Chapter VIII. The Message from Washington
 

"Surely," the marine officer said, in answer to the boy's exclamation, "that is a genuine, feathered owl. No boy could make so perfect an imitation."

"It's Dutchy, all right," insisted Jimmie. "I've heard him make that noise before. Now, how did he ever get to Tientsin, and how did he locate us?"

"It doesn't seem possible that it is Hans," Ned said. "How could he make the journey on foot, through a country suspicious of every foreigner? And how comes it that he chanced on this building?"

"Didn't he know that you were expecting instructions from Washington while on the way to Peking?" asked the officer.

"I did not know, myself, that I was to receive instructions while on the way until I met you," Ned replied. "If Hans is indeed here, he has either blundered into his present position or gained pretty accurate information from some one unknown to me."

"If he is here?" repeated Jimmie. "Of course he is here. I'm goin' out in the court an' give him the call of the pack!"

"What does he mean by that?" asked the officer of Ned. "Call of the pack?"

"The call of the Wolf pack," answered Ned. "We both belong to the Wolf Patrol, of New York."

"And you think Hans, if it is he, will understand?"

"Of course!" scorned Jimmie.

The little fellow was about to step out of the low window to the floor of the court when a mist of light appeared at one of the glazed windows on the opposite side. The three watched the illumination with absorbing interest for a moment.

"Hans must be up there," Ned, muttered, "although I would almost as soon expect to find him up in a balloon."

"I reckon you'll find an owl with wise eyes and feathers up there, if you wait," said the officer, with a smile. "The boy you refer to never could have traveled here alone."

"You just wait," advised Jimmie.

Presently the mist of light centered down to three small flames, apparently coming from three narrow twists of paper, burning in a row in front of a window on the second floor. Jimmie grasped Ned's arm as the three tiny columns of flame showed for an instant and then vanished.

"There!" he said. "Do you know what that means?"

"It is a warning of danger," Ned muttered.

"Say that again," exclaimed the officer. "What kind of a game is this?"

"It is a Boy Scout warning," Ned replied. "In the forest three columns of smoke express the warning. How did this German boy learn all this?" he continued, turning to Jimmie.

"Don't you ever think the Philadelphia Boy Scouts are slow!" answered the boy. "Hans has been out in the forest with them, and knows all about woods work, an' signs, an' signals. Give it up, now?"

"Yes," replied the officer, "I give it up. You boys must have a wonderful organization."

"We certainly have," Ned replied.

The three waited for a moment, but no more signals came from the window. Instead a heavy footfall sounded outside the door and a man they had not seen before stepped into the room.

He was a heavily built man, with broad shoulders, black hair and eyes, and a wicked mouth. His face looked hard and repulsive, like the face of a reckless, intolerant, whisky-drinking captain of police in a graft-ridden district. He closed the door with his back as he entered.

"You are Ned Nestor?" he asked of the officer. The latter pointed toward Ned.

"That child!" exclaimed the newcomer.

Jimmie restrained himself with an effort, for he knew that this was no time to engage in a quarrel. He turned his back to the group and looked out of the window into the court.

There was now no light at the window from which the warning had been given, but there were flickers of uncertain candles at some of the others. The hooting of the owl had undoubtedly attracted the attention of the occupants of the building.

As Jimmie looked, however, the sash of the window he was watching was pushed up and a tousled head appeared. Other sashes were pushed up in an instant, and pigtailed heads and slanting, evil eyes were in view.

"I guess they're keepin' cases on the kid!" Jimmie thought, as he made an almost imperceptible motion toward Hans. "It would be pretty poor, I reckon, if I could get up there," he added, not meaning that it would be "pretty poor" at all, but, on the contrary, a very good move indeed.

While the lad watched the window, from which the tousled head had now disappeared, some of the other windows closed. The natives were evidently in no mood to lose their sleep because of a foreign-devil noise in the middle of the night.

The little fellow was certain that the head he had for a moment seen was that of Hans, the Philadelphia Boy Scout who had been so strangely encountered during the visit of the submarine to an island off the coast of China. He knew, too, that the German understood that something unusual and hostile to his friends was going on below.

He did not stop to consider the means by which Hans had reached the city of Tientsin and that particular building. He accepted it for granted that he was there, and wondered just what steps he, the German, would be apt, or able, to take in the emergency which threatened the failure of the mission to Peking.

Presently the voices of the marine officer, the official who had been summoned by the assistant manager, and Ned reached his ears. The officer was clearly in an angry mood and Ned was trying his persuasive powers on the newcomer.

"Are you an officer of the telegraph company?" the officer asked, in an angry tone.

"I am not," was the equally discourteous rejoinder. "I am a private detective employed, by the manager here. It is my duty to look after just such cases as this."

"Well," Ned said, calmly, "ask any questions you desire and we will answer them frankly. I came to China at the request of the Washington government, and am to receive instructions here. The operator tells me that there is a cablegram here for me, but refuses to deliver it on the ground that I may be an impostor."

