An Instrument Of The Gods

Author: Lincoln Colcord

"You think the Chinese are prosaic," said Nichols from the darkness of his corner. "I've listened to you closely. You fellows have been discussing only superficialities. At heart, you and the Oriental are the same. The Chinese are romantic, I tell you; they are heroic. Yes, really. Let me tell you a tale."

Suddenly he laughed. "You won't be convinced. But strip my friend Lee Fu Chang naked, forget about that long silken coat of his; dress him in a cowboy's suit and locate him on the Western plains, and the game he played with Captain Wilbur won't seem so inappropriate. You merely won't expect a mandarin Chinaman to play it. You'll feel that China is too civilized for what he did.

"Some of you fellows must remember the notorious case of Captain Wilbur and the 'Speedwell;' but I'll briefly refresh your memories: He was a well-known shipmaster of the palmy days, and his vessel was one of the finest clippers ever launched on the shores of New England. But she was growing old; and Wilbur had suffered serious financial reverses, though the fact wasn't generally known.

"To make a long story short, he put the 'Speedwell' ashore in Ombay Pass, on a voyage from Singapore to New York, and abandoned her as she lay. Within a month after sailing, he was back again in Singapore with his ship's company in three long boats and a tale of a lost vessel. No hint of scandal was raised against the affair. The insurance companies stood the gaff, the business was closed up without a hitch, and the name of the 'Speedwell' passed simultaneously from the 'Maritime Register' and from the books of her owners in America.

"Wilbur went immediately to Batavia, and there hired a schooner and crew with the proceeds of his personal holdings in the vessel. He sailed for Ombay Pass; after a period of magnificent sailorizing and superhuman effort he floated the ship and patched her so that she would stay afloat. When he appeared off Batavia roadstead with the 'Speedwell' under topgallant-sails, it was the sensation of the port; and when it transpired what he intended to do with her, the news flew like wildfire about the China Sea. For he proposed to hold the ship as salvage; and nothing, apparently, could be done about it. He found men willing to advance him credit, bought off his Lascar crew, took the 'Speedwell' to Hong Kong and put her in dry dock, and soon was ready for business with a fine ship of his own.

"I was off on a trading voyage while these events were taking place. I heard them first from Lee Fu Chang.

"'An extraordinary incident!' exclaimed Lee Fu in conclusion. 'I am deeply interested. It is a crowning stroke that he has not seen fit to change the name of the vessel. All is as it was before, when the well-known and reputable Captain Wilbur commanded his fine ship, the "Speedwell," on voyages to the East.'

"'Does the crowd have anything to do with him?' I asked.

"'None of his old associates speak in passing. He goes about like a man afflicted with a pestilence. Apparently, he is not disturbed by this treatment. He makes no protest, offers no excuse, takes no notice; in the face of outrageous insult he maintains an air of dignity and reserve, like a man conscious of inner rectitude.'

"'Did you talk with him, Lee Fu?'

"'Oh, yes. In fact, I cultivated his acquaintance. It relieved, as it were, the daily monotony of virtue. Do not think that he is a simple man. His heart in this matter is unfathomable, and well worth sounding.'

"'By Jove, I believe you liked him!'

"'No, not that.' Lee Fu folded his hands within the long sleeves of his embroidered coat and laid them across his stomach in a characteristic attitude of meditation. 'No, quite the opposite. I abhorred him. He feels no remorse; he goes his way in peace from the betrayal of a sacred trust. He is an arch-criminal.'

"'Aren't you laying it on a little thick?' I laughed.

"Lee Fu smiled quietly, giving me a glance that was a mere flicker of the eyelids. 'Captain, let me tell you, murder is brave and honorable compared to this. Consider what he did: Trained to the sea and ships, after a lifetime of service to his traditions, he suddenly forsakes them utterly. It is blasphemy which he has committed; blasphemy against the gods who guide and sustain us, and without whose aid we cannot live. So I abhor him—and am fascinated. If you will believe me, Captain, I have not in all my talk with him received a single flash of illumination; no, not one! There is no clue to his design. He speaks of his ship as others do; he is a big, red-faced man with frank glances and open speech. I swear to you, his heart is untroubled. And that is horrible.'

"I was a little amused at my friend's moral fervor. 'Perhaps he's innocent,' I said.

