J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson at Panama



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A little shaken, he looked at Wah Lee for the key to the enigma.

"Where did you get this?" he asked.

"Found it," answered the Chinaman. "Man drop it. Man come to see my bloss. My bloss kill clanal," Wah Lee repeated.

For a moment, Bert's head swam, and a thousand bells seemed to ring in his ears. Then he steadied himself, and plied the Chinaman with eager questions that sought to pluck the heart out of the mystery. Wah Lee's knowledge of English was very limited, and it took a long time and infinite patience to get from him what he knew. Gradually, he pieced the bits together, until the whole thing became clear and coherent in his mind.

By the merest accident, Wah Lee had heard enough to know that the Japanese who employed him was engaged in a plot to destroy the Canal. How or when it was to be done, he did not know. It was doubtful if he could have grasped the details, even if he had heard them, so full they were of technical matters that conveyed to him no meaning. But he knew that the plot existed, and dimly understood that this would bring pain and suffering to Bert. As far as he himself was concerned, a dozen canals might be destroyed, without affecting him in the least. But he held the boys in strong affection for having saved his life, and he knew that he could pay his debt, at least in part, by letting them know what was brewing.

As regarded the paper, Wah Lee knew nothing, except that a white man, who spoke English, was a frequent visitor to his master, with whom he held long conferences. Only yesterday, on leaving the house after dark, he had accidentally dropped the plan, and Wah Lee, hovering near, had picked it up. A vague idea that it might be of value to Bert and prompted him to bring it to him.

This was the sum of the Chinaman's knowledge. He simply knew that his "bloss" was engaged in some kind of a plan to kill the Canal.

But Bert must know more than this – the nature of the plan, the people involved in it, the methods employed for it, the time set for its execution. Then, only, could the proper steps be taken to thwart it. How could this knowledge be obtained? Not by Wah Lee. He had accidentally stumbled upon it, and while this, of course, was an inestimable service, abler minds than his must unravel the details.

Whatever was to be done must be done quickly. Time was a factor of prime importance. Bert looked up at the sky. The sun was near its setting. Night would come on suddenly.

With the rapid resolution that was one of his chief characteristics, Bert made up his mind.

"Make tracks for home, Wah Lee," he said. "I'm coming with you."

The Chinaman made no demur and expressed no surprise. He led the way and Bert followed, racking his brain for the best thing to do. His plans took shape quickly. By the time they drew near the grounds, darkness had enveloped them like a blanket. He halted the Chinaman and talked to him in whispers.

He must get into the house, without being seen.

Where did the talks with the white man take place? In the library. Very well. Was there any place where he, Bert, could be concealed and hear what went on?

But here the Oriental departed from his wonted calm. There was too much risk. Bert would be killed. His master had men in the house who obeyed him absolutely. If he merely lifted his finger, they would kill one man or twenty men.

But Bert was not to be deterred from his purpose. He had embarked on this venture, and, live or die, he would see it through to a finish. He cut short the protestations of the frightened Celestial and commanded him to show him the nearest way to the library.

There was no way, Wah Lee averred. The house swarmed with servants, and detection would be certain. Every window and every room in the mansion was ablaze with light. Unless he could make himself invisible, the attempt was hopeless.

Circling about the house, in the shadow of the shrubbery, Bert studied the location of the room that the Chinaman had pointed out as the library. It was on the second floor, and a broad veranda surrounded the house, about two feet beneath the window. Near by, a giant tree upreared its branches. With a parting word of caution, Bert shied up the tree with the agility of a cat. He ensconced himself firmly on a projecting branch, and peered through the heavy foliage.

The room into which he looked was a spacious one and furnished with all the sumptuousness of Eastern luxury. Exquisite tapestries draped the walls, and priceless jades and porcelains bespoke the taste as well as the wealth of the owner. Quaint weapons and suits of armor, doubtless worn at some time by a shogun or samurai ancestor gave a touch of grimness to a beauty and delicacy of ornament that might otherwise have been excessive.

At a magnificent library table of ebony, inlaid with pearl, a man was seated with his head on his hand, in an attitude of profound thought. His left hand, playing with the ivory handle of a dagger that lay on the desk, betrayed a certain restlessness, as though he were waiting for someone. From time to time he raised his head, as if listening. At last he threw himself back in his chair with a gesture of impatience, and, with unseeing eyes, looked out of the window. And now, Bert, from his leafy covert, could study his face at leisure.

