Chapter VII. The Midnight Call of an Owl
 

Ned glanced about keenly as he left his seat on the machine and stood awaiting further instructions. There was little rain in the air now, but it was still dark except for the faint reflection of a distant group of lights.

"Where are we?" Ned asked.

"Near Tientsin."

"So soon? Why, I thought we'd be a long time on the way."

"I reckon you don't know how fast we have been traveling," said the officer. "Fear led me to take risks. I'll admit that."

"I want to look through the city before I leave the country," Ned remarked.

"You are standing now where the allied armies encamped in 1900," the officer went on. "You doubtless recall the time the allied armies were sent to Peking to rescue the foreign ambassadors during the Boxer uprising? That was an exciting time."

"Hardly," laughed Ned, "although I have read much about that march. I must have been about eight years old at the time."

"Well here is where the American brigade encamped on the night before the start for Peking was made. At that time it was believed that the foreigners at Peking had all been murdered. I was here with the boys in blue."

"Then you ought to know the road to Peking."

"I certainly do."

"What are we halting here for?"

"There is a dispatch from Washington due you here," was the reply.

"Telegrams in China?"

"Certainly. Why, kid, this city has over a million of inhabitants, and thousands of the residents are foreigners. Of course they have telegraph facilities."

"But how am I to get it to-night?"

To the east lay a great cornfield, to the west a broken common upon which were a few houses of the meaner sort. The corn had been cut and was in the shock. In the houses the lights were out. But far over the poverty-stricken abodes of the poor shone the reflections of the high lights of the city.

Tientsin is a squalid Oriental city, its native abodes being of the cheapest kind, but the foreign section is well built up and well lighted. These were the reflections, glancing down from a gentle slope, that the boys saw.

The officer pointed to the north, indicating a low-roofed hut half hidden in the corn shocks.

"We are to remain there," he said, "until you receive your instructions from Washington."

"But why were they not given me before?" demanded Ned.

"Because the man in charge of this matter for the Secret Service department doubted your ability to make the trip to Tientsin. That is the truth of it. If you had failed back there at Taku, I should have taken the message from the office and mailed it, unopened, back to Washington. You have made good, so you get it yourself."

"They never put me to such a test before," grumbled Ned.

The officer turned, gave a short order to his men, and passed his machine over to one of them.

"I am going into the city with Mr. Nestor," he said; "see that none of these youngsters gets away during my absence."

"I'm goin' to get away right now," Jimmie exclaimed. "I'm goin' with Ned to the city. I guess I'm not visiting China to live in a cornfield. I want to see the wheels go round!"

The officer glanced at Ned questioningly, while the little fellow made a face back.

"Let him come along," Ned said. "He'll come anyway, whether we give him permission or not. How far must we walk?"

"Walk?" repeated Jimmie. "I'm goin' to take my motorcycle."

"That may be a good idea," admitted the officer. "I had not thought of that."

"We may have to make a run for it, judging from the experiences we had at Taku," Ned suggested.

"Nothing of the kind here," the other said. "You are as safe in this city as you would be in New York, under the same conditions, of course. You know there are sections of New York which strangers do well to keep out of at night."

So, mounting their cycles again, the three set off for the foreign section of Tientsin. At first the streets were very bad, but in time they came to smoother running and good time was made.

It was now approaching midnight, but the city, was still awake and stirring. The streets were well filled with pedestrians, and many of the small shops were open.

Naturally the three motorcycles, speeding through the streets of the ancient city, attracted no little attention. Here and there little groups blocked the way for an instant, but on the whole fair progress was made.

Jimmie, by no means as anxious as were his companions, enjoyed every moment of the dash. He was thinking of the stories he would have to tell when he returned to the Bowery again!

It is quite possible that the way would have been more difficult for the riders only for the uniform of the officer. Foreigners are not given much consideration by the street crowds in China--especially by such crowds as enliven the thoroughfares at night--but, since the march of the allied armies to Peking, uniforms have been held in great awe.

At last the telegraph office was reached, and Ned was glad to see that lights still burned within. His night ride would at least prove of avail. He would receive instructions directly from Washington, and that would be more to the purpose than traveling along like a blind mole in the earth, receiving his information by bits from underlings in the Secret Service.

Besides, the boy was wet and cold, for the night was growing more disagreeable every moment, and he would now have an opportunity to warm himself by a blaze such as foreigners ordinarily insist on in the cold months in China.

The man at the desk bowed courteously as the three entered the office. He was evidently a native of China but seemed to have profited by a foreign education.

