IT was the night following that of the double tragedy at Rowan House. Nayland Smith, with Inspector Weymouth, was engaged in some mysterious inquiry at the docks, and I had remained at home to resume my strange chronicle. And--why should I not confess it?--my memories had frightened me.
I was arranging my notes respecting the case of Sir Lionel Barton. They were hopelessly incomplete. For instance, I had jotted down the following queries:--(1) Did any true parallel exist between the death of M. Page le Roi and the death of Kwee, the Chinaman, and of Strozza? (2) What had become of the mummy of Mekara? (3) How had the murderer escaped from a locked room? (4) What was the purpose of the rubber stopper? (5) Why was Kwee hiding in the conservatory? (6) Was the green mist a mere subjective hallucination--a figment of Croxted's imagination-- or had he actually seen it?
Until these questions were satisfactorily answered, further progress was impossible. Nayland Smith frankly admitted that he was out of his depth. "It looks, on the face of it, more like a case for the Psychical Research people than for a plain Civil Servant, lately of Mandalay," he had said only that morning.
"Sir Lionel Barton really believes that supernatural agencies were brought into operation by the opening of the high priest's coffin. For my part, even if I believed the same, I should still maintain that Dr. Fu-Manchu controlled those manifestations. But reason it out for yourself and see if we arrive at any common center. Don't work so much upon the datum of the green mist, but keep to the FACTS which are established."
I commenced to knock out my pipe in the ash-tray; then paused, pipe in hand. The house was quite still, for my landlady and all the small household were out.
Above the noise of the passing tramcar I thought I had heard the hall door open. In the ensuing silence I sat and listened.
Not a sound. Stay! I slipped my hand into the table drawer, took out my revolver, and stood up.
There WAS a sound. Someone or something was creeping upstairs in the dark!
Familiar with the ghastly media employed by the Chinaman, I was seized with an impulse to leap to the door, shut and lock it. But the rustling sound proceeded, now, from immediately outside my partially opened door. I had not the time to close it; knowing somewhat of the horrors at the command of Fu-Manchu, I had not the courage to open it. My heart leaping wildly, and my eyes upon that bar of darkness with its gruesome potentialities, I waited--waited for whatever was to come. Perhaps twelve seconds passed in silence.
"Who's there?" I cried. "Answer, or I fire!"
"Ah! no," came a soft voice, thrillingly musical. "Put it down-- that pistol. Quick! I must speak to you."
The door was pushed open, and there entered a slim figure wrapped in a hooded cloak. My hand fell, and I stood, stricken to silence, looking into the beautiful dark eyes of Dr. Fu-Manchu's messenger-- if her own statement could be credited, slave. On two occasions this girl, whose association with the Doctor was one of the most profound mysteries of the case, had risked--I cannot say what; unnameable punishment, perhaps--to save me from death; in both cases from a terrible death. For what was she come now?
Her lips slightly parted, she stood, holding her cloak about her, and watching me with great passionate eyes.
"How--" I began.
But she shook her head impatiently.
"HE has a duplicate key of the house door," was her amazing statement. "I have never betrayed a secret of my master before, but you must arrange to replace the lock."
She came forward and rested her slim hands confidingly upon my shoulders. "I have come again to ask you to take me away from him," she said simply.
And she lifted her face to me.
Her words struck a chord in my heart which sang with strange music, with music so barbaric that, frankly, I blushed to find it harmony. Have I said that she was beautiful? It can convey no faint conception of her. With her pure, fair skin, eyes like the velvet darkness of the East, and red lips so tremulously near to mine, she was the most seductively lovely creature I ever had looked upon. In that electric moment my heart went out in sympathy to every man who had bartered honor, country, all for a woman's kiss.
"I will see that you are placed under proper protection," I said firmly, but my voice was not quite my own. "It is quite absurd to talk of slavery here in England. You are a free agent, or you could not be here now. Dr. Fu-Manchu cannot control your actions."