It was a typical Japanese face, with the high cheekbones and slanting eyes that marked his race. But nothing could hide the proofs of breeding and culture that were revealed in every feature. It was the face of a statesman, a scholar, a warrior, a prince. The habit of command was stamped upon it, and in his eyes glowed a spirit of resolution that almost reached fanaticism. Bert felt instinctively that here was a foeman worthy of any man's steel, a formidable enemy who would sweep away like chaff anything that stood between him and the accomplishment of his purpose.

Once or twice, Bert had seen him in Colon, a notable figure even in a town at that time filled with notables. No one seemed to know much about him. Three years ago, he had appeared in Panama and purchased a large landed estate. He had spent enormous sums in developing it, until it had become famous throughout the Isthmus for its extent and beauty. That the owner was fabulously wealthy could not be doubted. But beyond this, all was conjecture. He had no official position or diplomatic mission. No breath of suspicion had ever been attached to him of being in any sense hostile to American interests. His suavity, his courtesy, his unquestioned wealth and standing had won for him universal respect. And yet, if Bert's suspicions proved true, the accomplished Japanese gentleman into whose eyes he was looking, was the most dangerous foe that America had in the whole wide world.

A door opened and another Japanese entered the room. He was older than the man seated at the desk, and his face was creased with the deep lines of wisdom and long experience. He might have been, and probably was, one of the "elder statesmen" – that august body, that, at home and abroad, guided the destinies of the nation. He saluted ceremoniously the owner of the house, and they were soon engaged in an animated conversation.

Then a man of a different type was ushered in by an obsequious servant. He was dressed in American fashion, but his face indicated a Spanish origin. He was a Cuban who had been educated as a civil engineer in one of the scientific schools of the United States. His features were alert and intelligent, but there was a certain shiftiness in his eyes, and something about him gave an indefinable air of dissipation. He had been employed for a time in harbor work at Vera Cruz, but had killed a man in a brawl and been forced to flee the country. On the Canal, there were eighty-seven distinct nationalities engaged in the work, and, in view of the great demand for labor, he had no difficulty in securing employment, the more easily as he was an expert in his profession. He had been assigned to the Gatun section of the work, with his quarters in the city of Colon.

The Japanese secret service, in its search for a suitable tool, had become possessed of the facts regarding the murder for which the man, Ofirio, by name, was wanted by the Mexican authorities. With infinite caution and by slow degrees, they had approached and sounded him. They appealed to his fears and his avarice. As regards the first, they could betray him to his pursuers. For the second, they promised him an amount of money greater than he could expect to earn in the course of his natural life, and a safe refuge in Japan. Under the stress of these two primal emotions, he had yielded, and, for a year past, had been in the power and the pay of Namoto, the Japanese, in whose library he was at that moment standing. He it was who had dropped the paper that Wah Lee had so fortunately retrieved and which had given Bert the first hint of the appalling disaster that threatened his country.

Bert noticed the subtle something in the air of Namoto – a mixture of power, disdain, and condescension – as he motioned the engineer to a seat. From a stray word or two that came to him, he noted that they were talking in English, which both understood, while neither could speak the native language of the other.

And now it became imperative that Bert should hear the conference that concerned him so tremendously. From where he was, he could see perfectly, but could hear nothing but an occasional disconnected word. He must leave his safe retreat, take his life in his hands and reach the veranda that ran beneath the open window.

Silently, he removed his shoes, and, tying them together by the laces, hung them over the branch. Then he crept out on the heavy bough that reached within three feet of the porch. Holding on by his hands, he let himself down, swung back and forth once or twice to get the proper momentum, and then letting himself go, landed as lightly as a lynx upon the veranda. A moment he swayed trying to keep his nearly lost balance, while he looked anxiously to see if the conspirators had heard. They showed no sign of disturbance, however, and, with a muttered prayer of thankfulness, Bert dropped on his hands and knees and crept beneath the sill. And there, safe for the instant, with every faculty strained to its utmost, he became a fourth, if unseen, member of the group.

CHAPTER XIII
MARKED FOR DESTRUCTION

Ofirio was speaking.