"'You forget that he holds the vessel,' Lee Fu reminded me. 'To one of your race, if no blood flows, then it is not so bad. But bear in mind that a strong man within your circle has murdered the spirit—and wait until the actual blood flows.'

"'What do you mean. Lee Fu?'

"'I mean that Captain Wilbur will bear watching. In the meantime, do not fail to study him when opportunity offers. Thus we learn of heaven and hell.'

"A few years went by, while the case of Captain Wilbur and the 'Speedwell' was in its initial stages of being forgotten. Nothing succeeds like success; the man was growing rich, and there were many to whom the possession of a fine vessel covered a multitude of sins. Some of his old friends were willing after a while to let bygones be bygones. Little by little, one began to see him again on the quarter-deck of an evening, among the fleet captains. When, in time, it became unwise to start the story against him for fear of misconstruction of the motive, it was evident that he'd won his nefarious match against society.

"I'd met him a number of times during this interval. Indeed, he compelled attention. That perfect urbanity, that air of unfailing dignity and confidence, that aura of a commanding personality, of an able shipmaster among his brethren, of a man whose position in the world was secure beyond peradventure; these could spring only from a quiet conscience or from a heart perfectly attuned to villainy. So unconscious was his poise that one often doubted the evidence of memory, and found one's self going back over the record, only to fetch up point-blank against the incontestable fact that he had stolen his ship and had betrayed his profession.

"'It is a triumph, a feat of character!' Lee Fu used to say, as we compared notes on the case from time to time. 'I think that he has not been guilty of a single minor error. His correctness is diabolical. It presages disaster, like too much fair weather in the typhoon season. Mark my word, Captain, when the major error comes it will be a great tragedy.'

"'Must there be an error?' I asked, falling into the mood of Lee Fu's exaggerated concern. 'He has carried it off so far with the greatest ease.'

"'Yes, with the greatest ease,' Lee Fu repeated thoughtfully. 'Yet I wonder if he has been properly put to the test. See how the world protects him! But he is not invulnerable. Life will yet challenge him—it must be. Can a man escape the gods? I wonder. That is why I concern myself with him—to know his destiny.'

"'You admit, then, that he may be merely a stupid fool?' I chaffed.

"'Not stupid,' said Lee Fu. 'Yet, on the other hand, not superior to life. Such faultless power of will is in itself no mean share of ability. He is, as you might say, self-centered—most accurately self-centered. But the challenge of the gods displaces the center of all. He will be like a top that is done spinning. A little breath may topple him. Wait and see.'

"Voyage followed voyage; and one time, when I had come in from Bangkok and was on my way to Lee Fu's office I passed Captain Wilbur on the opposite side of Queen's Road. It flashed across my mind that I hadn't observed the 'Speedwell' in harbor.

"'The fact is, the successful Captain Wilbur has retired from active service on the sea,' Lee Fu explained with a quizzical smile, when I put the question. 'He is now a ship owner alone, and has favored Hong Kong above all other ports as the seat of his retirement. He resides in a fine house on Graham Terrace, and has chairmen in white livery edged with crimson. Captain Nichols, you should steal a ship.'

"'Who goes in the "Speedwell"?'

"'An old friend of ours, one Captain Turner,' said Lee Fu slowly, without looking in my direction.

"'Not Will Turner?'

"'The same.'

"I pursed up my mouth in a silent whistle. Will Turner in the 'Speedwell!' Poor old chap, he must have lost another ship. Hard luck seemed to pursue him, gave him no rest on land or sea. A capable sailor and an honest man, yet life had afforded him nothing but a succession of black eyes and heavy falls. Death and sorrow, too; he had buried a wife and child, swept off by cholera, in the Bay of Bengal. Turner and I had landed together in the China Sea; I knew his heart, his history, some of his secrets, and liked him tremendously for the man he was.

"Watching Lee Fu in silence, I thought of the relationship between Will Turner and this extraordinary Chinaman. I won't go into the story, but there were overwhelming reasons why they should think well of each other; why Lee Fu should respect and honor Turner, and why Turner should hold Lee Fu as his best friend.

"'I did not know of the plan until he had accepted,' Lee Fu was saying. 'I did everything in my power to dissuade him.'

"'Didn't Wilbur do the right thing?'