"I think he has you sized up right," grated the detective.

"Then we may as well be going," Ned said, still coolly. "There is nothing for us to do now but try to establish our identity before the American consul."

The boy moved toward the door as he spoke, but the brawny detective obstructed his passage to the outer room. Ned drew back with a smile on his face.

"You can't leave here just at present," said the detective. "You will remain in custody until morning."

"Why morning?" asked Ned, with alight laugh.

"Because your accuser will be here then."

"Why didn't you say something of an accuser before?" asked Ned.

"It was not necessary."

"What does the accuser say?"

"He only warns us against delivering important papers to a youth answering your description."

"Now I understand why all this rumpus has been kicked up!" cried the marine officer. "The man who warned you is Lieutenant Rae?"

The detective nodded.

"Then he is causing us to be delayed for purposes of his own," the officer stormed. "He aims to get to Peking in advance of us. We must be permitted to depart immediately."

He moved toward the door, but the detective stood in his way. Without a word he seized the fellow by the shoulder whirled him around, put his beery face to the wall, and passed out of the room. Ned was about to follow him when the strange attitude of the detective caught his attention and he stood waiting while a scuffle on the outside told of a physical complication there.

"Much good that break will do him," said the detective, straightening out his twisted coat collar. "He will find a squad of police at the street door."

"European police?" asked Ned.

"Native police," with a snarl of rage as the commotion in the outer room continued.

Knowing that it would be no trouble at all to secure the release by any American officer taken into custody by Chinese police, Ned turned to the window and looked out on the court. He understood, too, that his own arrest would mean a long delay in prison while his identity was being established. So he thought best to keep out of the squabble the hot-headed officer had engaged in.

How sane this decision was only those foreign citizens who had been arrested and cast into prison in China or Russia can appreciate. While an accredited officer of a foreign power may almost instantly regain his liberty, a plain citizen, such as Ned was forced to appear, might be kept in jail for any number of days, weeks, or months.

The detective stood glaring at the two boys for an instant, as if anxious to inflict physical punishment upon them, but, as they remained at the window and said no more to him, he was obliged to take a different course. After rapping out several insulting observations concerning school children who ought to be spanked and put to bed, he flung himself out of the room.

"You saw Hans?" asked Ned, then.

Jimmie opened his eyes in amazement.

"Did you?" he asked.

"I saw the tousled head you saw," replied Ned.

"I thought you were looking another way," commented the little fellow. "That was Hans, all right.'

"But why does he remain inactive? He knows there is something doing down here, else he would not have shown the signal of warning. He ought to be out of that window by this time."

"This is a country of hard knots," laughed Jimmie. "They may have tied up his fat little trotters."

In spite of the serious situation, Ned laughed.

"The tying up in this case makes it seem like a cheap drama on the lower East Side in New York," he said.

"I think I might get up to that window," Jimmie suggested.

"How?" asked Ned.

"By the lower window frames an' castings. If you'll manage to keep the Chinks off me I'll try."

"It is worth trying," Ned mused.

The other windows opening on the court were now closed. The sleepy natives, possibly doped with opium, had wearied of watching the figures in the rear room of the telegraph office and tumbled back into bed, or back on such miserable heaps of dirty matings as they chose to call beds.

The sounds of conflict had already died out in the front office, and another visit from the evil-faced detective was momentarily expected, so Jimmie was urged to make the proposed attempt to reach Hans at once.

He passed out of the window, crossed the beaten earth floor of the court, and began to climb. Ned was pleased to see that he had little difficulty in ascending to the window. Once there he heard him rap on the pane. There was a pause, and then the boy pushed up the sash and clambered inside.

Ned was glad to see that the boy had the good judgment to draw the sash down, as soon as he was in the room. What he would discover there the watcher had no idea.

He might find Hans there under guard. He might discover, when it was too late, that the German had been, unwillingly, used as a decoy by cunning natives into whose hands he might have fallen.

Still, there were the signals! The natives could not have known of the Boy Scout system of warnings, and Hans would certainly have volunteered nothing in the way of allurement.

He watched the window for what seemed to him to be a very long time. The pane remained dark.

"If the lad finds the situation favorable," Ned thought, "he may not return here at all. I should have instructed him to leave the room by the main stairway, if possible, and return to the marines. It would look comfortable, just now, to see that file of bluecoats marching into the telegraph office."

However, there was now no help for the omission, and Ned waited with varying emotions for some sign from the window. None came, but presently the door of the rear room was opened and the detective blustered in.

"Where is the other prisoner?" he demanded, looking keenly about the room. "He was here not long ago. Where is he?"

"Didn't you see him crowd out with the marine officer?" asked Ned.

"He was here after that fellow left," was the reply. "But he can't escape from the building," he added, "for every avenue is guarded, and the chap the cablegram belongs to has just asked for it!"