Court of the Daughter of Heaven. Nippon was spending generously in those days, for she had not yet acquired the footing which the war against China gave her. There were receptions and dinners in the European fashion, and for a spell Mi had been almost bearable and he was glad that he had not followed the advice of the family council and divorced her, as he had every right to do; for she was violent and had given him no children. As to this latter failure she had said once that if she knew that she was to bear him a son she would throw herself into the big well. This at the end of a shrieking tornado of fury aroused by his mildest reproach. He had taken a stick to beat her; but his heart had failed, for she was the sun of his life--a sun eclipsed when he returned from a mission into Tibet; for she had gone, and the tall, good-looking Japanese attaché had sailed by the same steamer. To be finally eclipsed in the material sense three years later when she lay down upon the Terrace of Sleep where the dead dream through aeons of time.
Seventeen years! Chen knocked out the ashes of his pipe and bared his teeth as he recharged it. Seventeen years of wars, revolutions, studies, intrigues of court and embassy and at the end a garish council-room in the canton of Lucerne with its mirrors and its glass candelabra and its fussy old men with bulging portfolios and across the green table, face to face for the first time, his Excellency Viscount Kito, Minister Extraordinary to His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Japan.
Not so slim as he was in those days when he pranced and prinked behind his ambassador in Peking. Not so smoothly modeled as when he whispered appropriate extracts from the Chinese classics into the petal ear of a twittering Lady Chen. They had bowed, excellency to excellency, their secretaries had unfastened bloated wallets and disgorged innumerable documents; but the wide-eyed spirit of Lady Chen had stared across the fat shoulder of one excellency into the unwinking eyes of another.
CHEN directed himself to wonder why Kito had come to Glion. The conference had ended abruptly and the fussy old men of all nationalities had sped Parisward by special train. He himself was on his way to Rome to confer with the ambassador before sailing to South America. Perhaps the inaccurate Gazette de Lucerne had announced his arrival in Rome. Otherwise Kito would not have brought his family to Glion. But being there, he would not shirk a meeting and was in truth toiling up the mountainside to intercept his enemy on his return.
Chen saw him a long way off and limped down the rough path toward him, carrying his skis across his shoulder. Chen limped because of a malformation of the left tibia which was the Chen heritage. All the Chens for a thousand years had been born with that curious shin-bone. It was as characteristic of the Chen family as is the jaw of the Bourbon, and even the impure stock of the clan would limp in imitation, so that it was said of Kiao-Chow where every other man was named "Chen" that it was "a city of short legs." He limped down the hill until he came to a patch of wood where the ground was a carpet resilient with pine-needles. Men had been felling the trees for fire-wood, and he found a trunk that enabled him to sit with his back to the sun and waited, putting his skis very carefully and orderly under his legs.
"Good morning, your Excellency." Kito's voice was loud and cheerful and he spoke in English.
Chen was standing now, his head bowed respectfully.
"Ir is an unexpected pleasure, your Excellency," he said, and they both sat, Kito on the softly cushioned earth.
"You have been mountaineering?"
The viscount glanced at the skis and his big good-humored face puckered again in a smile. "I am a little too fat for that form of exercise."
Chen could not smile. Nature had not so designed his face. He could display two rows of large teeth from gum to gum and this he did.
"It was quite a pleasant surprise to Iearn that you had broken your journey in Switzerland," said Kito again.
He was rolling a cigarette and his thick fingers were extraordinarily quick and skillful in this delicate operation. "I understood from the new Gazette that you had left for Boulogne to catch the South American packet."
So it was the Gazette which had brought Kito to the lake.
"Are you staying for long?" asked Chen politely, and the viscount, who was trimming the ends of his cigarette, did not look up.
"I think we shall go away to-morrow," he said. "The climate does not quite suit my son."
Chen stared past him to Les Avants, a speckle of white buildings on the far side of the valley.
"It will give me great pleasure to call and pay my respects to your Excellency's son," he said gravely, and Kito, who had finished fidgeting with his cigarette, struck a match. The flame did not quiver, nor did Chen expect to witness any visible sign of the mans perturbation. "I hope that you have many sons--such gifts are fortunes from heaven."
"Ii will be a great honor to me," replied Kito soberly. "My son, who is delicate, would call at your Exce|lency's hotel but that I fear the exertion would not be to his advantage. And he is the one man child of my house."
Chen waved his thin hands in sympathy.
"Are you comfortable at your hotel?" asked Kito still in a conversational vein. "There are not many people in Territet just now."
Chen showed his teeth again.
"Many more than are essential to my happiness," he said dryly, "a party of American and English ladies, one of whom insists upon discussing the 'mysterious East' with me. To my mind, the mystery of the East was solved in the days when Europe wallowed in barbarism. They have merely imposed their own mystery upon us. None so readily apply the principle obscurum per obscurius*."