"Ah!" she cried, casting back her head scornfully, and releasing a cloud of hair, through whose softness gleamed a jeweled head-dress. "No? He cannot? Do you know what it means to have been a slave? Here, in your free England, do you know what it means--the razzia, the desert journey, the whips of the drivers, the house of the dealer, the shame. Bah!"
How beautiful she was in her indignation!
"Slavery is put down, you imagine, perhaps? You do not believe that to-day--TO-DAY--twenty-five English sovereigns will buy a Galla girl, who is brown, and"--whisper--"two hundred and fifty a Circassian, who is white. No, there is no slavery! So! Then what am I?"
She threw open her cloak, and it is a literal fact that I rubbed my eyes, half believing that I dreamed. For beneath, she was arrayed in gossamer silk which more than indicated the perfect lines of her slim shape; wore a jeweled girdle and barbaric ornaments; was a figure fit for the walled gardens of Stamboul--a figure amazing, incomprehensible, in the prosaic setting of my rooms.
"To-night I had no time to make myself an English miss," she said, wrapping her cloak quickly about her. "You see me as I am." Her garments exhaled a faint perfume, and it reminded me of another meeting I had had with her. I looked into the challenging eyes.
"Your request is but a pretense," I said. "Why do you keep the secrets of that man, when they mean death to so many?"
"Death! I have seen my own sister die of fever in the desert-- seen her thrown like carrion into a hole in the sand. I have seen men flogged until they prayed for death as a boon. I have known the lash myself. Death! What does it matter?"
She shocked me inexpressibly. Enveloped in her cloak again, and with only her slight accent to betray her, it was dreadful to hear such words from a girl who, save for her singular type of beauty, might have been a cultured European.
"Prove, then, that you really wish to leave this man's service. Tell me what killed Strozza and the Chinaman," I said.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"I do not know that. But if you will carry me off"--she clutched me nervously--"so that I am helpless, lock me up so that I cannot escape, beat me, if you like, I will tell you all I do know. While he is my master I will never betray him. Tear me from him--by force, do you understand, BY FORCE, and my lips will be sealed no longer. Ah! but you do not understand, with your `proper authorities'-- your police. Police! Ah, I have said enough."
A clock across the common began to strike. The girl started and laid her hands upon my shoulders again. There were tears glittering among the curved black lashes.
"You do not understand," she whispered. "Oh, will you never understand and release me from him! I must go. Already I have remained too long. Listen. Go out without delay. Remain out--at a hotel, where you will, but do not stay here."
"And Nayland Smith?"
"What is he to me, this Nayland Smith? Ah, why will you not unseal my lips? You are in danger--you hear me, in danger! Go away from here to-night."
She dropped her hands and ran from the room. In the open doorway she turned, stamping her foot passionately.
"You have hands and arms," she cried, "and yet you let me go. Be warned, then; fly from here--" She broke off with something that sounded like a sob.
I made no move to stay her--this beautiful accomplice of the arch-murderer, Fu-Manchu. I heard her light footsteps paltering down the stairs, I heard her open and close the door--the door of which Dr. Fu-Manchu held the key. Still I stood where she had parted from me, and was so standing when a key grated in the lock and Nayland Smith came running up.
"Did you see her?" I began.
But his face showed that he had not done so, and rapidly I told him of my strange visitor, of her words, of her warning.
"How can she have passed through London in that costume?" I cried in bewilderment. "Where can she have come from?"
Smith shrugged his shoulders and began to stuff broad-cut mixture into the familiar cracked briar.
"She might have traveled in a car or in a cab," he said; "and undoubtedly she came direct from the house of Dr. Fu-Manchu. You should have detained her, Petrie. It is the third time we have had that woman in our power, the third time we have let her go free."
"Smith," I replied, "I couldn't. She came of her own free will to give me a warning. She disarms me."