"I am sure that nothing has been overlooked," he was saying, evidently in answer to a question. "The charges of dynamite have been tamped into the holes, and there are enough of them, fired at the same moment, to wreck the eastern gate. In any event, it will so injure the delicate machinery that works them, that they cannot be moved. Portions of it, no doubt, will be blown into the Canal and block it so effectually that no ship can pass through. But, leaving that out of the question, if the gate cannot work, the Canal is put out of commission. It would be a matter of weeks, perhaps of months, to repair the damage."

"The longer the better, of course," said Namoto, "but we do not ask even

that much of fate. Give us ten days of confusion and panic, with the

Atlantic fleet on this side of the Canal and unable to get through to the

Pacific, and our victory is sure."

"How about the tunnel?" asked Togi, the oldest of the three. "Are you sure there is no suspicion that it exists?"

"Not the slightest," answered Ofirio. "I came through it myself, last night, entering it at the masked exit near the locks, and leaving it by the secret opening in your cellar. Nothing has been disturbed, and the divers' helmets were in their accustomed place. If the Americans had any knowledge of it, their soldiers would already be in possession."

"Provided that we can keep the secret until the day of the grand opening," muttered Togi, uneasily. "You are sure," he went on, "that the connections are perfect?"

"The wires have been so strung that not one of the charges has been overlooked," asserted Ofirio, confidently. "There will be no interval between the explosions. When your finger presses that button, there will be a roar that will deafen the city and shake the whole Isthmus."

There was a brief pause, and Bert's heart beat so hard that it almost seemed as though it must be heard. The hideous plot had been revealed in all its blackness. His face was blanched as he thought of the possibilities, but he exulted in the fact that, at last, he had definite knowledge. He knew what was to be done – the destruction of the Canal Gate. He knew how it was to be done – by an electric current sent through the wires to the concealed explosives. He knew when it was to be done – on the opening day of the Canal.

In his mind's eye, he could see the progress of the plan that had been conceived and carried on with such infernal cunning. With the patience of moles, they had dug an underground tunnel, extending from Namoto's mansion to within a short distance of the locks. The mention of the divers' helmets gave him a clue to the way in which the holes had been made and the dynamite inserted. No doubt they had taken advantage of stormy nights, lowering themselves into the water at a distance from the locks and then slowly groping their way toward them. The wires had found a conduit in the tunnel, and ran directly to the library of Namoto. His index finger was indeed the finger of Fate, that expected to write a record of disaster to the United States. One pressure on a button would send the electric current surging through the wires, and the great Canal would, for a time at least, be put completely out of commission.

But, after all, this was not an end in itself. It was only the means to an end. It would be mere vandalism to cripple the Canal, simply for the sake of inflicting damage. Besides, the injury could be repaired, and, in a short time, all traces of it would have vanished. There must be an object for all this enormous toil and risk. What was it?

Namoto had spoken of the Atlantic fleet not being able to get through to the Pacific. "Ten days of panic and confusion." Why was it so imperative to prevent the warships on this side from joining their comrades on the other? Naturally, to keep the Pacific squadron weak and less able to resist attack. Then, an attack was planned. By whom? Who could attack us from the Pacific side but Japan? And when? Within ten days. And again Allison's words sounded in Bert's ears like the knell of doom: "Perhaps at this very moment a Japanese fleet is on its way to the Pacific slope."

With a sinking of the heart, Bert reflected on the vast number of American warships now at Colon or hastening there. The government had planned to make a great demonstration of naval strength, in order to impress the nations of the world. For this purpose, many had been called home from European stations. Some of the most formidable dreadnoughts building at the navy yards had been rushed along in construction, so as to be manned and launched for the great review. Others, which naturally belonged to the Pacific squadron, but had been in the drydocks for repairs, would in the ordinary course of things, have been despatched before this around the Horn, to join their brethren in the Pacific. But since the opening of the Canal was so near at hand, it seemed unwise to steam ten thousand miles, when, in a little while, the same result could be attained by traveling fifty. Thus, from various causes, at least three-fourths of the American navy was on the Atlantic side. If it could be kept there, the Japanese could attack the remnant in the Pacific in overwhelming force. Then, with these captured or destroyed, the Japanese vessels could bombard San Francisco and Seattle, land their troops from the crowded transports, and gain control of the whole western coast of the United States. It was an imperial idea – boldly conceived, broadly planned, patiently developed, but – and Bert thanked God – not yet executed.

