THE MYSTERIOUS CHINAMAN
“Pardon, my young friend!”
Johnny Thompson started at the sound of these words spoken by someone close behind him. He had been seated in a corner of the park. It was early evening, but quite dark. He sprang to his feet.
“Pardon! Please do not go away.” There was something reassuring in the slow easy drawl of the stranger. Johnny dropped back to his place. Next instant as the light of a passing car played upon the stranger, he was tempted to laugh. He found himself looking into the face of the smallest Chinaman he had ever known. To Johnny the expression “Who’s afraid of a Chinaman?” was better known than “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?”
But what did this little man with his very much wrinkled face puckered into a strange smile, want? Johnny leaned forward expectantly.
“You think hard. You are worried. Is it not so?” The little man took a seat beside him. “All the time you think baseball. You do not play. But you think very much. Is it not so? This town, your team, they are everything just now. Is it not so? And you are troubled.” The wrinkles on the little yellow man’s face appeared to crinkle and crackle like very old parchment.
“Let me tell you,” he put a hand on Johnny’s arm. “You think of Centralia. A long time you have thought, ‘They will defeat us unless we find a pitcher, a very good pitcher.’ And you have found a pitcher. Perhaps he will do. You are not sure. Is it not so?”
Johnny started. All this was true. Centralia was the great rival of the little city he chanced to call home at that moment. He was thinking of the coming game. But this new pitcher! That was a closely guarded secret. Only three people knew and they were pledged to silence.
“Ah!” the little man leaned forward, “You are more greatly troubled now. You are thinking, ‘Someone has told.’ No, my young friend, it has not been told. It is given Tao Sing to know many things. Tao Sing can tell you much.”
“Are you Tao Sing?” Johnny fixed his eyes on the dark face beside him.
“I am Tao Sing.” The little man blinked strangely. “It is written, I shall be your friend. Tao Sing shall tell you many things. Ah yes, many, many things.”
Johnny was astonished, so much so that for an instant his eyes strayed away to the deep shadows beyond. When his gaze returned the dark figure of the little yellow man was gone. He had vanished into the night.
“How could he know that?” the boy asked himself in great perplexity. “I have only known it three days. It has been a pledged secret.” Here indeed was a mystery.
Johnny Thompson was, at that moment, living in the little city of Hillcrest. Having wandered the world over, sleeping beneath the tropical moon and the Midnight Sun, and meeting with all manner of weird adventures, he had returned to the place that had fascinated him most as a very small boy—his grandfather’s home. At the edge of this sleepy little city, a hundred and fifty miles from any truly great city, Johnny had found the rambling old home still standing, and in it, a little grayer and slower, but still his kindly old self, was his grandfather.
“You’ve come for a long stay this time, Johnny,” he said with a warming smile. “That’s fine!”
“Yes,” Johnny had replied, “I’m tired of big cities, of adventures and mysteries. I—well, I guess I’d just like to sit in the sun awhile and—well, perhaps play around a little.”
“There’s a fine ball team,” the old man had said enthusiastically. “Lots of interest in it this summer.”
“Baseball—” Johnny said the word slowly. “I’m rather poor at that. Might be ways I could help though.”
And there had been ways. When their best pitcher’s arm went bad and their hopes of winning the Summer League pennant promised to go aglimmering, he had marched bravely into the office of Colonel Chamberlain, the town’s most resourceful business man, and said, “Colonel, it’s up to you to help us out.”
To Johnny’s vast surprise the Colonel replied, “Sure I will, Johnny.” At the same time the Colonel had smiled a mysterious smile. “Truth is,” he said, “I’ve been sort of holding out on you boys. I’ve got a man right here in the laboratories who can throw circles all around any pitcher in the League.”
“Here in the lab—”
“Wait and see!” the Colonel stopped Johnny. “You bring Doug Danby around tomorrow night.” (Doug was Captain of the team.) “I’ll have him throw over a few for you, just in private.” He had kept his promise.
“Mysteries,” Johnny thought, sitting there in the park in the dark after the little Chinaman had vanished. “They’re not just in big cities nor in tropical jungles either. You find them everywhere. Take that pitcher—one of the most mysterious persons I ever saw. Such a strange looking chap too—dark-skinned as some priest from India. And can he pitch!
“Boy, oh boy!” He spoke aloud without meaning to. “Will we win!”
“No, my friend!” So startled this time was Johnny, at once more hearing the sound of the little yellow man’s voice that he sprang to his feet, wild-eyed and staring.
“No, my friend, you will not win,” the little man repeated quietly. “There is a reason. Soon I shall tell you the reason, my young friend.”
Johnny saw a yellow hand waving before him for silence.
“One more thing I will tell you,” the little man continued. “There is a pep meeting tomorrow night. You will not go.”
Johnny did not finish. Once more the little yellow man had disappeared.
“How could you know that?” Johnny called into the darkness.
“I have a picture of your thoughts,” came drifting back. “You will not believe. Sometime I shall show you this picture of your thoughts.”
“A—a picture of my thoughts.” Johnny dropped back to his place on the bench. “A picture of my thoughts? How could that be? And yet—
“How could he know?” he repeated after a long period of silence. And indeed how could this little man know all he had told? In regard to the mysterious pitcher the Colonel had discovered for the team, there was a bare chance that someone had talked. They, the three of them, Doug Danby, Colonel Chamberlain, and Johnny, had agreed to keep this a secret for at least one more day.
