Chapter XIII. A Vanishing Diplomat
 

Ned turned to the Captain as the men in slate-colored robes lifted their hands after the manner of fake mystics the world over. He was not uninterested, but he was anxious.

They were now some distance from the grove in which the camp breakfast had been prepared, and the grove, in turn, was some distance from the highway. They were also some feet under ground, where any calls for assistance that might be necessary would be muffled by the hewn stone and the damp air and earth.

Besides, the alleged priests had mapped out this scene before the arrival of the boys, as Ned believed. Therefore they might have half a hundred natives within call, prepared to do murder if necessary.

The marines had been ordered by the Captain to gradually surround the temple, to guard every entrance that could be discovered, and to force their way in if anything of a suspicious nature occurred. Ned did not know the men as well as he knew the Captain, therefore he asked:

"The men will obey your orders to the letter? You see, we are in a box here!"

"They will obey," said the officer. "What do you make of the mummery now going on?"

The "mummery" consisted in slow, gliding motions, in whirlings about intended to be graceful, in slow liftings of the hands upward, and in the beating of the drums.

"I don't make anything of it," Ned replied. "I take it they are waiting for time. Perhaps they got us in here with less trouble than they had figured on, and are waiting for confederates."

"What a land!" mused the Captain. "What a way to seek the destruction of any enemy! An Italian would have stabbed us in the back on the way in here, a Frenchman would have set a band of bullies upon us in the grove, an American would have walked up and made observations with his bare fists!"

"This is Oriental!" smiled Ned. "I wish we were well out of this hole in the ground!"

"I see," began the man with the star on the breast of his dirty gown, "that you are in trouble of mind concerning the loss of two companions."

"Correct!" shouted the irrepressible Jimmie. "Come across with them-- right soon, old hoss!"

"I see," continued the other, not noticing the interruption, "that you are here in a weighty matter--a matter affecting the peace of nations."

Jimmie was primed for another outbreak of conversation, but Ned caught him by the arm and ordered him to remain silent.

"I see," the alleged seer went on, "that you have met with difficulties and perils on the way. Is this true?"

"All true," Ned answered.

"Then approach. Enter the holy room and receive instruction which shall be of benefit."

Ned hesitated a moment.

"And my friends?" he asked.

"The spirit speaks to but one," was the reply.

"What a lot of rot!" whispered Jimmie. "You go on, an' I'll be there in a second if there is anything like rough house."

With a warning look in the Captain's direction, the boy advanced to the platform of rock. From there he was directed to a door cut in what, seemed to be soft earth and framed with timbers. The timbers were new. He saw that at a glance, and drew his own conclusions.

Ned was glad to see that the man who had done all the speaking was the only one to accompany him into the side room. In a contest of muscles, he thought he could hold his own pretty well with this fellow.

Ned was prepared for almost anything, but what took place next filled him with astonishment. The room was just a hole out in the earth. It did not appear to have been a part of the old temple. There were in it a board table, roughly put together, two chairs, and a square box, perhaps five feet in length by one and a half in the other proportions.

As soon as the door was closed the alleged priest threw aside his slate-colored robe, snatched a wig and beard from his head and face, and stood forth a handsome man, dressed in the costume of a modern Englishman or American. At first Ned did not recognize the smiling face which confronted him.

Then there came to his mind the memory of a time in Canton when he had watched a meeting of men he believed to be in conspiracy against his country. This face certainly had been there.

The voice was low, smooth, musical. Ned stood looking at the subtle countenance, but said not a word.

"You are caught at last!" came next.

Still Ned stood silent, saying not a word, only wondering if the time for final action had arrived--if the Captain outside was in such peril as threatened himself.

"Rather a bright boy," sneered the other, "only not bright enough to understand that men of the world are not to be defeated in their long-cherished plans by the kindergarten class. Do you know where your two friends are--the two who accompanied you here?"

"I presume that they are quite capable of taking care of themselves," Ned replied.

"They are on the road to a dungeon in Peking."

"From first to last," Ned said, "from my first connection with this case up to this hour, I have come upon only bluffers and liars. You seem to be making good in both lines."

"Not so rude, kid," laughed the other. "You've certainly got nerve to address such words to one who holds your life, and the lives of your friends, in his hand."

"If you do," Ned said, "if you really have the power of life and death you claim to have, there is no hope for any of us."

"Figure it out in your own way," said the other, "but, so far as the power of life and death is concerned, you hold the lives of your friends in your own hands."

"I understand what you mean," the boy replied, "but I'm not for sale. Go ahead with your procession! Death looks pretty good to me, as compared with the disgrace of asking a favor from one of your stripe."

Ned's words, purposely designed to enrage the fellow, struck fire at last, and he said what he never would have said in calmer moments.

"I'll show you that death is not so pleasant a thing as you seem to imagine!" he almost shouted. "I'll show you how to learn the lesson of supplication! When the future of a nation is at stake, human lives do not count. What are the lives of a dozen or more to the prosperity of millions? You have information which is needed, in the interest of humanity, and even torture shall be resorted to if it can be obtained in no other way."

"And so," Ned replied, calmly, "you are not merely a tool. As I supposed, you are one of the men at the head of the conspiracy. You are the man I came upon at Canton. You are the wretch who is trying to involve two continents in war. Well, I hope to meet you under less trying circumstances!"

