The Yellow Snake
There was no house in Siangtan quite like Joe Bray's. For the matter of that, Joe was unique even in China, to which so many unusual personalities have drifted since the days of Marco Polo.
The house was of stone and had been designed by one Pinto Huello, a drunken Portuguese architect, who had left Portugal in circumstances discreditable to himself, and had drifted via Canton and Wuchau to this immense and untidy town.
The general theory is that Pinto drew his plans after a night of delirium in a paradise of smoke, and had amended them in remorse. The change of plans came when the building was half erected, so that the portion of 'Northward' which had so strong a resemblance to the porcelain tower, stood for Pinto in his unregenerate mood, and all that had any likeness to a riverside go-down fairly represented the erratic Portuguese in the period of reaction.
Joe was big and many-chinned, a mountain of a man who loved China and gin and his long daydreams. He dreamt of wonderful things, mostly impracticable. It was his joy and delight to feel that from this forgotten corner of the world he could pull levers and turn switches that would produce the most profound changes in the lot of mankind.
A lethargic Haroun al-Raschid, he would have walked in disguise amidst the poor, showering gold upon the deserving. Only he could never find the right kind of poor.
China is a land greatly conducive to dreaming. From where he sat he could glimpse the crowded waters of the Siang-kiang. In the light of the setting sun a streak of purple oil that appeared and disappeared behind the rambling skyline of Siangtan. The rhomboid sails of the sampans that go down to the big lake were bronze and golden in the last red rays, and from this distance the buzzing life of this vast hive of a city was neither apparent nor audible; nor, for the matter of that, smellable.
Not that old Joe Bray objected to the scent which is China's. He knew this vast land from Manchuria to Kwang-si—from Shan-tung to the Kiao-Kio valley where the queer Mongolian folk talk pidgin French. And China was the greater part of the world to him. The sin and the stink of it were the normalities of life. He thought Chinese, would have lived Chinese but for that inexorable partner of his. He had tramped the provinces on foot, fought his way out of more forbidden towns than any man of his years, had been stripped for death in the Yamen of that infamous Fu-chi-ling, sometime governor of Su-kiang, and had been carried in honour in a mandarin's palanquin to the very court of the Daughter of Heaven.
It was all one to Joe Bray, English by birth, American by barefaced claim when America found most favour, for he was a millionaire and more. His house on the little hill where the river turns was a palace. Coal had helped, and copper, and the trading-posts of the syndicate that went up as far as the Amur goldfields had added to the immense reserves which had accumulated with such marvellous rapidity in the past ten years.
Joe could sit and dream, but rarely had his dreams materialized so faithfully as the vision which lolled in a deep deck-chair. Fing-Su was tall for a Chinaman and good-looking by European standards. But for the characteristic slant of his black eyes there was nothing that was typically Chinese about him. He had the petulant mouth and the straight, thin nose of his French mother, the jet-black hair and peculiar pallor of old Shan Hu, that crafty old merchant and adventurer, his father. He wore now a thick padded silk coat and shapeless trousers that ran into his shoes. His hands were respectfully hidden in the loose sleeves of his coat, and when he brought one to daylight to flick the ash from his cigarette, he returned it mechanically, instinctively, to its hiding-place.
Joe Bray signed and sipped at his potion.
"You got everything right, Fing-Su. A country that's got no head has got no feet—it can't move—it's just gotter stand still and go bad! That's China. There's been some big fellers here—the Mings and—and old man Hart and Li Hung."
He sighed again, his knowledge of ancient China and her dynasties was nothing at all.
"Money's nothing unless you use it right. Look at me, Fing-Su! Neither chick nor child, an' worth millions—millions! My line as they say, is finished—almost."
He rubbed his nose irritably.
"Almost," he repeated, with an air of caution. "If Certain People do what I want 'em to do it won't be—but will Certain People do it? That's the question."
Fing-Su surveyed him with his fathomless eyes.
"One would have imagined that you had but to express a wish for that wish to be fulfilled."
The young Chinaman spoke with that queerly exaggerated drawl which is peculiar to the University of Oxford. Nothing gave Joe Bray greater pleasure than to hear his protégé's voice; the culture in it, the pedantry of each constructed sentence, the unconscious air of superiority of tone and manner, were music to the ears of the dreamer.