"'Oh, yes. But it is unthinkable, Captain, that he should command the "Speedwell." The jealous gods have not yet shown their hand.'

"'Nonsense, Lee Fu!' I exclaimed, a little irritated. 'Since the thing is done, hadn't we better try to be practical?'

"'Exactly,' said Lee Fu. 'Let us be practical. Captain, is it impossible for the Caucasian to reason from cause to effect? There seems to be no logic in your design; which explains many curious facts of history. I have merely insisted that a man who would do one thing would do another, and that, sooner or later, life would present to him another thing to do.'

"'But I've known too many men to escape what you call destiny,' I argued peevishly.

"'Have you?' inquired Lee Fu.

"That year I went into the Malay Archipelago for an extended cruise, was gone seven months among the islands, and reached Hong Kong just ahead of a bad blow. Typhoon signals were flying from the Peak as I came in; the sky to the eastward had lowered and darkened like a shutter, and the breeze had begun to whip in vicious gusts across the harbor. I carried important communications for Lee Fu, so went ashore at once. The outer office was full of gathering gloom, although it was still early afternoon. Sing Toy immediately took in my name; and soon I was ushered into the familiar room, where my friend sat beside a shaded lamp, facing a teakwood desk inlaid with ivory, and invariably bare, save for a priceless Ming vase and an ornament of old green bronze.

"'I am glad to see you, Captain,' he said dispassionately. 'Sit down. I have bad news.'

"'Yes?' I queried, more than a little alarmed.

"Folding his hands across his stomach and slightly bowing his head, he gazed at me with a level upturned glance that, without betraying expression, carried by its very immobility a hint of deep emotion. 'It is as I told you,' he said at last. 'Now, perhaps, you will believe.'

"'For heaven's sake, what are you talking about?' I demanded.

"'We had another typhoon this season, a very early one. It was this typhoon into whose face our late friend Captain Turner took his ship, the "Speedwell," sailing from Hong Kong for New York some four months ago. Three days after sailing, he met the typhoon and was blown upon a lee shore two hundred miles along the China coast. In this predicament, he cut away his masts and came to anchor. But his ship would not float, and accordingly sunk at the anchors.'

"'Sunk at her anchors!' I exclaimed. 'How could that be? A tight ship never did such a thing.'

"'Nevertheless, she sunk in the midst of the gale, and all on board perished. Afterwards the news was reported from shore, and the hull was discovered in ten fathoms of water. There has been talk of trying to save the ship; and Captain Wilbur himself, in a diver's suit, has inspected the wreck. Surely, he should know if it is possible to salve her! He says no, and it is reported that the insurance companies are in agreement with him.' Lee Fu's voice dropped to a rasping tone. 'The lives, of course, he cannot save.'

"I sat for some moments gazing at the green bronze dragon on the desk, stunned by what I had heard. Turner gone? Even between us, who had seen each other seldom in late years, there had been a bond. Weren't we known as the two Eastern wanderers?

"'That is not all,' said Lee Fu suddenly. 'What more?' I asked.

"'Listen, Captain, and pay close attention. Some weeks after the loss of the "Speedwell," it came to my ears that a man had a tale worth hearing. He was brought; he proved to be a common coolie who had been employed in the loading of the "Speedwell." This coolie had been gambling during the dinner hour, and had lost the small sum that he should have taken home as the result of several days' labor. Likewise, he feared his wife, and particularly her mother, who was a shrew. In a moment of desperation, as the lighter was preparing to leave for the night, he escaped and secreted himself in the hold of the vessel.

"'He had long been asleep that night when he was suddenly awakened by a sound on the ladder leading from the upper deck. It was a sound of careful steps, mingled with a faint metallic rattling. A moment later a foot descended on the floor of the between-decks, and lantern was cautiously lighted. The coolie retreated quickly into the lower hold, and from his post among the bales of merchandise was able to see all that went on.'

"Again Lee Fu paused, as if lingering over the scene. 'It seems that this late and secret comer into the hold of the "Speedwell" was none other than her owner, Captain Wilbur,' he slowly resumed. 'The coolie knew him by face, and had seen him come on board that afternoon. Afterwards, through my inquiries, I learned that Captain Turner had spent that night on shore. It was Captain Wilbur's custom, it seems, frequently to sleep on board his ship when she lay in port. Have you ever been in the lower hold of the "Speedwell," Captain Nichols?'