[Latin: (to explain) the obscure by means of the more obscure.]
THE viscount shifted his legs to a more comfortable position.
"It was lamentable that the concession was not approved, your Excellency," he said, bringing to the occasion the atmosphere of the council chamber. "I can not understand why the powers should imagine that a little lease for twenty years would imperil the sovereignty of your republic."
"Twenty years is a very long time," said Chen. "I think it was Machiavelli who said that a government may in safety surrender its revenues of millions, but is mined by the concession of a ducat's worth of principles. It is conceivable that the lease would have been fatal to the integrity of the adjoining province."
He rubbed the bowl of his pipe along the palm of his hand, patted down the ragged ends of the tobacco and smoked peacefully through the silence which followed.
"Perhaps your Excellency was considering your own position, if you had given way upon this point," said Viscount Kito gently. "It might not have been necessary to have returned to Peking with a story of failure, or, for the matter of that, with any story."
Chen did not reply for some time.
"The censure of my government was a possibility which did not distress me," he said simply; "but if I had failed I could not have faced my ancestors."
And Kito nodded.
"Is your family here?" he asked unnecessarily.
"I have no family." Chen looked at the viscount for the first time.
"That is a terrible misfortune," said Kito gravely. "I should have thought with your Excellency's high position and honorable standing that your house would have been full."
Chen did not shift his gaze. The spirit of the little lady with the raven hair might have lifted a tremulous hand to her lips did she sit amidst the purple shadows of the pines watching the play.
"When the vine is burned there is no fruit," quoted Chen. "My very honorable lady wife has been amidst the flowers for many years."
Kito murmured his condolences. "My third wife is young and very lively," he said. "She is with my younger children in London and it is expected that she will bear her fourth child in a month if the gods favor me, though none of the women of her family have borne anything but girls. I am disturbed, however," he frowned, "greatly disturbed by certain dreams she has had and a succession of omens."
He discussed gravely his wife's unhappy experience. She had seen four shooting stars on one night and had heard a cockerel crowing at the moon. Then suddenly he rose and changed the conversation abruptly.
"One still hopes, your Excellency, that the recources of diplomacy are not yet exhausted in relation to the concession. We have endeavored to live in peace and harmony with our neighbors and may yet live."
Chen bared his teeth in that invisible smile of his. "After all, this is not a matter which especially and particularly affects the Republic. Only France favors your suggestion."
He walked down the hill at the big man's side with that curious up-and-down swing of his body which his infirmity produced and they spoke of policies and people, of distant cities, of embassies and their disadvantages, but never once did they speak of the Lady Chen who was asleep with the flowers.
Presently they came to a station on the little mountain railway and parted at Glion, bowing deeply excellency to excellency, and the stolid Swiss railway porters watched the genuflections with considerable amusement.
Mr. Chen was well satisfied with the comfort of his room. Its loftiness, the view from the iron balcony, the wealth of narcissus and daffodil and lavender-hued violets were narcotics to his active mind.
He paced his saloon in his nailed boots for half an hour, and then he rang a little hand-bell that stood on the table. His secretary, Li San, with the inseparable portfolio under his arm and his great horn spectacles on his nose, came instantly.
"Tao?" he greeted.
"Li San," replied Chen slowly, "his Excellency Viscount Kito is staying at the Beau Rivage Hotel with his honorable family. I will give myself the felicity of calling on him this aftemoon. Bring me paper that I may write an ode in his honor. Open also a tin of foreign tobacco and ask the concierge if there is in his library a copy of Machiavelli's Florentine History. I wish to verify a quotation I made this morning."
When the secretary had gone, Chen resumed his restless pacing, his hands were clasped behind his back, his eyes never raised from the carpet. And seeing his heart, the spirit of the Lady Chen may well have wrung her thin hands in tragic despair. Kito must not carry on his line. Kito, who had broken the thread that led back to Genghis Khan--generation on generation of lordly Chens without a break.
He passed presently into his bedroom and opened his trunk. Lifting out the tray and groping amid his clothing he brought out a small lacquered box which he carried to his room. From the box he took a short-barreled automatic pistol and slipped the magazine from the butt. Then he brought forth a sealed package of ammunition and very carefully opened the cardboard lid. One by one he pressed the cartridges into the magazine until it would hold no more. Then he took up the pistol and pulled back the steel "jacket" quickly, snapped the trigger and pushed the magazine back into the butt until it clicked tight. Then carefully, almost gingerly, he pulled back the pistol jacket and a cartridge was pressed into the chamber.
