It is ten minutes to ten when we return to the station, absolutely tired out; for the walk has been a rough one, and almost suffocating, for the heat is very great.
My first care is to look after the van with the millions. It is there as usual behind the train under the Chinese guard.
The message expected by the governor has arrived; the order to forward on the van to Pekin, where the treasure is to be handed over to the finance minister.
Where is Faruskiar? I do not see him. Has he given us the slip?
No! There he is on one of the platforms, and the Mongols are back in the car.
Ephrinell has been off to do a round of calls—with his samples, no doubt—and Mrs. Ephrinell has also been out on business, for a deal in hair probably. Here they come, and without seeming to notice one another they take their seats.
The other passengers are only Celestials. Some are going to Pekin; some have taken their tickets for intermediate stations like Si-Ngan, Ho Nan. Lou-Ngan, Tai-Youan. There are a hundred passengers in the train. All my numbers are on board. There is not one missing. Thirteen, always thirteen!
We were still on the platform, just after the signal of departure had been given, when Caterna asked his wife what was the most curious thing she had seen at Lan-Tcheou.
“The most curious thing, Adolphe? Those big cages, hung on to the walls and trees, which held such curious birds—”
“Very curious, Madame Caterna,” said Pan-Chao. “Birds that talk—”
“No; criminals’ heads.”
“Horrible!” said the actress, with a most expressive grimace.
“What would you have, Caroline?” said Caterna. “It is the custom of the country.”
On leaving Lan-Tcheou, the railway crosses a well-cultivated country, watered by numerous streams, and hilly enough to necessitate frequent curves. There is a good deal of engineering work; mostly bridges, viaducts on wooden trestles of somewhat doubtful solidity, and the traveler is not particularly comfortable when he finds them bending under the weight of the train. It is true we are in the Celestial Empire, and a few thousand victims of a railway accident is hardly anything among a population of four hundred millions.
“Besides,” said Pan-Chao, “the Son of Heaven never travels by railway.”
So much the better.
At six o’clock in the evening we are at King-Tcheou, after skirting for some time the capricious meanderings of the Great Wall. Of this immense artificial frontier built between Mongolia and China, there remain only the blocks of granite and red quartzite which served as its base, its terrace of bricks with the parapets of unequal heights, a few old cannons eaten into with rust and hidden under a thick veil of lichens, and then the square towers with their ruined battlements. The interminable wall rises, falls, bends, bends back again, and is lost to sight on the undulations of the ground.