"'No, I haven't.'

"'But you recall her famous ports?'

"'Yes, indeed.' The incident at once came back to me in detail. The 'Speedwell' once had carried a cargo of ironwood from Singapore for a temple up the Yangtse-kiang. In order to load the immense timbers, she had been obliged to cut bow ports of extraordinary size, fifty inches in depth, they were, and nearly seven feet in width, according to my recollection.

"'It has been my privilege,' said Lee Fu, 'to examine carefully the forepeak of this vessel. I had chartered her one time, and felt alarmed for her safety until I had seen the interior fastenings of these great windows that looked out into the deep sea. But my alarm was groundless. There was a most ingenious device for strengthening the bows where they had been weakened by the cutting of the ports. Four or five timbers had, of course, been severed; but these were reproduced on the port itself, and the whole was fashioned like a massive door. It lifted upward on immense wrought-iron hinges; when it was lowered in place gigantic bars of iron, fitted into brackets on the adjoining timbers, stretched across its face to hold it against the impact of the waves. Thus the port, when tightly caulked from without, became again an integral part of the hull; I was told that there had never keen a trace of leakage from her bows. And, most remarkable of all, I was told, when it became necessary to open these ports for use, the task could easily be accomplished by two or three men and a stout watch-tackle. This I am now prepared to believe.

"'But, to resume the account of the coolie,' Lee Fu went on with exasperating deliberation. 'This is what he saw: Our friend Captain Wilbur descended into the lower hold and forward to the forepeak, where there was little cargo. There he worked with great effort for several hours. He had equipped himself with a short crowbar, and carried a light tackle wrapped beneath his coat. The tackle he loosened and hung to a hook above the middle of the port; it was merely for the purpose of lowering the iron crossbars so that they would make no noise. Had one fallen—'

"'Good God, Lee Fu, what are you trying to tell me?'

"'Merely an incident of the night. So, with the crowbar, Captain Wilbur pried loose the iron braces, slinging them in his tackle and dropping them softly one by one into the ship's bottom. It was a heavy task; the coolie said that sweat poured from the big man like rain. Last of all he covered the bars with dunnage, and rolled against the bow several bulky bales of matting to conceal the work. Captain, when the "Speedwell" sailed from Hong Kong in command of our honored friend, one of her great bow ports below the water hung on its hinges without internal fastenings, and held in place only by the tightness of the caulking. The first heavy weather—'

"'Can this be possible?' I said through clenched teeth.

"'Oh, yes, so easily possible that it happened,' answered Lee Fu.

"'But why should he do such a thing? Had he anything against Turner?'

"'Captain, you do not understand. He merely was tired of the vessel; and freights are becoming very poor. He wanted his insurance. He had no thought of disaster so he now assures himself; what he had in mind was for the ship to sink discreetly in pleasant weather. Yet he was willing enough to run the chance of wholesale murder.'

"I got up and began pacing the floor; the damnable affair had made me sick at heart, and a little sick at the stomach.

"'Thus the gods have struck,' said Lee Fu behind me, in that changeless voice that for a moment seemed to concentrate the echo of the ages. 'There is blood at last, Captain—twenty-seven lives, and among them one dear to us—enough even to convince one of your race that a crime has been committed. But I was mistaken in much that I foresaw. The criminal, it seems, is destined not to suffer. He has escaped the gods.'

"Can't you bring him to a reckoning? Isn't there some way—'

"Lee Fu shook his head. 'No, Captain, he is amply protected. What could I accomplish in your courts with this fantastic tale, and for witnesses a coolie and a sampan man?'

"I continued to pace the floor, thinking dark thoughts. There was a way, of course, between man and man; but such things are no longer done in the heart of civilization, except in sudden passion or jealousy.

"Pacing rapidly, and oblivious to everything but the four walls of the room, I nearly ran into Sing Toy coming in with a message from the outer office. He whispered a word in Lee Fu's ear.

"'Ah!' exclaimed Lee Fu sharply. I started, whirled around. His voice had lost the level, passive tone; it had taken on the timbre of action.

"'Send him in,' he said in Chinese to Sing Toy.

"'Who is it?' I asked breathlessly.

"'The man we have been speaking of.'

"'Wilbur? What the devil does he want?'