He set the catch at safety, looked at the deadly little thing lying in the palm of his hand and put it into his hip pocket. When Li San came back to the room, the lacquered box had disappeared and his excellency was standing by the window, looking out upon the lake. Li San laid a dilapidated book upon the table.
"There is only an English edition, Tao," he said.
"That will serve," replied Chen without turning round. "Li Sen, you are acquainted with the blessed words of the Master. Tell me, Li San, have I served the Republic well and without reproach?"
This time, he spoke in English, and Li San, a doctor of philosophy of the Imperial University and moreover a bachelor of arts of the University of Oxford, replied in the same language and without hesitation.
"Your Excellency has worked well for the Republic," he said.
"What said the Master?" asked Chen.
All his life had he been bound by the Confucian creed. There was not a character in the Lun Yu which he had not read a score of times. "There are three duties which a man owes," he said slowly. "They are to his parents and ancestors; to his emperor and State; and to his friends. And the greatest of these is his duty to his ancestors."
"'The Foundation of happiness is filial piety,'" quoth Li San.
"That is so."
Chen turned from the window and went to a small desk and wrote half a dozen lines in his crabbed caligraphy.
"You will take this to the chemist's, Li San, and if they are reluctant to make up this prescription you will tell them that I am a doctor of medicines."
Li San looked at the prescription, holding the paper close to his myopic eyes.
"'Hydrocyanic acid, a drachm,'" he read.
"You will also procure a small hypodermic syringe and then go on to Montreux. Opposite to the steamboat pier there is a confectioner's where they sell chocolates which are filled with wine--liqueur," he corrected himself. "Bring me one kilo of those--and return quickly."
Li San left the room without a word of comment and Chen went back to the big table in the center of the saloon, where his secretary had placed a pad of paper, brushes and ink, and without hesitation he began his complimentary poem to Viscount Kito.
He painted the complicated characters with extraordinary rapidity and he did not hesitate for a figure of speech. It was a poem about a gentle wind that came from the eastern seas when they were all dark with night and the zephyrs bore on their "soft palms" the jewels of Beauty and Wisdom and laid them at the feet of Kito. Like every educated Chinaman, he could construct couplets with facility; for had he not qualified for the Hin Sin by a poetical essay on the life of the Great Lord Confucius?
Li San came back while the ink was still wet and shining on the paper and placed the packages at his master's hand.
"Let this ode be tied with a white ribbon," said Chen, "and get ready for me all the letters and reports which require my signature. Make a very careful search for every document connected with the State and place them in an envelope for sealing."
His own private correspondence he destroyed before he went any further. When that was done, he opened the packages which Li San had brought, washed the hypodermic syringe, and collecting three of the chocolate confections placed them on the table. The label on the little phial which had come from the chemist bore the words in French: "Guard! This is death!" and he drew back his lips to show his teeth at the quaint wording. Then he settled to the serious business of the afternoon. Very gingerly he inserted the needle of the syringe into one of the chocolates and drew out a pink fluid. It was the highly flavored "liqueur" of the sweetmeat. This he did to the three and each time he squirted the contents into the little phial and noted with satisfaction that there was sufficient coloring matter to turn the contents of the bottle to a pale pink.
When he had emptied the three, he filled the syringe from the bottle and pressed home the needle into the hollow candy until it had taken its capacity and the liquid was oozing forth around the needle.
With a pinch of his fingers he closed the tiny puncture and presently he was finished. He put away the needle, emptied the remainder of the deadly acid down the bath waste, cleaned and packed the needle in its case and dropped it into his trunk.
Then he changed his clothes, dressing carefully in a tail-coat, patent boots and a glossy silk hat. He did not forget to change the little pistol from his baggy mountaineering breeches to the carefully creased trousers he assumed for the purpose of the call.
It was half-past four o'clock when he stepped out of the funiculaire at Glion and walked to the Beau Rivage, carrying a little parcel in one gloved hand and a small roll of manuscript in the other. The Viscount met him at the door of his suite and led him into the saloon. A tall boy rose at their entrance and made a reverence.
"May I present my unworthy son to your Excellency," said Kito, and Chen bowed and walked slowly toward the youth who stood in the place where he had risen.
He wore a dark-blue gown embroidered in black, and his face was thin and refined. It was the face of an aristocrat as surely as Kito's was the face of a plebeian.
"Will you permit my son to be seated, for he is not strong?"
It was not curious that Viscount Kito, Minister Extraordinary to the Court of the Child of Heaven, should be wearing native dress. It was more remarkable that he kept his hands concealed in his long sleeves, for that is the mark of courtesy which is not Japanese, Chen duly noticed this fact and suspected a concealed weapon, not without good cause. Perhaps the restless and fearful spirit of Lady Chen had whispered urgently, frantically into the stout man's ear, and he, without understanding, had grown fearful. He had to uncover his hands to receive the poem, and there was an irregular bulge in the capacious sleeve.