“Yes,” he thought slowly, “someone might have talked. But that pep meeting! I only decided last night that I’d better not go. And yet he, a strange Chinaman I have never seen before, he comes and tells me what I have thought. How strange! How—how sort of impossible. And yet—
“He said he had a picture of my thoughts. I—I hope he brings it round for me to see.” Laughing a short uncertain laugh, the boy rose from the bench to walk slowly toward his grandfather’s home.
A rather strange city was this one where, for the time, Johnny had a home. No city of its size has a more unusual population. A dozen or more years back it had been a mere village. Only native-born Americans lived there. Then it began to grow. The Chinese people came first. For some reason all his own, a very rich Chinese merchant, Wung Lu, had settled there. In almost no time at all, he had gathered about him a large group of the strange little yellow men. They had erected a Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Men came from afar to bargain here for Oriental goods from across the sea.
“They’re queer, these little yellow men,” Johnny told himself now, “but somehow I like them.”
Yes, though he was not very conscious of it, this was one of Johnny’s great gifts. He had a way of “somehow liking” everyone. And because they somehow came to know this, they liked him in turn. He and Wung Lu, the Chinese merchant who, rumor had it, was immensely rich, had become great friends.
“But this little fellow with the wrinkled face,” he thought, “now who can he be? I supposed I had seen them all. And he is one I could never forget, yet I’ve never seen him before.
“Strange sort of fellow,” he mused. “Said he had a picture of my thoughts. How could he have? But then how could he know those things he told me?”
Johnny had read books about the way people think. He remembered reading something about one person being able to read another’s thoughts. Could this little man do that? Had he read his thoughts? He shuddered a little. It was so mysterious, so sort of ghost-like.
“He couldn’t have read my mind, at least not when he found out I wasn’t going to the pep meeting. I hadn’t thought of it once, at least not tonight.”
The whole affair was so baffling that he gave it up and turned his thoughts to Saturday’s baseball game.
Johnny had known for a long time that Centralia, nine miles away, and Hillcrest had been rivals, friendly rivals, but the keenest of rivals all the same. For four years, one straight after the other, Centralia had won the annual summer baseball tournament.
“Last year,” Johnny thought, “Hillcrest almost beat them in the last game. But this year we’ll win if—
“But then—” his mood changed. “He said we wouldn’t win, that little yellow man with the wrinkled face said that!” he exclaimed, half in anger. “How could he know? And yet, how could he know what I had been thinking?
“Oh well!” He stamped the ground defiantly. “What’s one game? There are others to be played. If we lose one, we’ll win in the end. And we’ll not lose this one! See if—”
He broke short off. Soft footsteps were approaching. It was the little Chinaman again.
“It’s he,” Johnny whispered. “Will I never get rid of him? He’s like a shadow, a ghost haunting a fellow in the night.”
As the little man came close to Johnny he said in a voice that was little more than a whisper, “You know that Centralia baseball captain, Barney Bradford?”
Johnny grumbled, “Of course I do. Suppose you have a picture of his thoughts too.”
“Ye-s-s,” the little man drawled, “Tao Sing has picture of that one’s thoughts.”
“Oh, you have?” This affair was getting almost funny. “What does he think?”
“He thinks his pitcher has been sick. He thinks, not sick now. Pitch tomorrow. Win tomorrow. He thinks this—Barney Bradford.” The little Chinaman let out a low cackle. “I have the picture of his thoughts. So now you know that Tao Sing tell no lie. You did not know this pitcher is well again. Is it not so?”
“I—I did not know,” Johnny agreed reluctantly.
“And your team mates did not know. But Tao Sing, he know. Listen!” The little man’s voice dropped to a whisper. “You are a friend of Wung Lu, the rich and wise one, is it not so?”
“Y-yes, that’s right,” Johnny stammered, too astonished to think clearly.
“Ah yes, you are a friend of Wung Lu,” the little man murmured. “Perhaps some day I will show you the picture of your thoughts. Perhaps very soon, some day I shall show you.”
Once more the little yellow man vanished into the darkness. He left an astonished boy staring at the place where he had been.
A few moments later Johnny met Meggy Strawn at his own door. Meggy was champion cheer leader for Hillcrest.
“Why Johnny, what’s up?” she asked. “Why all the gloom?”
“Burt Standish is going to pitch tomorrow.”
“Burt! He can’t! He’s got heart trouble. Johnny, who told you?”
“Why, a—” Johnny stopped short. He couldn’t tell Meggy that some little Chinaman had taken a picture of Barney Bradford’s thoughts. That would sound sort of queer. “I—I—” he hesitated, “I just found out.”
“And yet I believe it,” he thought to himself as he hurried past her.
There was reason enough to believe, for next day as Johnny took his place on the bleachers there was Burt Standish, the pitcher who was supposed to have serious heart trouble, on the mound warming up.
“He knew,” Johnny told himself with sudden shock. “That little Chinaman knew! And yet Centralia succeeded in keeping it a dead secret. Not a player on our team knew Burt was to pitch.” His respect for the little Chinaman’s mind reading, or whatever it might be, rose several notches.
Categories: English Literature