Chapter XI. The Mysticism of the East
 

"You remember what the consul said regarding trouble on the road to Peking?" asked Ned of Captain Martin as the two took seats under a tree not far from the cooking fires.

"Yes, and I wondered at his expressing such gloomy predictions. He gave me quite a scare."

"I think I understand, now, why he did it," Ned said, with a smile. "He was following instructions."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean that he had been communicated with by the Washington office, during the day, and given instructions."

"To scare you?"

"No; to keep me up to the mark in caution."

"I don't think you needed that."

"Well," Ned went on, "this is a queer case. At first I could not make up my mind why the Secret Service people insisted on my making this trip to Peking on a motorcycle, guarded by soldiers like a passenger in time of war. Now I think I know."

"Then you have the advantage of me," said the officer. "I've been thinking that over quite a lot, and the answer is still to find."

"Unless I am mistaken," Ned replied, "I am expected to do my work on the way to Peking."

"Come again!" smiled the Captain.

"In other words," replied Ned, "I'm set up on a motorcycle as a mark for the diplomats of Europe to shoot at."

"Then I must be a mark, also," grumbled the Captain.

"Exactly. How do you like it?"

"Oh, it isn't so bad!" smiled the other, won into better humor by the laughing face of the boy. "But why should the Secret Service department put you in such peril?"

"It is my notion," Ned hastened to say, in defense of his superior officers, "that they give me credit for sense enough to take care of myself. The same with regard to you."

"But why--"

"It seems to me," Ned interrupted, "that the department is up against a tough proposition. The matter is so delicate that no foreign government can be accused of mixing this conspiracy for Uncle Sam. What remains to do, then, is to spot the tools being used by the power that is most active."

"That's good sense."

"Well, we can't spot them in Washington, nor in Tientsin, nor yet in the American embassy at Peking. Where, then, but on the road--on the road where they are striving with all their might to block the progress of the agent who is trying to land them?"

Captain Martin mused a moment and then broke into a laugh.

"And so," he said, "you think we are spread out along this road for the conspirators to grab off?"

"If they can, of course; but that is not stating the case right. We are spread out along the road to Peking to catch the men who will try to stop us. See? We are here to watch for those who will try to catch us, and to catch them! What do you think of that?"

"Clever!" exclaimed the Captain.

"The system is an old one in detective work," Ned explained. "It is no unusual thing for an officer to permit a prisoner to escape in order that be may be traced to his confederates. Only this case is somewhat different, of course. We don't know exactly who the criminals we, but we expect them to reveal their identity by their own acts."

"Then we'd better be on double guard?"

"Of course. You know how the consul reiterated the warning he gave us. He couldn't tell us that it was the notion of the Secret Service department that we would be attacked on the way to Peking, but he could tell us to look out, and he did."

"Perhaps he thought the truth would frighten you off?"

"Perhaps," laughed Ned.

"Well, I'm glad to have the puzzle solved," Captain Martin said. "Now we know just what to look out for. When do you expect to meet with these foxy chaps?"

"They will appear in due time, if I am right," Ned replied. "Look out there on the road," he added, "they may be coming now."

The Captain looked and saw four men in the garb of priests, approaching the grove. Their robes were long and of a dirty slate color, and there was a great star on the breast of the man in the lead.

"A queer bunch," the officer said, "but not diplomats. They are Taoist priests, and the chances are that they have a tumble-down temple in this vicinity. They are not very popular in China just now."

"Never heard of them," Ned said, watching the men turn from the road into the grove.

"As you know," the officer explained; "I have been on Chinese stations a long time. Well, I've taken a fancy to study up the religion of the people. Or, to put it right, the three religions. First, there is the Confucian religion, which is not really a religion, for it does not deal with the spiritual. It is a philosophy, which teaches the brotherhood of man.

"Second, there is Buddhism, with its ruined temples and begging monks. This religion is an importation from India. Aged people and women are its chief devotees.

"Third, there is Taoism, scarcely less popular that Buddhism. The priests live with their families in ruined temples and practice all sorts of fool things. They have a mystic alchemy, prepare spells and incantations, and claim to hold communion with the dead. It is said that worthless foreigners travel about in the disguise of Taoist priests, just for the money there is in it, as fake spiritualist mediums travel about in our own country.

"The people coming are Taoist priests, all right, for they have the drums, and gongs, and fifes of their trade with them. Their ruined temple may not be far away. If we have time we may witness some of their foolish ceremonies."

Ned's face looked thoughtful for a moment, then cleared. There was a smile on his face as he asked:

"Do Taoist priests accost strangers on the highway?"

"Yes; when there is a show of getting money. They are a rank lot, as you will soon see."

"These may not be so rank," Ned replied, meaningfully.

"'Why," began Captain Martin, "you don't suppose--"

"It seems odd that Taoist priests should arrive here just at this time."

"If these chaps really I are spies--the spies we have been warned against--the fellows we were sent forth to meet, why, there may be a bit of action here."

"Well," Ned went on, "let them take the initiative. We shall soon be able to give a good guess as to what this visit means."

As the four strangely clad figures moved across the little patch of field which separated the highway from the grove, Jimmie came running over to where the two were sitting, an egg sandwich in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. As he ran the hot liquid jolted out of the cup and came in contact with his hand.

"Gee!" he shouted. "Just look what's comin'."