These thoughts had passed through his mind with lightning rapidity. But now, the plotters had resumed their talk. This time, it was Togi who spoke.

"I would that the time were set for to-night," he said. "The present is in our hands. The future is uncertain. Fortune is fickle. Fate has its whims, its bitter jests. All is ready. One pressure on that button, and before ten seconds have passed, the work is done. Is it wise to wait, Namoto?"

Bert scarcely dared to breathe, while he waited for the answer. It was long in coming. Namoto seemed wavering. Togi had spoken truly. The present moment was his. The future was on the "lap of the gods." Perhaps, in obedience to the mysterious laws of mind, the very presence, though unknown, of Bert, just outside the window, made him sense dimly some crouching danger. But the moment of indecision passed, and he answered, slowly:

"It cannot be, Togi. We must wait. We have waited nearly three years. Surely the gods of Japan will not desert us in the next two days. There are many reasons for waiting, but here are two:

"The shock must come at just the right moment. It will be tenfold more paralyzing, more panic-breeding. When bells are ringing, when crowds are cheering, when America is exulting, when the world is watching – at just that instant the blow must fall. The power of the unexpected is irresistible. The enemy's fall will be more crushing, and Japan will loom up, a sinister image of dread, that will fill the whole horizon.

"Then, too, with every hour that passes, our fleet is drawing nearer. From all quarters of the compass they are converging. Of course, they will not form a compact squadron, until the news is flashed to them that the Gate has been destroyed. Then they will unite for the last great rush upon the Coast."

"I should think," ventured Ofirio, "that so many Japanese warships in one part of the Pacific would be noted by merchant ships and reported to their governments. Do you not fear that suspicion may be aroused before you are ready?"

"Not so," answered Namoto. "Our Naval Department has shown the utmost care and caution. For a year past the vessels have been sent to various ports along the coast of Japan. In every harbor they have lurked, one here, another there, at Nakodate, Miyako, Nagasaki, Noshiro, Ohama, and others. Some have been reported in the naval bulletins as drydocked. Others have been sent, in ones and twos, on missions of courtesy or diplomacy to China, Australia, and other countries bordering on the Pacific. So adroitly and innocently has this been done, that not even a rumor is current in any foreign cabinet that anything is afoot, and even the masses of the Japanese themselves do not know what their government is doing. But all the commanders have had definite orders so to time their departure from the various ports as to meet at a given parallel within a day or two of the time set for the opening of the Canal. That parallel is between Hawaii and San Francisco, barely two days distant from the latter. Steam is up, the magazines filled, the guns shotted, the plan of campaign worked out to the last detail. Like hawks, they are hovering within easy reach of each other, ready for the signal. The moment I press this button, the wireless will flash the news across all the continents and all the seas. Then the captains who smashed the Russians at Port Arthur and in the Sea of Japan will turn their vessels' prows toward arrogant America, and within forty-eight hours our guns will be thundering at her western doors."

A dull glow crept into his sallow cheeks and his eyes blazed, as he saw in vision the victory of his beloved Nippon.

"But there," he said, as though repenting his outburst of enthusiasm, so foreign to his habitual reticence and self-control, "they will do their part. It only remains for us to do ours. I will not keep you longer to-night, Ofirio," he went on, by way of dismissal. "Report to me to-morrow at the same hour for final instructions."

He pressed a bell, and a servant, bending low, ushered the Cuban out into the night.

But Togi still lingered. The lines in his face had deepened. His long experience had taught him how often the cup is dashed from the lips as one makes ready to drink. The reaction and depression that come to one when, after tremendous toil and strain, his plans await fruition, held him in their grip. It is true, those plans seemed faultless. Nothing had failed in their calculations. The mechanism was working without a jar. But this very perfection was in itself ominous. Perhaps, even then, fate was preparing to spring upon them and lay their hopes in ruins. And again his eyes turned longingly toward the button, the lightest touch on which would shock the world to its center.

Namoto noticed the direction of his glance and smiled.

"Be not impatient, Togi," he said. "Soon now the hour will strike that marks the beginning of a glorious era for our loved Nippon."

"Glorious, yes," answered Togi. "Whether we win or lose, it will be glorious. Our soldiers will know how to fight and die for their country, as they have always done, and even if defeated they will not be dishonored."



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