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The chief eunuch in 'The Boy Fortune Hunters in China' (1909)

The Boy Fortune Hunters is a series by L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, writing under the pseudonym Floyd Akers. The fourth volume, The Boy Fortune Hunters in China, was published in 1909 by the Reilly and Britton Co.

In this story, set in 1908, three American boys — Sam Steele of Chelsea, Mass., age 18, the narrator; Archie Ackley, "about my age"; and Joseph Herring, "a little younger" and "rich" — sail across the Pacific to China and conspire to steal a royal treasure from the palace of a dead prince, out from under the nose of the ever-loyal chief eunuch. They travel with two South Sea Islanders, Nux and Bryonia, who had been rescued at sea by Sam's uncle. The uncle then renamed them after the medicines he used to save their lives. They were subsequently "devoted" to this man, and they learned English from him. "Indeed, I had come to regard both Nux and Bry," Sam says, "as my own personal followers, and well had they proven their claim to this title. They were nearly as dark as Africans, but very intelligent and faithful in every emergency." Nux and Bry follow Sam, Archie, and Joe everywhere, but they do not direct the action and they do not seem to be considered full members of the adventure club.

Skipping the first thirteen chapters, I will focus on the action involving the Chief Eunuch Wi-to.

Chapter XIV introduces the Chief Eunuch. After traveling for weeks in northwestern China, emerging from "a dark and gloomy teak forest" on the backs of elephants and arriving in Kwang-Kai-Nong, the adventurers receive a dinner invitation from "the noble governor [Mai Lo] and the great Wi-to." Wi-to is the "Chief Eunuch and the Supreme Ruler of the palace of Price Kai," second in power only to the governor. He speaks serviceable English and is friendly to the adventurers. When they first meet, he "gave us a whimsical look and raised a pair of bright, intelligent eyes to meet our own."

Sam says: "My notion of eunuchs had been that they were fierce creatures of powerful build, usually Ethiopians, and greatly to e feared. I had heard tales of their absolute power in the palaces of the nobles, and that even the mighty Empress Tsi An had failed to curb the influence of her palace eunuchs. So it pleased me to find Wi-to more agreeable in manner and speech than the imperturbable governor..." Sam informs the eunuch that their party intends "to escort the remains of your master [the late Prince Kai, who had taught the eunuch English] and our beloved friend to his old home."

"I did not know whether it was proper to address the Chief Eunuch as 'your Highness' or not; but perhaps the compliment pleased him, for he smiled, then screwed up his face into a semblance of grief, then smiled again."

'We are deeply grieved and inconsolable,' said he, cheerfully.

It turns out that "the shrewd eunuch" was eager to learn that one of the adventurers, Sam, had been acquainted with Prince Kai.

Wi-to oddly claims that English, which for him is a second language, "is an excellent language to converse in, and easier than our own...for it is much more simple."

In Chapter XV, there is a funeral procession to the capital, Kai-Nong. Wi-to's elephant brings up the rear behind the adventurers' elephants. They arrive at the palace walls and enter the gardens.

"Sixty gorgeously appareled men, armed with scimitars and broad axes, formed a circle around the elephant that bore the casket and prepared to guard it. They were stalwart, erect fellows, of proud bearing but evil and ferocious countenances, and each wore a yellow turban coiled upon his head, with a golden clasp, in effigy of the Sacred Ape, fastening the folds just above the forehead.

These were the eunuchs, the palace guards, or servants and attendants of the harem.

* * *

We all dismounted here, and the mahouts led away the elephants. Some of the eunuchs bore the casket of the Prince up the broad steps of the terrace, while Wi-to bowed low, first to the Governor and then to us, and welcomed us to the Royal House of Kai."

In Chapter XVI, "The Governor Shows His Teeth," left alone with Mai Lo and Wi-to, Sam says, "we seemed quite alone with these two natives, one of whom we knew distrusted and hated us." Wi-to "looked at us shrewdly and with an expression more grave and reserved than he had yet shown us," and leaves. "We were much annoyed at this discourteous treatment" at mid-afternoon, as they felt that Wi-to owed them lunch.

The palace entrance is flanked by two bronze statues "of the Sacred Ape, its grinning jaws filled with ivory teeth and its eyes set with immense rubies." One of the adventure boys, Archie, says: "Looks as if they had allowed us to come this far so that they might murder us." Sam replies: "We've got to win the good will of the eunuch or we're done for." Mai Lo returns and tells them he is not bound to honor the late Prince Kai's hospitality toward them; they must immediately leave for Shanghai or they will be killed. The boys object. Mai Lo blows a whistle, and Sam"motioned to Nux and Bry. Instantly my blacks had pounced upon the governor and drawn him behind us, holding him secure, while from a dozen nooks about the hall sprang eunuchs with drawn scimitars, who ran swiftly toward us."

Sam stops this onslaught by yelling "Stop!" even though the assailants "knew no English" and, moreover, do not answer to him. His comrade Archie, armed with a revolver, addresses the governor Mai Lo as "you yellow monkey" and demands that he call off his army "or I'll put a bullet through your head!" Sam shows Prince Kai's ring to the eunuchs "and said sternly: 'Wi-to!'" which for some reason causes them to bow low and summon Wi-to, who also kneels at the sight of Prince Kai's ring.

