The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Ανατρέχοντας στις “πηγές” του Alan Moore)
The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu
«Shen-Yan’s is a dope-shop in one of the burrows off the old Ratcliff Highway,» said Inspector Weymouth.
«‘Singapore Charlie’s,’ they call it. It’s a center for some of the Chinese societies, I believe, but all sorts of opium-smokers use it. There have never been any complaints that I know of. I don’t understand this.»
We stood in his room at New Scotland Yard, bending over a sheet of foolscap upon which were arranged some burned fragments from poor Cadby’s grate, for so hurriedly had the girl done her work that combustion had not been complete.
«What do we make of this?» said Smith. «‘… Hunchback … lascar went up … unlike others … not return … till Shen-Yan’ (there is no doubt about the name, I think) ‘turned me out … booming sound … lascar in … mortuary I could ident … not for days, or suspici … Tuesday night in a different make … snatch … pigtail…'»
«The pigtail again!» rapped Weymouth.
«She evidently burned the torn-out pages all together,» continued Smith. «They lay flat, and this was in the middle. I see the hand of retributive justice in that, Inspector. Now we have a reference to a hunchback, and what follows amounts to this: A lascar (amongst several other persons) went up somewhere—presumably upstairs—at Shen-Yan’s, and did not come down again. Cadby, who was there disguised, noted a booming sound. Later, he identified the lascar in some mortuary. We have no means of fixing the date of this visit to Shen-Yan’s, but I feel inclined to put down the ‘lascar’ as the dacoit who was murdered by Fu-Manchu! It is sheer supposition, however. But that Cadby meant to pay another visit to the place in a different ‘make-up’ or disguise, is evident, and that the Tuesday night proposed was last night is a reasonable deduction. The reference to a pigtail is principally interesting because of what was found on Cadby’s body.»
Inspector Weymouth nodded affirmatively, and Smith glanced at his watch.
«Exactly ten-twenty-three,» he said. «I will trouble you, Inspector, for the freedom of your fancy wardrobe. There is time to spend an hour in the company of Shen-Yan’s opium friends.»
Weymouth raised his eyebrows.
«It might be risky. What about an official visit?»
Nayland Smith laughed.
«Worse than useless! By your own showing, the place is open to inspection. No; guile against guile! We are dealing with a Chinaman, with the incarnate essence of Eastern subtlety, with the most stupendous genius that the modern Orient has produced.»
«I don’t believe in disguises,» said Weymouth, with a certain truculence. «It’s mostly played out, that game, and generally leads to failure. Still, if you’re determined, sir, there’s an end of it. Foster will make your face up. What disguise do you propose to adopt?»
«A sort of Dago seaman, I think; something like poor Cadby. I can rely on my knowledge of the brutes, if I am sure of my disguise.»
«You are forgetting me, Smith,» I said.
He turned to me quickly.
«Petrie,» he replied, «it is MY business, unfortunately, but it is no sort of hobby.»
«You mean that you can no longer rely upon me?» I said angrily.
Smith grasped my hand, and met my rather frigid stare with a look of real concern on his gaunt, bronzed face.
«My dear old chap,» he answered, «that was really unkind. You know that I meant something totally different.»
«It’s all right, Smith;» I said, immediately ashamed of my choler, and wrung his hand heartily. «I can pretend to smoke opium as well as another. I shall be going, too, Inspector.»
As a result of this little passage of words, some twenty minutes later two dangerous-looking seafaring ruffians entered a waiting cab, accompanied by Inspector Weymouth, and were driven off into the wilderness of London’s night. In this theatrical business there was, to my mind, something ridiculous—almost childish—and I could have laughed heartily had it not been that grim tragedy lurked so near to farce.
The mere recollection that somewhere at our journey’s end Fu-Manchu awaited us was sufficient to sober my reflections—Fu-Manchu, who, with all the powers represented by Nayland Smith pitted against him, pursued his dark schemes triumphantly, and lurked in hiding within this very area which was so sedulously patrolled—Fu-Manchu, whom I had never seen, but whose name stood for horrors indefinable! Perhaps I was destined to meet the terrible Chinese doctor to-night.
I ceased to pursue a train of thought which promised to lead to morbid depths, and directed my attention to what Smith was saying.
«We will drop down from Wapping and reconnoiter, as you say the place is close to the riverside. Then you can put us ashore somewhere below. Ryman can keep the launch close to the back of the premises, and your fellows will be hanging about near the front, near enough to hear the whistle.»