When Ned gave his name and asked for a message, the operator, who appeared to be the sole employee there, coolly surveyed him critically from head to foot. Then he turned questioning eyes to the marine.

"It is all right," the officer said. "This is the person brought here by the flying squadron."

"A boy!" cried the operator. "Only a boy!"

"Aw, cut that out!" cried Jimmie, always ready to resent any seeming discourtesy to his chum.

The operator scowled at the little fellow and turned to the officer with the remark that he should be obliged to consult with his superior.

"All right," was the officer's reply. "Only make haste."

The operator entered a back room and presently returned with a boy who evidently served as messenger during the daytime. After receiving whispered instructions, the lad passed out of the office, with a furtive glance over his shoulder at Jimmie.

Then the operator went back to his desk, while the officer and Ned stood waiting. There was no fire in the outer office, but a wave of warm air came from the rear room.

"We have been riding in the rain," the officer said, seeing that they were not to be invited into the heated apartment. "May we go back to the fire?"

The operator scowled, but the uniform won the day, and the three were ushered into a small room where an American oil stove was sending forth a generous heat. Then the grouchy operator slammed the door and left his guests to their own reflections.

"Say," Jimmie whispered, in a moment, "I don't believe that chump is on the level!"

"Well," Ned replied, "he's got to give me the dispatch. He can't get out of doing that."

"Perhaps he knows what the message contains," the officer suggested, "and is not inclined to deliver it."

"I hardly think he knows what it contains," Ned answered, "for it is undoubtedly in cipher."

"And you have the Secret Service code?" asked the officer, amazement showing on his face.

"Certainly."

"Well, they have a lot of confidence in you, then," said the other.

At the end of half an hour a man said to be the assistant in charge of the station entered the room and eyed all three occupants keenly. His glances were met frankly by Ned and the officer, but Jimmie could not resist an inclination to wrinkle his nose at him.

"Which is Ned Nestor?" the man asked, addressing the officer.

The marine pointed toward Ned.

"Do you know him to be Ned Nestor?" was the next question, and Ned thought he felt a hostile spirit in the tone.

"Certainly I do, else I would not be here with him."

"This is important business of state," suggested the other, "and I have to be cautious."

"Your conduct seems more like curiosity than caution," the officer declared. "Have you the message with you?"

"Yes, but I can't deliver it except in the presence of the manager."

"Is it in the code of the Secret Service?" asked Ned.

"It is in some code unknown to me."

"If you don't deliver it in five minutes," declared the officer, "I shall call the American consul!"

The official made no reply.

"You can read this code, I suppose?" he asked of Ned.

"Certainly."

"Well, I'll communicate with the manager, and if he says it is all right I'll give you the message and take your receipt for it. Will that answer?"

"It must, I suppose," replied the officer.

The obdurate official left the room.

"Gee, but it's close in here!" Jimmie declared, in a moment. "Seems like a hop joint in Pell street."

"There is opium in the air," the officer said. "See if you can find a window."

Jimmie found a window opening on a large court and lifted the lower sash. Then he called to Ned.

"I don't like the looks of this," he said. "If they should try to hold us here, what?"

"They won't do that."

"Oh, they won't tie us up, I guess," said the little fellow, "but they may delay our departure."

"Go on," smiled Ned.

"An' communicate with the ginks that have been chasing us ever since we left the submarine," concluded the boy.

"In time, Jimmie," Ned answered, "you may even get into the thinking row. I have been wondering ever since we came in here if we were not with enemies instead of friends."

"I can soon find out," declared Jimmie.

"Yes? How, may I ask?"

"I'll rush out into the other room an' try to get to the street. If there's anythin' in the notion we have, they'll turn me back."

"You might try that," smiled Ned, and the officer clapped a hand on the boy's shoulder and declared that he was a "brick."

So Jimmie hustled out into the front office. The listeners heard sharp words, and then a slight scuffling of feet. Then next instant the boy was pushed back through the doorway.

"What is the trouble?" asked the marine of the assistant, whose flushed face showed in the half-open doorway.

"You'll all have to be identified before you can leave here," was the curt reply. "You have asked for important state dispatches, and we want to know what your motive is."

"My motive is to get them," replied Ned, coolly.

"Wait until you prove your right to them," said the other, and the door was slammed shut. Ned stepped back to the window and looked out into the court. The walls were four stories high, and there seemed to be no passage out of the box-like place. The officer suggested that he force his way through the outer office and reach the American consul, but Ned did not approve of this. He thought there must be some other way. Then a hint of that other way came from the court in the call of an owl.

"That's a Boy Scout signal, and not a bird!" almost shouted Jimmie.