In Chapter XVII, "Wi-to Proves Faithful," the boy adventurers show Wi-to a letter written by Prince Kai, documenting that Prince Kai had given his ring to the boys and not to the governor Mai Lo. Sam presents his theory that Mai Lo is an opportunist who has returned to the city only to steal Prince Kai's treasure, and not to commit suicide according to what he says would be Shinto tradition. Wi-to, surprised and agitated, says: "You must be right." But, he asks, "you think I will side with you against the powerful governor?...I can destroy you foreigners with a word, and sweep you from my path. Then I can make an alliance with Mai Lo and together we could rob the ancestral halls and escape to some other country to enjoy the wealth." He adds that he is "of lowly birth, and as a child my parents sold me to the House of Kai to become a eunuch. My consent was not asked. Why should I be faithful to my masters?" Joe, one of the boy adventurers, says: "It's your nature," and adds, "A eunuch is of no use in the world outside of his own province. Here you have power. In Europe you would be despised and insulted." Wi-to agrees that they are right — he has been loyal for these reasons in the past. He adds that, if he stays, he is likely to remain in his current position and "be the real master here," so he doesn't need to steal anything from the palace.

Wi-to says he'll protect the boys from Mai Lo as long as they remain in the palace. "With that he clapped his hands together and two eunuchs stepped forward from behind a screen, so silently that their appearance startled me." One of the eunuchs, called Tun, will be their personal servant. Unlike the majority of the palace eunuchs, he speaks a little English. Wi-to says "he is a Manchu and will be faithful."

In Chapter XVIII, the boys became aware of an increasing number of palace eunuchs who are "invariably respectful and even humble, but they were an ill-looking crew, and we were never at ease in their presence." Wi-to then shows them the Sacred Apes who are actual beasts in a cage, one of whom is considered King Ape because he ate an imperial ancestor and thus is considered to contain the man's spirit.

In Chapter XIX, Wi-to explains that there is a harem and that the Prince's sister will soon be presented to the Emperor. Sam says that this sounds "almost as horrible as the story of the King Ape." Wi-to supposes that American women belong to American men and the men must not care about their property very much given that they allow the women so much freedom.

In Chapter XX, Sam continues to remind Wi-to that Mai Lo might try to steal the treasure. In private, Sam explains to Joe: "I want him to get suspicious of Mai Lo, and watch that old fox so carefully that he won't get a chance to steal anything until we get through. Besides, it will relieve us of any suspicions...he's crafty enough to believe that we wouldn't talk about robbing the Ancestral Halls if we had any idea of doing it ourselves."

In Chapter XXI, the boys risk their lives to have a casual conversation with three pretty girls. Sam, in his narrative voice, insists (though no one asked him) that when he falls in love someday, "it will be with an American girl, and it won't matter much whether she is beautiful or not, so long as I love her." He only chatted with the Chinese girls insofar as "every well regulated young fellow is fond of chatting with nice girls," and the Chinese girls offered "a pleasant change" from their dangerous adventures.

In Chapter XXII, they trespass into a vault and discover the jewels. One of the boys takes a handful of pearls.

In Chapter XXIII, Sam says, "Often we passed the magnificently attired household eunuchs, singly or in groups; but we had now become familiar sights to these creatures, and they merely touched their yellow turbans respectfully and passed on." The boys become aware that Mai Lo has discovered their trespass.

In Chapter XXIV, Wi-to is drunken and uncharacteristically babbling. "His face was haggard and worn, his eyes puffy and bloodshot and his person untidy." The boys find a cabinet with jewel-encrusted weapons but are not prepared to steal anything yet.

In Chapter XXV, a newly sober Wi-to personally slays a eunuch who shirked his work while Wi-to had been drunk: "it taught us how little human life was valued in this strange land." Mai Lo surprises the boys while they are chatting illicitly with the girls. Archie offers to shoot Mai Lo, but Sam tells him to stand down. Meanwhile, Sam wonders why Bry, who had been standing guard outside the pavilion, "was still silent. What could have become of our faithful black?" It then occurs to Sam that Mai Lo had simply approached from another direction. Mai Lo orders the boys to leave immediately for Shanghai or die. They refuse, so he whistles and a dozen eunuchs armed with scimitars run out. "Three revolvers cracked and three of the eunuchs fell," and the boys take their opportunity to run away, whereupon they are joined by "a rescue party, consisting of Nux and Bry at the head of a band of eunuchs led by Wi-to himself." Wi-to says, however, that he cannot protect the boys any longer now that they have violated the harem.

In Chapter XXVI, Sam begins by bemoaning that Wi-to's "oriental education and surroundings had saturated his otherwise liberal mind with the conventions and prejudices of his people; and he had a supreme contempt for women and could not tolerate such an unwarranted act as we had committed; in other words, making the acquaintance of three pretty and interesting girls who were inmates of harems." The eunuch apparently feels torn, "in one breath condemning us to horrible tortures and in the next trying to figure out a way to save us." The boys "could not bring ourselves to realize that we had merited punishment." The boys realize it's their last opportunity to steal treasure before they are kicked out of the palace.

In Chapter XXVII, they realize they must find a way to escape with their lives and their treasure.

In Chapter XXVIII, Mai Lo meets his death at the hands of the Sacred Ape.

In Chapter XXIX, they take possession of Mai Lo's severed head and debate how they will convince everyone else of their story that Mai Lo committed suicide by confronting the escaped ape.

In Chapter XXX, Wi-to agrees to endorse the boys' story about Mai Lo's death, as he is mainly glad that his enemy is dead. The boys escape with their treasure. "The eunuchs carried down our heavy cases and loaded them upon the elephants, and while the bearers must have thought them tremendously heavy they dared not complain, and the Chief Eunuch's suspicions were in no way aroused. Wi-to seemed really grieved to lose his guests, and we thanked him cordially..." Sam muses, "I have often wondered if...the treasure we abstracted...[was] ever missed."

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