«Yes,» assented Weymouth; «I’ve arranged for that. If you are suspected, you shall give the alarm?»
«I don’t know,» said Smith thoughtfully. «Even in that event I might wait awhile.»
«Don’t wait too long,» advised the Inspector. «We shouldn’t be much wiser if your next appearance was on the end of a grapnel, somewhere down Greenwich Reach, with half your fingers missing.»
The cab pulled up outside the river police depot, and Smith and I entered without delay, four shabby-looking fellows who had been seated in the office springing up to salute the Inspector, who followed us in.
«Guthrie and Lisle,» he said briskly, «get along and find a dark corner which commands the door of Singapore Charlie’s off the old Highway. You look the dirtiest of the troupe, Guthrie; you might drop asleep on the pavement, and Lisle can argue with you about getting home. Don’t move till you hear the whistle inside or have my orders, and note everybody that goes in and comes out. You other two belong to this division?»
The C.I.D. men having departed, the remaining pair saluted again.
«Well, you’re on special duty to-night. You’ve been prompt, but don’t stick your chests out so much. Do you know of a back way to Shen-Yan’s?»
The men looked at one another, and both shook their heads.
«There’s an empty shop nearly opposite, sir,» replied one of them. «I know a broken window at the back where we could climb in. Then we could get through to the front and watch from there.»
«Good!» cried the Inspector. «See you are not spotted, though; and if you hear the whistle, don’t mind doing a bit of damage, but be inside Shen-Yan’s like lightning. Otherwise, wait for orders.»
Inspector Ryman came in, glancing at the clock.
«Launch is waiting,» he said.
«Right,» replied Smith thoughtfully. «I am half afraid, though, that the recent alarms may have scared our quarry—your man, Mason, and then Cadby. Against which we have that, so far as he is likely to know, there has been no clew pointing to this opium den. Remember, he thinks Cadby’s notes are destroyed.»
«The whole business is an utter mystery to me,» confessed Ryman. «I’m told that there’s some dangerous Chinese devil hiding somewhere in London, and that you expect to find him at Shen-Yan’s. Supposing he uses that place, which is possible, how do you know he’s there to-night?»
«I don’t,» said Smith; «but it is the first clew we have had pointing to one of his haunts, and time means precious lives where Dr. Fu-Manchu is concerned.»
«Who is he, sir, exactly, this Dr. Fu-Manchu?»
«I have only the vaguest idea, Inspector; but he is no ordinary criminal. He is the greatest genius which the powers of evil have put on earth for centuries. He has the backing of a political group whose wealth is enormous, and his mission in Europe is to PAVE THE WAY! Do you follow me? He is the advance-agent of a movement so epoch-making that not one Britisher, and not one American, in fifty thousand has ever dreamed of it.»
Ryman stared, but made no reply, and we went out, passing down to the breakwater and boarding the waiting launch. With her crew of three, the party numbered seven that swung out into the Pool, and, clearing the pier, drew in again and hugged the murky shore.
The night had been clear enough hitherto, but now came scudding rainbanks to curtain the crescent moon, and anon to unveil her again and show the muddy swirls about us. The view was not extensive from the launch. Sometimes a deepening of the near shadows would tell of a moored barge, or lights high above our heads mark the deck of a large vessel. In the floods of moonlight gaunt shapes towered above; in the ensuing darkness only the oily glitter of the tide occupied the foreground of the night-piece.
The Surrey shore was a broken wall of blackness, patched with lights about which moved hazy suggestions of human activity. The bank we were following offered a prospect even more gloomy—a dense, dark mass, amid which, sometimes, mysterious half-tones told of a dock gate, or sudden high lights leapt flaring to the eye.
Then, out of the mystery ahead, a green light grew and crept down upon us. A giant shape loomed up, and frowned crushingly upon the little craft. A blaze of light, the jangle of a bell, and it was past. We were dancing in the wash of one of the Scotch steamers, and the murk had fallen again.
Discords of remote activity rose above the more intimate throbbing of our screw, and we seemed a pigmy company floating past the workshops of Brobdingnagian toilers. The chill of the near water communicated itself to me, and I felt the protection of my shabby garments inadequate against it.
Far over on the Surrey shore a blue light—vaporous, mysterious—flicked translucent tongues against the night’s curtain. It was a weird, elusive flame, leaping, wavering, magically changing from blue to a yellowed violet, rising, falling.