"'Nothing,' answered Lee Fu, speaking swiftly. 'He merely came to make a call. So he thinks; but I think otherwise. Beware of word or glance. This chanced by arrangement. We are on the threshold of the gods.'

"Lee Fu remained standing as Captain Wilbur entered the room. His hurried admonition still rang in my ears: 'Keep silence—beware of word or glance!' But I couldn't have spoken intelligibly just then. To beware of glances was a different matter. I stood as if rooted to the floor, gazing point-blank at Wilbur with a stare that must have made him wonder as to my sanity.

"'Good afternoon, Captain Wilbur,' said Lee Fu blandly. 'I think you are acquainted with Captain Nichols, of the bark "Omega"?'

"'Oh, how-do, Nichols,' said Wilbur, advancing down the room. 'I've missed you around town for a good while. Glad you're back. I suppose you had the usual assortment of adventures?'

"I drew back to escape shaking his hand.

"'No,' I answered, 'nothing like the adventure that awaited me here.'

"He settled himself in a chair, directly in range of the light, smiled, and lifted his eyebrows. 'So? Well, I can believe you. This office, you know, is the heart of all adventure.' He bowed toward Lee Fu, who had resumed his seat.

"'You honor me, Captain,' replied the Chinaman. 'Yet it is only life which may be called the heart of adventure—life, with its amazing secrets that one by one transpire into the day, and with its enormous burden of evil that weighs us down like slaves.'

"Wilbur laughed. 'Yes, that's it, no doubt. Good, too, Lee Fu, plenty of good. Don't be pessimistic. But I suppose you're right, in a way; the evil always does manage to be more romantic.'

"'Much more romantic,' said Lee Fu. 'And the secrets are more romantic still. Consider, for instance, the case of a dark secret, which by chance has already become known. How infinitely romantic! Though the man feels secure, yet inevitably it will be disclosed. When, and how? Such a case would be well worth watching—as the great writer had in mind when he wrote, "Murder will out."'

"The winged words made no impression on their mark. Wilbur met Lee Fu's glance frankly, innocently, with interest. By Jove, he was wonderful! The damned rascal hadn't a nerve in his body.

"I examined him closely. Above a trimmed brown beard his cheeks showed the ruddy color of health and energy; his eyes were steady; his mouth was strong and clean; a head of fine gray hair surmounted a high forehead; the whole aspect of his countenance was pleasing and dignified. Sitting at ease, dressed neatly in blue serge, with an arm thrown over the chair back and one ankle resting on the other knee, he presented a fine figure.

"He gave a hearty laugh. 'For the Lord's sake, come out of the gloom!' he cried. 'I drop in for a chat, and find a couple of blue devils up to their ears in the sins of humanity. Nichols over there has hardly opened his mouth.'

"'It is the mood of the approaching storm,' interposed Lee Fu quietly.

"A fiercer squall than the last shook the building; it passed in a moment as if dropping us in mid-air. Wilbur was the first to speak. 'Yes, it's going to be a hummer, isn't it? A bad night to be on the water, gentlemen. I wouldn't care to be threshing around outside, now, as poor old Turner was such a short while ago.'

"I could have struck him across the mouth for his callousness.

"Lee Fu's voice fell like oil on a breaking sea. 'All signs point to another severe typhoon. It happened, Captain, that we were discussing the loss of the "Speedwell" when you came in.'

"'Too bad—too bad,' said Wilbur slowly, with a shake of the head. 'You were away, Nichols, weren't you? It was a bad week here, I can tell you, after the news came in. I shall never forget it. Well, we take our chances.'

"'Some of us do, and some of us don't,' I snapped.

"'That's just the way I feel about it,' he said simply. 'It came home hard to me.' My jaw fairly dropped as I listened. Was it possible that he liked to talk about the affair?

"'We were wondering,' observed Lee Fu, 'why it was that the "Speedwell" did not remain afloat. What is your opinion, Captain Wilbur?'

"'It isn't a matter of opinion,' Wilbur answered. 'Haven't I seen you since the

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  • Reviewed by Lorena  on  August 7th, 2011

    Suspenseful tale that follows through right to the end with a powerful conclusion. It was easy to see put yourself in the "villan", the "hero", and the "spectator" shoes. Excellent story! Thanks for sharing!

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