Chapter XVI. A Bit of Sealing Wax
 

The night grew clearer as the flying squadron advanced toward the imperial city of China. The roads were rough in places, but the superb machines carried the boys and their companions at good speed.

It may well be imagined that the party created something of a sensation as it whirled along. The constant popping of the engines, the strong lights which flashed ahead, and the voices of the marines brought many a sleepy-faced Chinaman to the door of his home.

Now and then the boys were hailed from the roadside, but little attention was paid to these calls. Finally, however, a voice addressed the party in English.

"Where are you going?" it asked.

Ned instructed the Captain to proceed a few paces with his company and then halted to see what manner of man it was that spoke to him in that tongue. He found an old Chinaman, a wise-looking old fellow with a keen face, leaning over a rude gate in front of a small house.

"Did you speak?" he asked, advancing to the gate.

"I did," was the reply. "I was curious to know where you were going in the middle of the night."

"You speak English remarkably well," Ned said, not in any hurry to satisfy the old fellow's curiosity.

"I ought to," was the reply. "I have just come back from New York. I owned a laundry there for a good many years."

"And have returned to China to live in peace and comfort?"

"I don't know about the peace," replied the Chinaman, with a sigh.

"You think there will be a war?"

The Chinaman nodded.

"The coming revolt," he declared, "was conceived more than two hundred years ago. For fifty years organization has been going on. For six years the revolutionists have been working as a whole."

"And they are strong?" asked Ned.

"Wherever in the world Chinamen live, in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, anywhere, everywhere, there are funds being collected for the coming civil war."

Ned wanted to ask the loquacious old fellow what his private ideas about the justice of the struggle were, but he decided not to do so. He thought he might find out in another way.

"And the revolutionists will win?" he asked.

"God forbid!" was the reply, and the boy had the answer he thought he would receive.

Still, he was not satisfied that the old fellow was telling the exact truth regarding his sentiments. It was the revolutionists he had to battle with, and not the federalists. This retired laundryman might know that!

"Anyway," the boy thought, "the fellow seems desirous of keeping me here as long as possible. This, of course, may be because of a desire for the companionship of one of the race he has lived with so long, but I do not think so."

Pretending to be deeply interested in what the Chinaman was saying, he excused himself for a moment and beckoned to Jimmie.

"Lead your motorcycle noiselessly up that rise of ground," he directed, "and when you get there keep your eyes wide open."

"What for?" demanded the boy.

"For whatever comes in sight," replied Ned. "Keep the line of vision from this house to whatever may be beyond unimpaired if it is possible to do so. If you observe anything unusual, report to me."

"All righto!" cried the boy.

Ned saw Jimmie making a noiseless progress up the little hill and turned back to the man at the gate. Instantly the latter offered refreshments, for the entire party, and seemed disappointed when the offer was declined.

"You're going to Peking on business?" the Chinaman finally asked.

"Yes," was the short answer.

"Why do you ride in the night?"

"Because we must get there in the morning."

"But there is another day."

"Always there is another day in the Far East," Ned smiled, "but we of the West count only on what we can do before that other day arrives."

The two talked on for half an hour, while the marines muttered complaints and Frank and Jack rolled themselves in blankets and tried to pay a visit to Dreamland. The previous night had been a hard one, and they felt the need of more rest than they had been able to get during the afternoon.

After a time Ned became anxious. He had sent Jimmie on ahead with the notion that something was going to happen there within a short time. But all was still about the house and the small fields which surrounded it. Jimmie did not return.

"I wonder if the little scamp is in trouble again?" thought Ned.

This seemed to be the natural solution of the puzzle of his long absence, and Ned was about to send Frank on after him when the little fellow came up to him.

"The Captain wants you to get a move on," the boy said.

Ned saw that Jimmie had something to say to him which was not for the ears of the Chinaman, and walked away, followed by the urgent voice of the former laundryman, who besought him to return and partake of refreshments.

"In honor of old New York!" he added.

"Gee!" Jimmie muttered, as the boys stood alone together. "I was thinkin' I'd struck the fourth of July."

"Where?"

"Up on the hill."

"So, they were using rockets?"

"Yes."

"Where did they ascend from?"

"From the other side of the hill, at this end, and from an old house at the other end."

Ned stood for a moment without speaking. So the Chinaman had been holding him in conversation while his tools had been signaling to some one farther up the road!

This was practically what he had suspected. From the first he had believed that the old fellow's purpose was to hold him there as long as possible.

Signals would naturally be the outgrowth of such a plan, and Ned had sent Jimmie on ahead--silently--in order to see where the other party answered the signals from, if they were answered at all. As from the opening of the case, he had planned to secure his information from his enemies--from their actions and their presence or absence from the position he occupied.

Directing the marines to follow on slowly, Ned awoke Frank and Jack. The four climbed the hill slowly, watching the sky as they advanced. The clouds lay low to the east, but in the west was a patch of clear sky.

When they gained the summit of the rise, they saw a light in a little grove some distance away. It seemed like a lantern moving out and in among the trees.