«Only a gasworks,» came Smith’s voice, and I knew that he, too, had been watching those elfin fires. «But it always reminds me of a Mexican teocalli, and the altar of sacrifice.»
The simile was apt, but gruesome. I thought of Dr. Fu-Manchu and the severed fingers, and could not repress a shudder.
«On your left, past the wooden pier! Not where the lamp is—beyond that; next to the dark, square building—Shen-Yan’s.»
It was Inspector Ryman speaking.
«Drop us somewhere handy, then,» replied Smith, «and lie close in, with your ears wide open. We may have to run for it, so don’t go far away.»
From the tone of his voice I knew that the night mystery of the Thames had claimed at least one other victim.
«Dead slow,» came Ryman’s order. «We’ll put in to the Stone Stairs.»
A SEEMINGLY drunken voice was droning from a neighboring alleyway as Smith lurched in hulking fashion to the door of a little shop above which, crudely painted, were the words:
I shuffled along behind him, and had time to note the box of studs, German shaving tackle and rolls of twist which lay untidily in the window ere Smith kicked the door open, clattered down three wooden steps, and pulled himself up with a jerk, seizing my arm for support.
We stood in a bare and very dirty room, which could only claim kinship with a civilized shaving-saloon by virtue of the grimy towel thrown across the back of the solitary chair. A Yiddish theatrical bill of some kind, illustrated, adorned one of the walls, and another bill, in what may have been Chinese, completed the decorations. From behind a curtain heavily brocaded with filth a little Chinaman appeared, dressed in a loose smock, black trousers and thick-soled slippers, and, advancing, shook his head vigorously.
«No shavee—no shavee,» he chattered, simian fashion, squinting from one to the other of us with his twinkling eyes. «Too late! Shuttee shop!»
«Don’t you come none of it wi’ me!» roared Smith, in a voice of amazing gruffness, and shook an artificially dirtied fist under the Chinaman’s nose. «Get inside and gimme an’ my mate a couple o’ pipes. Smokee pipe, you yellow scum—savvy?»
My friend bent forward and glared into the other’s eyes with a vindictiveness that amazed me, unfamiliar as I was with this form of gentle persuasion.
«Kop ‘old o’ that,» he said, and thrust a coin into the Chinaman’s yellow paw. «Keep me waitin’ an’ I’ll pull the dam’ shop down, Charlie. You can lay to it.»
«No hab got pipee—» began the other.
Smith raised his fist, and Yan capitulated.
«Allee lightee,» he said. «Full up—no loom. You come see.»
He dived behind the dirty curtain, Smith and I following, and ran up a dark stair. The next moment I found myself in an atmosphere which was literally poisonous. It was all but unbreathable, being loaded with opium fumes. Never before had I experienced anything like it. Every breath was an effort. A tin oil-lamp on a box in the middle of the floor dimly illuminated the horrible place, about the walls of which ten or twelve bunks were ranged and all of them occupied. Most of the occupants were lying motionless, but one or two were squatting in their bunks noisily sucking at the little metal pipes. These had not yet attained to the opium-smoker’s Nirvana.
«No loom—samee tella you,» said Shen-Yan, complacently testing Smith’s shilling with his yellow, decayed teeth.
Smith walked to a corner and dropped cross-legged, on the floor, pulling me down with him.
«Two pipe quick,» he said. «Plenty room. Two piecee pipe—or plenty heap trouble.»
A dreary voice from one of the bunks came:
«Give ‘im a pipe, Charlie, curse yer! an’ stop ‘is palaver.»
Yan performed a curious little shrug, rather of the back than of the shoulders, and shuffled to the box which bore the smoky lamp. Holding a needle in the flame, he dipped it, when red-hot, into an old cocoa tin, and withdrew it with a bead of opium adhering to the end. Slowly roasting this over the lamp, he dropped it into the bowl of the metal pipe which he held ready, where it burned with a spirituous blue flame.
«Pass it over,» said Smith huskily, and rose on his knees with the assumed eagerness of a slave to the drug.
Yan handed him the pipe, which he promptly put to his lips, and prepared another for me.
«Whatever you do, don’t inhale any,» came Smith’s whispered injunction.
It was with a sense of nausea greater even than that occasioned by the disgusting atmosphere of the den that I took the pipe and pretended to smoke. Taking my cue from my friend, I allowed my head gradually to sink lower and lower, until, within a few minutes, I sprawled sideways on the floor, Smith lying close beside me.