Then he dropped the hot cup on the ground and began to dance up and down, shaking his blistered hand as he did so.

"I got it!" he said. "There was only one hot cup in the lot, an' I got it! Say, Ned, what do you know about them callers you're goin' to have? Look like busted washee-washee geeks from Pell street. Look at 'em!"

By this time the marines were watching the advancing priests with curious eyes. Breakfast was nearly over, and some of the men were preparing for a brief rest in the shady spot they had found.

The priests, if such they were, entered the grove, passed through the group of men without a glance to the right or left, and approached the spot where Ned and the Captain sat. Here they drew up in a line, much as the fakirs of the East Indies perform, with their crude drams, gongs and fifes in full view.

"Hello, Sports!" Jimmie cried.

Ned motioned to the boy to remain silent.

The Captain addressed the priests in a couple of Chinese sentences, but received no immediate answer. One of the fellows, the one with a great star painted, or worked, on the breast of his gown, soon advanced and stood directly in front of Ned.

"We have had warning of your approach," he said. "We have been waiting for you for many days."

Ned started, for the words were spoken in English. The Captain muttered under his breath:

"I haven't a doubt of it."

"What do you want?" asked Ned.

The four bowed to the ground.

"Attention. The mysticism of the East is open to you if you are brave and strong."

"Bunk!" whispered Jimmie.

"Where do you live?" asked the Captain.

The leader pointed to a pile of broken stones at the edge of the grove. A closer inspection of the heap told the officer that it was what time had left of a temple.

"Tell him to get busy," whispered Jimmie. "Can he make a tree three hundred years old in a minute?"

"Where is this mysticism of the East located?" asked the Captain, unable to get the original notion that they were not what they seemed out of his mind.

Again the leader pointed to the ruined temple.

"Come!" he said.

"Now is your chance!" whispered the Captain.

"You are convinced that these are the people who were sent out to defeat the purpose of our mission?" asked Ned.

"Sure," was the reply. "These fellows are not priests. I don't believe the chap who speaks is even a Chinaman."

Ned did not hesitate long. If he was correct in his interpretation of the orders of the Secret Service department, it would be the right thing for him to go with the strange visitors.

If, as he really believed, they had designs on his life or his liberty, no better place or time for the test of cunning and strength could have been selected. It was early morning, and the highway just beyond the grove was never long vacant of travelers. Indeed, groups of five or six were constantly in sight.

The travelers were Chinese, of course, and not likely to assist him out of any difficulty into which he might tumble, still the fact that they were there was something. Even conspirators do not seek audiences for their crimes.

Besides, there were the marines. Ned understood that they would not be permitted to enter the ruined temple in a body, but he knew that they would be within call.

"What's your notion?" Ned whispered to the Captain.

"Go, and take me with you."

"Of course you'll go if I do."

"And what's the matter with me goin'?" demanded Jimmie, who was near enough to catch the impression that Ned was going somewhere and was intending to leave him behind.

"Perhaps the hosts won't welcome three," suggested Ned, in a whisper. "Such people, like those who present communications from dead friends, at a dollar per, like to work in private."

Jimmie did not wait to argue the question with Ned. As usual, his answer was direct and to the point. He advanced upon the priests and demanded:

"Will you take me along?"

The four regarded each other in perplexity.

"Come, now," urged the boy, "be good sports. Be good fellers, for once!"

It was finally arranged that Ned, Jimmie and the Captain were to proceed to the ruined temple with the four and there learn something of the mysticism of the East! Ned was positive that the time for his test of courage had come. Still, he did not waver, for he was prepared. The marines were instructed to gradually encircle the old temple, and to listen for orders from the inside.

While satisfied that he had now come to the turning point in the case, Ned wondered, while on the way to the temple, if he ought to take the risk, whether it might not be wiser to arrest the fakirs, strip them of their disguises, and take them, by force of numbers, to the embassy at Peking. Still, if he took that course, he would have no proof against them--would not be able to connect the fellows with the conspiracy.

The only thing to do was to take the risk.

So, with a premonition of danger in his heart, he turned down the steps which led to the temple.

For the temple was, as has been said, in ruins. There was a heap of hewn stones on top of the earth, and that was all that showed from above. In front a stone staircase led down into a damp and evil-smelling place.

After a minute's descent Ned found himself in a long, narrow hall, which had at some time in the distant past formed the lobby of the temple.

There was a cold wind blowing from somewhere in advance, and bats flew croakingly against it in their retreat from the intruders. Ned heard the clang of a heavy door behind him. Then the current of air was shut off.

"This old barn of a place hasn't been used for a hundred years!" Jimmie whispered, clutching Ned by the arm.

"What makes you think so?" asked Ned.

"If in use, there would be something here to show it," was the reply. "See, they haven't even got lights here. The ones they are now carrying were taken from the folds of their robes. And there would be no bats if the place was in constant use."

"Right you are, boy," Ned whispered back. "But we knew what we were getting into. Hark!"

It was the dull, rolling sound of a drum that caused the exclamation. One of the men, far in advance, was evidently giving a signal. In a moment the shrill notes of a fife reached the ears of the boys.

They waited for a moment, wondering, and then a burst of light came from some unseen quarter and the four men were seen standing in line on a rock which lifted above the sloping floor.

"Now for the ghosts!" whispered Jimmie. "Who's first?"