Fing-Su was indeed a graduate of Oxford University and a Bachelor of Arts, and Joe had performed this miracle.
"You're an educated man, Fing, and I'm a poor old roughneck without hist'ry, geography or anything. Books don't interest me and never did. The Bible—especially Revelation—that's a book and a half."
He swallowed the remainder of the colourless liquor in his glass and exhaled a deep breath.
"There's one thing, son—them shares I gave you——"
A long and awkward pause. The chair creaked as the big man moved uncomfortably.
"It appears from somethin' He said that I oughtn't to have done it. See what I mean? They're no value—it was one of His ideas that they was ever got out. Not worth a cent 's far as money goes."
"Does He know that I have them?" asked Fing-Su.
Like Joe, he never referred to Clifford Lynne by name, but gave the necessary pronoun a significant value.
." said Joe emphatically. "That's the trouble. But he talked about 'em the other night. Said that I mustn't part with one—not one!"
"My revered and honoured father had nine," said Fing-Su, in his silkiest tone, "and now I have twenty-four."
Joe rubbed his unshaven chin. He was in a fret of apprehension.
"I give 'em to you—you've been a good boy, Fing-Su...Latin an' philos'phy an' everything. I'm crazy about education an' naturally I wanted to do somep'n' for you. Great stuff, education." He hesitated, pulling at his lower lip. "I'm not the kind of man who gives a thing and takes it back again. But you know what he is, Fing-Su."
"He hates me," said Fing-Su dispassionately. "Yesterday he called me a yellow snake."
he?" asked Joe dismally.
His tone conveyed his utter helplessness to rectify a distressing state of affairs.
"I'll get round him sooner or later," he said, with a wan effort to appear confident. "I'm artful, Fing-Su—got ideas back of my mind that nobody knows. I gotta scheme now ..."
He chuckled at a secret thought, but instantly became sober again.
"...about these shares. I'll give you a couple of thousand for 'em—sterling. Not worth a cent! But I'll give you a couple of thousand."
The Chinaman moved slightly in his chair and presently raised his black eyes to his patron.
"Mr Bray, of what use is money to me?" he asked, almost humbly. "My revered and honoured father left me rich. I am a poor Chinaman with few necessities."
Fing-Su threw away his burnt-out cigarette and rolled another with extraordinary dexterity. Almost before paper and tobacco were in his hands they had become a smoking white cylinder.
"In Shanghai and Canton they say that the Yun Nan Company has more money than the Government has ever seen," he said slowly. "They say that the Lolo people found gold in Liao-Lio valley——"
"We found it," said Joe complacently. "These Lolo couldn't find anything except excuses to burn down Chinese temples."
"But you have the money," insisted Fing-Su. "Idle money——"
"Not idle—gettin' four 'n' half per cent on it," murmured Joe.
"Four and a half per cent! And you could get a hundred! Up in Shan-si there is a billion dollars worth of coal—a million times a billion! You can't work it, I know—there is no strong man sitting in the Forbidden City to say 'Do this' and it is done. And if there was, he would have no army. There is an investment for your reserves; a strong man."
Joe Bray looked round fearfully. He hated Chinese politics—and He hated them worse.
"Fing-Su," he said awkwardly, "that long-faced American consul was up here to tiffin yesterday. He got quite het up about your Joyful Hands—said there was too many 'parlours' in the country anyway. An' the central government's been makin' inquiries. Ho Sing was here last week askin' when you reckoned you would be goin' back to London."
The Chinaman's thin lips curled in a smile.
"They give too great an importance to my little club," he said. "It is purely social—we have no politics. Mr Bray, don't you think that it would be a good idea if Yun Nan reserves were used——?"
"Nothin' doin'!" Joe shook his head violently. "I can't touch 'em anyway. Now about them shares, Fing——"
"They are at my bankers in Shanghai—they shall be returned," said Fing-Su. "I wish our friend liked me. For him I have nothing but respect and admiration. Yellow Snake! That was unkind!"
His palanquin was waiting to carry him back to his house and Joe Bray watched the trotting coolies until a turn of the hill road hid them from view.
At Fing-Su's little house three men were waiting, squatting on their haunches before the door. He dismissed his bearers and beckoned the men into the dark mat-covered room which served him as a study.