«The ship’s sinkin’,» droned a voice from one of the bunks. «Look at the rats.»
Yan had noiselessly withdrawn, and I experienced a curious sense of isolation from my fellows—from the whole of the Western world. My throat was parched with the fumes, my head ached. The vicious atmosphere seemed contaminating. I was as one dropped—
Somewhere East of Suez, where the best is like the worst, And there ain’t no Ten Commandments and a man can raise a thirst.
Smith began to whisper softly.
«We have carried it through successfully so far,» he said. «I don’t know if you have observed it, but there is a stair just behind you, half concealed by a ragged curtain. We are near that, and well in the dark. I have seen nothing suspicious so far—or nothing much. But if there was anything going forward it would no doubt be delayed until we new arrivals were well doped. S-SH!»
He pressed my arm to emphasize the warning. Through my half-closed eyes I perceived a shadowy form near the curtain to which he had referred. I lay like a log, but my muscles were tensed nervously.
The shadow materialized as the figure moved forward into the room with a curiously lithe movement.
The smoky lamp in the middle of the place afforded scant illumination, serving only to indicate sprawling shapes—here an extended hand, brown or yellow, there a sketchy, corpse-like face; whilst from all about rose obscene sighings and murmurings in far-away voices—an uncanny, animal chorus. It was like a glimpse of the Inferno seen by some Chinese Dante. But so close to us stood the newcomer that I was able to make out a ghastly parchment face, with small, oblique eyes, and a misshapen head crowned with a coiled pigtail, surmounting a slight, hunched body. There was something unnatural, inhuman, about that masklike face, and something repulsive in the bent shape and the long, yellow hands clasped one upon the other.
Fu-Manchu, from Smith’s account, in no way resembled this crouching apparition with the death’s-head countenance and lithe movements; but an instinct of some kind told me that we were on the right scent—that this was one of the doctor’s servants. How I came to that conclusion, I cannot explain; but with no doubt in my mind that this was a member of the formidable murder group, I saw the yellow man creep nearer, nearer, silently, bent and peering.
He was watching us.
Of another circumstance I became aware, and a disquieting circumstance. There were fewer murmurings and sighings from the surrounding bunks. The presence of the crouching figure had created a sudden semi-silence in the den, which could only mean that some of the supposed opium-smokers had merely feigned coma and the approach of coma.
Nayland Smith lay like a dead man, and trusting to the darkness, I, too, lay prone and still, but watched the evil face bending lower and lower, until it came within a few inches of my own. I completely closed my eyes.
Delicate fingers touched my right eyelid. Divining what was coming, I rolled my eyes up, as the lid was adroitly lifted and lowered again. The man moved away.
I had saved the situation! And noting anew the hush about me—a hush in which I fancied many pairs of ears listened—I was glad. For just a moment I realized fully how, with the place watched back and front, we yet were cut off, were in the hands of Far Easterns, to some extent in the power of members of that most inscrutably mysterious race, the Chinese.
«Good,» whispered Smith at my side. «I don’t think I could have done it. He took me on trust after that. My God! what an awful face. Petrie, it’s the hunchback of Cadby’s notes. Ah, I thought so. Do you see that?»
I turned my eyes round as far as was possible. A man had scrambled down from one of the bunks and was following the bent figure across the room.
They passed around us quietly, the little yellow man leading, with his curious, lithe gait, and the other, an impassive Chinaman, following. The curtain was raised, and I heard footsteps receding on the stairs.
«Don’t stir,» whispered Smith.
An intense excitement was clearly upon him, and he communicated it to me. Who was the occupant of the room above?
Footsteps on the stair, and the Chinaman reappeared, recrossed the floor, and went out. The little, bent man went over to another bunk, this time leading up the stair one who looked like a lascar.
«Did you see his right hand?» whispered Smith. «A dacoit! They come here to report and to take orders. Petrie, Dr. Fu-Manchu is up there.»
«What shall we do?»—softly.
«Wait. Then we must try to rush the stairs. It would be futile to bring in the police first. He is sure to have some other exit. I will give the word while the little yellow devil is down here. You are nearer and will have to go first, but if the hunchback follows, I can then deal with him.»
Our whispered colloquy was interrupted by the return of the dacoit, who recrossed the room as the Chinaman had done, and immediately took his departure. A third man, whom Smith identified as a Malay, ascended the mysterious stairs, descended, and went out; and a fourth, whose nationality it was impossible to determine, followed. Then, as the softly moving usher crossed to a bunk on the right of the outer door—
«Up you go, Petrie,» cried Smith, for further delay was dangerous and further dissimulation useless.