"There," Jimmie explained, "when I got to the top of the hill, I saw a rocket shoot out of that thicket. It did not ascend the sky, but follow the line of the earth and died out in the road."

"Of course," Ned said. "A rocket sent up in the usual way would have been visible from where we were standing."

"And, in a minute," the boy went on, "there came a rocket from that house, the house where the light was a minute ago. That, too, followed the ground line."

"Talking together in low tones!" grinned Jack.

"They were talkin' together, all right," Jimmie said.

"Dollars to dumplings," Frank exclaimed, "that the funny chap we met in the old mud house at Taku has a room in that shack."

"He might have been hiding there," Ned said.

"An' that old stiff signaled to him to make his getaway?" asked the little fellow.

"Looks like it," Ned replied.

"Huh!" Jack objected. "The signals might have told the men at the other end of the line to get their soldiers out and bump us off the continent."

"Which idea," responded Frank, "causes me to want to approach that house with all due caution and respect."

"Suppose we four surround it," suggested Jimmie.

"That's the idea!" Jack commented.

"Just what I was about to propose," said Wed. "We'll leave the marines within call and go up to this temporary signal station and see what about it."

The Captain was communicated with, and then the four left the road and moved around toward the rear of the house, keeping in the shadows of the trees. Not until they reached the very door of the place were there any signs of life there.

The lantern they had observed from a distance was seen no more. The windows were dark and silent. But when they came to the door they found it unlocked.

As the crude latch was lifted, with a very slight creaking sound, a movement was heard inside, and then a heavy body was heard striking the ground at the rear. Then a was as silent as before.

"Someone jumped out of a window!" Jimmie whispered. "I hope he broke his crust!"

There was to be no defense of the place, then! Whoever the inmates had been, they were deserting the house.

Ned stationed Frank and Jack at the front and moved around to the rear with Jimmie close behind. A rustle in the undergrowth told him that the former occupants of the place were still about.

Jimmie darted in the direction of the noise, but was back again in a minute.

"Might as well try to chase a ghost!" he said.

"Got clear away, did he?" asked Ned.

"You know it!" grunted the little fellow.

Frank and Jack were now heard in the house, and the rays of a searchlight showed at a window, showed very faintly in cracks, for there was a heavy wooden shutter to the window on the inside. Ned tried the rear door. It was not locked and he entered.

The house was deserted, but it was not unfurnished. Indeed, articles of furniture scattered about the rooms, which were in great disorder, denoted not only wealth but a refined taste.

There were velvet rugs on the floors and great easy chairs and lounging divans. A pantry revealed unwashed dishes, showing that food had been served there recently.

"Who was it that ran away?" asked Jack, as the boys met.

"A ghost!" replied Jimmie. "I chased him until he hid in a tree."

"Why didn't you pull him out?" grinned Jack.

"Because he turned into a green cow with purple wings!" the little fellow replied.

Jack whirled his arms around in the manner of one turning a crank and laughed. The boys delighted in such by-play.

"If it's all the same to you, boys," Frank was now heard saying, "I'll just devour such few things as are left here. I see a ham and a box of canned vegetables. Must have intended a long stop here, whoever he was."

Leaving the boys to search the remainder of the house, Ned entered what had evidently been a reading room and turned on his light. The room was handsomely decorated, and there were scores of books lying around on tables and chairs.

Calling to the boys, he directed them to bring up the marines and station them around the house.

"I want to know that I'll not be disturbed," he said.

"Found somethin'?" asked Jimmie.

"Look at the books," Ned replied.

Jimmie read half a dozen titles and cast the volumes aside.

"They don't look good to me," he said. "All about international law and treaties!"

"Exactly!" Ned said, and then Jimmie opened his eyes.

"I'll bet there's been some of them statesmen livin' here!" the little fellow almost whispered. "Say, do you think you have run 'em down at last?"

"I don't know, son," was the reply. "Look on that table and see what you discover."

"Bits of torn paper an' some red wax."

"The paper," Ned explained, "is parchment, such as is used in important official transactions, and the wax is of the kind used by lawyers and diplomats. Here is a seal!"

Ned's face turned pale as he looked at the seal. Could it be possible that the nation to which it belonged had been engaged in this conspiracy? It did not seem possible.

Ned put the telltale seal away in his pocket without permitting Jimmie to see it and picked up some loose pieces of sealing wax which lay on the table near where the seal had been found.

"Do you see the fine work done with the seal which made this impression?" Ned asked.

"Fine seal!" Jimmie replied. "Was that stamp made by the seal you just hid away?"

"No," Ned replied, "thank God it was not!"

Wrapping the wax very carefully, so that it would not crumble, and securing every bit of paper in sight, Ned made a little bundle and stowed it away in a pocket. Then he began a search of the rug on the floor.

Jimmie was on his knees, in a moment.

"Finders keepers?" he asked.

"That depends!" Ned said.

"Well, some one's been payin' out money here," the boy went on. "See what I found!"

What he had found was a gold piece of the denomination of twenty dollars. And it bore the stamp of the American eagle!