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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe River's End - Chapter 21
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The River's End - Chapter 21 Post by :add2it Category :Long Stories Author :James Oliver Curwood Date :May 2012 Read :1610

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The River's End - Chapter 21

CHAPTER XXI

It was as if with a swiftness invisible to the eye a mask had dropped from Shan Tung's face. Keith, preparing to fight, urging himself on to the step which he believed he must take, was amazed. Shan Tung was earnest. There was more than earnestness in his eyes, an anxiety, a frankly revealed hope that Keith would meet him halfway. But he did not offer his hand again. He seemed to sense, in that instant, the vast gulf between yellow and white. He felt Keith's contempt, the spurning contumely that was in the other's mind. Under the pallid texture of his skin there began to burn a slow and growing flush.

"Wait!" he said softly. In his flowing gown he seemed to glide to a carven desk near at hand. He was back in a moment with a roll of parchment in his hand. He sat down again and met Keith's eyes squarely and in silence for a moment.

"We are both MEN, John Keith." His voice was soft and calm. His tapering fingers with their carefully manicured nails fondled the roll of parchment, and then unrolled it, and held it so the other could read.

It was a university diploma. Keith stared. A strange name was scrolled upon it, Kao Lung, Prince of Shantung. His mind leaped to the truth. He looked at the other.

The man he had known as Shan Tung met his eyes with a quiet, strange smile, a smile in which there was pride, a flash of sovereignty, of a thing greater than skins that were white. "I am Prince Kao," he said. "That is my diploma. I am a graduate of Yale."

Keith's effort to speak was merely a grunt. He could find no words. And Kao, rolling up the parchment and forgetting the urn of tea that was growing cold, leaned a little over the table again. And then it was, deep in his narrowed, smoldering eyes, that Keith saw a devil, a living, burning thing of passion, Kao's soul itself. And Kao's voice was quiet, deadly.

"I recognized you in McDowell's office," he said. "I saw, first, that you were not Derwent Conniston. And then it was easy, so easy. Perhaps you killed Conniston. I am not asking, for I hated Conniston. Some day I should have killed him, if he had come back. John Keith, from that first time we met, you were a dead man. Why didn't I turn you over to the hangman? Why did I warn you in such a way that I knew you would come to see me? Why did I save your life which was in the hollow of my hand? Can you guess?"

"Partly," replied Keith. "But go on. I am waiting." Not for an instant had it enter his mind to deny that he was John Keith. Denial was folly, a waste of time, and just now he felt that nothing in the world was more precious to him than time.

Kao's quick mind, scheming and treacherous though it was, caught his view-point, and he nodded appreciatively. "Good, John Keith. It is easily guessed. Your life is mine. I can save it. I can destroy it. And you, in turn, can be of service to me. You help me, and I save you. It is a profitable arrangement. And we both are happy, for you keep Derwent Conniston's sister--and I--I get my golden-headed goddess, Miriam Kirkstone!"

"That much I have guessed," said Keith. "Go on!" For a moment Kao seemed to hesitate, to study the cold, gray passiveness of the other's face. "You love Derwent Conniston's sister," he continued in a voice still lower and softer. "And I--I love my golden-headed goddess. See! Up there on the dais I have her picture and a tress of her golden hair, and I worship them."

Colder and grayer was Keith's face as he saw the slumbering passion burn fiercer in Kao's eyes. It turned him sick. It was a terrible thing which could not be called love. It was a madness. But Kao, the man himself, was not mad. He was a monster. And while the eyes burned like two devils, his voice was still soft and low.

"I know what you are thinking; I see what you are seeing," he said. "You are thinking yellow, and you are seeing yellow. My skin! My birthright! My--" He smiled, and his voice was almost caressing.

"John Keith, in Pe-Chi-Li is the great city of Pekin, and Pe-Chi-Li is the greatest province in all China. And second only to that is the province of Shantung, which borders Pe-Chi-Li, the home of our Emperors for more centuries than you have years. And for so many generations that we cannot remember my forefathers have been rulers of Shantung. My grandfather was a Mandarin with the insignia of the Eighth Order, and my father was Ninth and highest of all Orders, with his palace at Tsi-Nan, on the Yellow Sea. And I, Prince Kao, eldest of his sons, came to America to learn American law and American ways. And I learned them, John Keith. I returned, and with my knowledge I undermined a government. For a time I was in power, and then this thing you call the god of luck turned against me, and I fled for my life. But the blood is still here--" he put his hand softly to his breast, "--the blood of a hundred generations of rulers. I tell you this because you dare not betray me, you dare not tell them who I am, though even that truth could not harm me. I prefer to be known as Shan Tung. Only you--and Miriam Kirkstone--have heard as much."

Keith's blood was like fire, but his voice was cold as ice. "GO ON!"

This time there could be no mistake. That cold gray of his passionless face, the steely glitter in his eyes, were read correctly by Kao. His eyes narrowed. For the first time a dull flame leaped into his colorless cheeks.

"Ah, I told you this because I thought we would work together, friends," he cried. "But it is not so. You, like my golden-headed goddess, hate me! You hate me because of my yellow skin. You say to yourself that I have a yellow heart. And she hates me, and she says that--but she is mine, MINE!" He sprang suddenly to his feet and swept about him with his flowing arms. "See what I have prepared for her! It is here she will come, here she will live until I take her away. There, on that dais, she will give up her soul and her beautiful body to me--and you cannot help it, she cannot help it, all the world cannot help it--AND SHE IS COMING TO ME TONIGHT!"

"TONIGHT!" gasped John Keith.

He, too, leaped to his feet. His face was ghastly. And Kao, in his silken gown, was sweeping his arms about him.

"See! The candles are lighted for her. They are waiting. And tonight, when the town is asleep, she will come. AND IT IS YOU WHO WILL MAKE HER COME, JOHN KEITH!"

Facing the devils in Kao's eyes, within striking distance of a creature who was no longer a man but a monster, Keith marveled at the coolness that held him back.

"Yes, it is you who will at last give her soul and her beautiful body to me," he repeated. "Come. I will show you how--and why!"

He glided toward the dais. His hand touched a panel. It opened and in the opening he turned about and waited for Keith.

"Come!" he said.

Keith, drawing a deep breath, his soul ready for the shock, his body ready for action, followed him.

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CHAPTER XXIIInto a narrow corridor, through a second door that seemed made of padded wool, and then into a dimly lighted room John Keith followed Kao, the Chinaman. Out of this room there was no other exit; it was almost square, its ceiling was low, its walls darkly somber, and that life was there Keith knew by the heaviness of cigarette smoke in the air. For a moment his eyes did not discern the physical evidence of that life. And then, staring at him out of the yellow glow, he saw a face. It was a haunting, terrible face, a face
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CHAPTER XXWith a face out of which all color had fled, and eyes filled with the ghosts of a new horror, Miriam Kirkstone stood before Keith in the big room in the house on the hill."He was here--ten minutes," she said, and her voice was as if she was forcing it out of a part of her that was dead and cold. It was lifeless, emotionless, a living voice and yet strange with the chill of death. "In those ten minutes he told me--that! If you fail--"It was her throat that held him, fascinated him. White, slim, beautiful--her heart seemed pulsing
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