I leaped to my feet. Snatching my revolver from the pocket of the rough jacket I wore, I bounded to the stair and went blundering up in complete darkness. A chorus of brutish cries clamored from behind, with a muffled scream rising above them all. But Nayland Smith was close behind as I raced along a covered gangway, in a purer air, and at my heels when I crashed open a door at the end and almost fell into the room beyond.
What I saw were merely a dirty table, with some odds and ends upon it of which I was too excited to take note, an oil-lamp swung by a brass chain above, and a man sitting behind the table. But from the moment that my gaze rested upon the one who sat there, I think if the place had been an Aladdin’s palace I should have had no eyes for any of its wonders.
He wore a plain yellow robe, of a hue almost identical with that of his smooth, hairless countenance. His hands were large, long and bony, and he held them knuckles upward, and rested his pointed chin upon their thinness. He had a great, high brow, crowned with sparse, neutral-colored hair.
Of his face, as it looked out at me over the dirty table, I despair of writing convincingly. It was that of an archangel of evil, and it was wholly dominated by the most uncanny eyes that ever reflected a human soul, for they were narrow and long, very slightly oblique, and of a brilliant green. But their unique horror lay in a certain filminess (it made me think of the membrana nictitans in a bird) which, obscuring them as I threw wide the door, seemed to lift as I actually passed the threshold, revealing the eyes in all their brilliant iridescence.
I know that I stopped dead, one foot within the room, for the malignant force of the man was something surpassing my experience. He was surprised by this sudden intrusion—yes, but no trace of fear showed upon that wonderful face, only a sort of pitying contempt. And, as I paused, he rose slowly to his feet, never removing his gaze from mine.
«IT’S FU-MANCHU!» cried Smith over my shoulder, in a voice that was almost a scream. «IT’S FU-MANCHU! Cover him! Shoot him dead if—»
The conclusion of that sentence I never heard.
Dr. Fu-Manchu reached down beside the table, and the floor slipped from under me.
One last glimpse I had of the fixed green eyes, and with a scream I was unable to repress I dropped, dropped, dropped, and plunged into icy water, which closed over my head.
Vaguely I had seen a spurt of flame, had heard another cry following my own, a booming sound (the trap), the flat note of a police whistle. But when I rose to the surface impenetrable darkness enveloped me; I was spitting filthy, oily liquid from my mouth, and fighting down the black terror that had me by the throat—terror of the darkness about me, of the unknown depths beneath me, of the pit into which I was cast amid stifling stenches and the lapping of tidal water.
«Smith!» I cried.… «Help! Help!»
My voice seemed to beat back upon me, yet I was about to cry out again, when, mustering all my presence of mind and all my failing courage, I recognized that I had better employment of my energies, and began to swim straight ahead, desperately determined to face all the horrors of this place—to die hard if die I must.
A drop of liquid fire fell through the darkness and hissed into the water beside me!
I felt that, despite my resolution, I was going mad.
Another fiery drop—and another!
I touched a rotting wooden post and slimy timbers. I had reached one bound of my watery prison. More fire fell from above, and the scream of hysteria quivered, unuttered, in my throat.
Keeping myself afloat with increasing difficulty in my heavy garments, I threw my head back and raised my eyes.
No more drops fell, and no more drops would fall; but it was merely a question of time for the floor to collapse. For it was beginning to emit a dull, red glow.
The room above me was in flames!
It was drops of burning oil from the lamp, finding passage through the cracks in the crazy flooring, which had fallen about me—for the death trap had reclosed, I suppose, mechanically.
My saturated garments were dragging me down, and now I could hear the flames hungrily eating into the ancient rottenness overhead. Shortly that cauldron would be loosed upon my head. The glow of the flames grew brighter … and showed me the half-rotten piles upholding the building, showed me the tidal mark upon the slime-coated walls—showed me that there was no escape!
By some subterranean duct the foul place was fed from the Thames. By that duct, with the outgoing tide, my body would pass, in the wake of Mason, Cadby, and many another victim!
Rusty iron rungs were affixed to one of the walls communicating with a trap—but the bottom three were missing!
Brighter and brighter grew the awesome light the light of what should be my funeral pyre—reddening the oily water and adding a new dread to the whispering, clammy horror of the pit. But something it showed me … a projecting beam a few feet above the water … and directly below the iron ladder!