"Your Excellency is most kind," he said with a smile, and the boy, who had seated himself at Chen's earnest gesture, reached out and half rose to take the verse from his father's hand.
"Boy, keep still!" said the viscount sharply, and the lad sank back again.
"My son is a great reader of Mandarin," said Kito apologetically, and Chen's head turned slowly toward the door.
The boy did not look ill. There was a brightness in his eye and a certain suggestion of latent vigor in the very set of his shoulders that advertised rude health. He was quick in his movements, too, quick to drop his eyes under the angry glance which Viscount Kito had thrown at him.
"This boy dislikes his father," said Chen to himself, and was mildly interested.
"Have you seen this beautiful country before?" he asked, and to his surprise the boy answered in faultless Mandarin.
"No, lord; but I wish to go to the mountains and to ride upon the big water, but most I wish to see the river."
He half twisted round and pointed to the green Rhône which flows into the lake hereabouts.
"The master has said that it is good to look upon a river because its flow never ceases, and it nourishes all living things without labor. It is like virtue, for it loves the low places, yet cities follow its course."
He quoted the famous passage from the Lun Yu without error, and Chen's narrow eyes blinked twice. Then very slowly, and with deliberation, he unwrapped the package of chocolates he had brought, and there was neither pity nor remorse nor fear in his heart. He took one between his fingers.
"Whosoever speaks well of the sage his mouth shall be filled with sweetness," he quoted, and the boy opened his lips.
Before they could close on the morsel, Kito with a roar had sprung between them and had dashed the chocolates to the ground. He stood puffing, his face gray, his eyes a blazing hell of fury.
"My son is ill, Excellency," he breathed. "It is not permitted to give him sweet-meats."
So it had failed. Chen had foreseen the possibility. He turned blandly and unmoved to the shaking man.
"I quite understand," he said, showing his teeth. "It was foolish of me."
Both his hands were on his hips, his legs were apart and his fingers were touching that which was in his hip pocket.
"I am sorry, Excellency," rumbled Kito; "but it is forbidden-your Excellency understands."
"Oh, quite!" Chen's voice was almost brisk. He limped across the room toward the door. "It was very foolish of me," he said, and turning saw that the viscount was in his line of fire. And then a curious thing happened.
Kito's back was turned to the boy, and after a furtive glance the boy rose and stepped noiselessly to where the sweetmeat lay and was stooping to pick it up when in a strangled voice Chen cried, "Stop!"
Kito swung round and saw the boy in the act of stooping and went livid.
"Boy, walk to me!" said Chen softly.
"I forbid you," stormed Kito, seizing the boy's arm.
"Walk to me, or one of you dies," said Chen, and the automatic in his hand was suggestive.
Instinctively Kito released his hold and the boy, after a wondering glance at the man at his side, limped across the room. Chen's breath sounded like a whistle.
"You bade him sit still in one place that he should not walk," his voice was softer yet. "He must not walk lest I read the riddle of his halting feet. O my lovely son!"
"Go and dress yourself, little love," he said, and the lad, not looking at Kito, went stiffly from the room.
As for Kito, he was sitting on the piano-stool, his jaw fallen, his lips working tremulously, as Chen walked across the room, picked up the chocolate, and tossed it into the fire. The box followed.
"Your Excellency," said Chen in his queerly accurate English, as he brushed his hands together, "many years ago the Lady Mi Chen, the wife of my heart and soul, took a little journey because of her health to the land of your fathers. Your Excellency, who is so very wise, may know of her arrival. I myself was in Tibet for half a year on the business of the emperor. Tell me now, Excellency, when was her man child born?"
For the second time that day Viscount Kito licked his lips, for he was of the caste which does not lie, even if the origin of his family had been lowly.
"I knew a lady who hated her husband," he said, "and because she had found there was a child coming to her and to him, she hated him more, so she went with one who was a great lover of hers, and stayed and comforted him until the gods touched her lips."
There was a knock at the door, and Chen turned, expecting to meet his child. Instead was a prosaic chasseur with a telegram on a plate.
Kito took the message and broke the flap mechanically. "Excuse me," he said, with almost uncanny politeness.
He read the message three times, and then was speaking when the boy came back.
"Malki," he said, "this man is your father and you will go with him, and if I have treated you harshly I have also treated you kindly, so think well of me. Your Excellency may take your son and may he be as great a blessing to you as my little boy will be to me."
He looked rapidly at the telegram again, and then for a time he looked on Chen with moist eyes.
"My wife has borne me a son," he said in a tremulous voice.
Chen was silent for a moment, then:
"May I congratulate your Excellency?" he said; and they bowed, excellency to excellency.