"Because you can see she is in love with you?" he suggested, and burst into one of his rare laughs when the angry flush rose to my cheek. "She is, Petrie why pretend to be blind to it? You don't know the Oriental mind as I do; but I quite understand the girl's position. She fears the English authorities, but would submit to capture by you! If you would only seize her by the hair, drag her to some cellar, hurl her down and stand over her with a whip, she would tell you everything she knows, and salve her strange Eastern conscience with the reflection that speech was forced from her. I am not joking; it is so, I assure you. And she would adore you for your savagery, deeming you forceful and strong!"
"Smith," I said, "be serious. You know what her warning meant before."
"I can guess what it means now," he rapped. "Hallo!"
Someone was furiously ringing the bell.
"No one at home?" said my friend. "I will go. I think I know what it is."
A few minutes later he returned, carrying a large square package.
"From Weymouth," he explained, "by district messenger. I left him behind at the docks, and he arranged to forward any evidence which subsequently he found. This will be fragments of the mummy."
"What! You think the mummy was abstracted?"
"Yes, at the docks. I am sure of it; and somebody else was in the sarcophagus when it reached Rowan House. A sarcophagus, I find, is practically airtight, so that the use of the rubber stopper becomes evident--ventilation. How this person killed Strozza I have yet to learn."
"Also, how he escaped from a locked room. And what about the green mist?"
Nayland Smith spread his hands in a characteristic gesture.
"The green mist, Petrie, can be explained in several ways. Remember, we have only one man's word that it existed. It is at best a confusing datum to which we must not attach a fictitious importance."
He threw the wrappings on the floor and tugged at a twine loop in the lid of the square box, which now stood upon the table. Suddenly the lid came away, bringing with it a lead lining, such as is usual in tea-chests. This lining was partially attached to one side of the box, so that the action of removing the lid at once raised and tilted it.
Then happened a singular thing.
Out over the table billowed a sort of yellowish-green cloud-- an oily vapor--and an inspiration, it was nothing less, born of a memory and of some words of my beautiful visitor, came to me.
"RUN, SMITH!" I screamed. "The door! the door, for your life! Fu-Manchu sent that box!" I threw my arms round him. As he bent forward the moving vapor rose almost to his nostrils. I dragged him back and all but pitched him out on to the landing. We entered my bedroom, and there, as I turned on the light, I saw that Smith's tanned face was unusually drawn, and touched with pallor.
"It is a poisonous gas!" I said hoarsely; "in many respects identical with chlorine, but having unique properties which prove it to be something else--God and Fu-Manchu, alone know what! It is the fumes of chlorine that kill the men in the bleaching powder works. We have been blind--I particularly. Don't you see? There was no one in the sarcophagus, Smith, but there was enough of that fearful stuff to have suffocated a regiment!"
Smith clenched his fists convulsively.
"My God!" he said, "how can I hope to deal with the author of such a scheme? I see the whole plan. He did not reckon on the mummy case being overturned, and Kwee's part was to remove the plug with the aid of the string--after Sir Lionel had been suffocated. The gas, I take it, is heavier than air."
"Chlorine gas has a specific gravity of 2.470," I said; "two and a half times heavier than air. You can pour it from jar to jar like a liquid--if you are wearing a chemist's mask. In these respects this stuff appears to be similar; the points of difference would not interest you. The sarcophagus would have emptied through the vent, and the gas have dispersed, with no clew remaining--except the smell."
"I did smell it, Petrie, on the stopper, but, of course, was unfamiliar with it. You may remember that you were prevented from doing so by the arrival of Sir Lionel? The scent of those infernal flowers must partially have drowned it, too. Poor, misguided Strozza inhaled the stuff, capsized the case in his fall, and all the gas--"
"Went pouring under the conservatory door, and down the steps, where Kwee was crouching. Croxted's breaking the window created sufficient draught to disperse what little remained. It will have settled on the floor now. I will go and open both windows."
Nayland raised his haggard face.
"He evidently made more than was necessary to dispatch Sir Lionel Barton," he said; "and contemptuously--you note the attitude, Petrie?-- contemptuously devoted the surplus to me. His contempt is justified. I am a child striving to cope with a mental giant. It is by no wit of mine that Dr. Fu-Manchu scores a double failure."
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