The other laughed harshly and walked to the door. Listening with his ear against the rough boards for an instant, he opened it a trifle and glanced out. Ned heard sounds of a struggle there, and was about to spring forward when his captor faced him with a provoking smile.

"By the way," he said, "I neglected to inform you that one threatening movement will mean instant death to you. I am opposed to any bully-like display of weapons, preferring to discuss this question with you without coercion, but I took the precaution to place a rifleman at an opening in one of the walls of this room. He has you 'covered,' as the saying is, and so it is advisable for you to remain passive."

"What is going on out there?" demanded Ned.

"Your people seem to be protesting against leaving the place under escort," laughed the other. "The two you left at the camp in the cornfield were not so hard to control."

"You seem to have a good knowledge of a our movements," said Ned. "You have a spy system well in hand here."

"That is refreshing, as coming from the mouth of a spy," retorted the other. "If you are ready to talk business," he added, closing the door, "I am ready to make a proposition."

"If your time and your breath are worth anything," the boy replied, "you may as well save both."

"You have possession of certain documents taken from a certain wreck in the Pacific Ocean?"

Ned made no reply.

"You possess certain information concerning an alleged plot."

Still no response from the boy.

"Without you, your government can make no headway in the investigation now on foot."

Ned dropped into a chair and turned his face away with a well assumed air of indifference. Really, he was anxious for the man to go on, to say just how important were the papers and the information.

"We have it in our power to prevent the information you possess ever reaching your government, but the documents you have we cannot get in the usual way. Therefore we are offering you terms."

"Naturally," Ned smiled.

"Promise to restore the papers and forever remain silent as to what you have learned since you undertook this case, and you shall all go free, with more money than you ever dreamed of having in your hands."

"You have not stated the case fully," Ned said, when the other concluded, with a superior air. "You have not mentioned a certain alleged diplomat. You want me to forget all that he has said and done in the matter."

"Naturally. I said that you were to forget everything connected with the case."

"I prefer," Ned replied, "to see you on the gallows for murder."

The other started violently.

"Then this is final?"

There came a sound resembling the report of firearms from the outer room. At the same time Ned caught a movement behind the south wall of the room. The gunman mentioned by the diplomat was evidently leaving his post for the purpose of joining in any struggle which might be taking place.

The boy thought fast for a moment. If the marines had fought their way into the outer room they would soon be knocking at the rough door that separated the two apartments. In that case the man before him would do one of two things.

He would try to fight his way out of the room, or he would try to escape by some exit not at that time in sight. In the first instance he might wound or kill one or more of the marines. In the latter, he might be able to conceal himself in some underground passage and finally escape.

It seemed to Ned that the one thing for him to do was to attack the fellow and endeavor to disarm him. The noises of conflict in the outer room grew more distinct, and Ned, observing that the diplomat was glancing restlessly about, as if seeking some means of escape, sprang upon him.

Instead of turning and defending himself, the fellow struggled to release himself from the boy's hold, and to make his way toward a section of the wall on the south. The statement that a rifleman had been stationed somewhere there now came back to the boy's mind, and he knew that there must be a passage behind that wall.

The man with whom Ned was struggling was evidently unarmed, for he fought only with his hands and feet. He tried by all the tricks known to wrestlers to break away from the boy, or to hurl him to the floor, but Ned had skill as well as strength, and all such efforts proved unavailing.

While this silent struggle was going on, the rough door came crashing in and a score of Chinamen, evidently fleeing from an enemy, rushed in and flocked toward that south wall. Ned and his enemy were trampled under foot for a moment, then the room was clear save for a half dozen marines who stood in the doorway, their smoking guns in their hands.

Ned's head whirled from a blow he had received, and there was a numb feeling in one of his arms, but he arose to his feet and glanced around. Jimmie stood with the marines, a grin on his freckled face.

"Gee whiz!" he shouted, "how that man did go!"

"Which man?" demanded Ned. "Why didn't some one follow him?"

"He just went through that wall," Jimmie answered. "When I tried to follow him I bumped me nose! Say, but he went right through that old wall!"

"Where did the Chinks go?" asked Ned.

"Down through the floor!" was the reply. "But, say, did you ever see anythin' like that vanishin' priest? I'll bet a pie he's forty miles away right this minute."

When Ned and the marines took up the search for the diplomat and the Chinese, it did seem that they were forty miles away! There were numerous passages under the old temple, and in these the fugitives must have hidden.

"How did you know?" asked Ned of the marines who had broken into the underground rooms. "How did you know there was danger inside?"

"That little imp of a Jimmie," one of the men said, "came to the entrance and shouted fit to wake the dead. They were trying to carry the Captain and the kid away. Bright boy, that!"

Two of the marines had been slightly wounded by knives in the hands of the Chinese, but they declared themselves quite well enough to go on with the journey.

"The Chinks didn't fight," one of them said. "They just threw knives and ran! We never hit one of them! Sheep, that's what they are! Just sheep!"

"Well," Ned said, "we've lost our chance on the road to Peking, the fellow we want having escaped, so we must go ahead and set the rat trap once more."

"You'll walk if you do," one of the marines said, showing from the outside, "for the Chinks have made off with the motorcycles!"