«Merciful Heaven!» I breathed. «Have I the strength?»
A desire for laughter claimed me with sudden, all but irresistible force. I knew what it portended and fought it down—grimly, sternly.
My garments weighed upon me like a suit of mail; with my chest aching dully, my veins throbbing to bursting, I forced tired muscles to work, and, every stroke an agony, approached the beam. Nearer I swam … nearer. Its shadow fell black upon the water, which now had all the seeming of a pool of blood. Confused sounds—a remote uproar—came to my ears. I was nearly spent … I was in the shadow of the beam! If I could throw up one arm…
A shrill scream sounded far above me!
«Petrie! Petrie!» (That voice must be Smith’s!) «Don’t touch the beam! For God’s sake DON’T TOUCH THE BEAM! Keep afloat another few seconds and I can get to you!»
Another few seconds! Was that possible?
I managed to turn, to raise my throbbing head; and I saw the strangest sight which that night yet had offered.
Nayland Smith stood upon the lowest iron rung … supported by the hideous, crook-backed Chinaman, who stood upon the rung above!
«I can’t reach him!»
It was as Smith hissed the words despairingly that I looked up—and saw the Chinaman snatch at his coiled pigtail and pull it off! With it came the wig to which it was attached; and the ghastly yellow mask, deprived of its fastenings, fell from position! «Here! Here! Be quick! Oh! be quick! You can lower this to him! Be quick! Be quick!»
A cloud of hair came falling about the slim shoulders as the speaker bent to pass this strange lifeline to Smith; and I think it was my wonder at knowing her for the girl whom that day I had surprised in Cadby’s rooms which saved my life.
For I not only kept afloat, but kept my gaze upturned to that beautiful, flushed face, and my eyes fixed upon hers—which were wild with fear … for me!
Smith, by some contortion, got the false queue into my grasp, and I, with the strength of desperation, by that means seized hold upon the lowest rung. With my friend’s arm round me I realized that exhaustion was even nearer than I had supposed. My last distinct memory is of the bursting of the floor above and the big burning joist hissing into the pool beneath us. Its fiery passage, striated with light, disclosed two sword blades, riveted, edges up along the top of the beam which I had striven to reach.
«The severed fingers—» I said; and swooned.
How Smith got me through the trap I do not know—nor how we made our way through the smoke and flames of the narrow passage it opened upon. My next recollection is of sitting up, with my friend’s arm supporting me and Inspector Ryman holding a glass to my lips.
A bright glare dazzled my eyes. A crowd surged about us, and a clangor and shouting drew momentarily nearer.
«It’s the engines coming,» explained Smith, seeing my bewilderment. «Shen-Yan’s is in flames. It was your shot, as you fell through the trap, broke the oil-lamp.»
«Is everybody out?»
«So far as we know.»
Smith shrugged his shoulders.
«No one has seen him. There was some door at the back—»
«Do you think he may—»
«No,» he said tensely. «Not until I see him lying dead before me shall I believe it.»
Then memory resumed its sway. I struggled to my feet.
«Smith, where is she?» I cried. «Where is she?»
«I don’t know,» he answered.
«She’s given us the slip, Doctor,» said Inspector Weymouth, as a fire-engine came swinging round the corner of the narrow lane. «So has Mr. Singapore Charlie—and, I’m afraid, somebody else. We’ve got six or eight all-sorts, some awake and some asleep, but I suppose we shall have to let ’em go again. Mr. Smith tells me that the girl was disguised as a Chinaman. I expect that’s why she managed to slip away.»
I recalled how I had been dragged from the pit by the false queue, how the strange discovery which had brought death to poor Cadby had brought life to me, and I seemed to remember, too, that Smith had dropped it as he threw his arm about me on the ladder. Her mask the girl might have retained, but her wig, I felt certain, had been dropped into the water.
It was later that night, when the brigade still were playing upon the blackened shell of what had been Shen-Yan’s opium-shop, and Smith and I were speeding away in a cab from the scene of God knows how many crimes, that I had an idea.
«Smith,» I said, «did you bring the pigtail with you that was found on Cadby?»
«Yes. I had hoped to meet the owner.»
«Have you got it now?»
«No. I met the owner.»
I thrust my hands deep into the pockets of the big pea-jacket lent to me by Inspector Ryman, leaning back in my corner.
«We shall never really excel at this business,» continued Nayland Smith. «We are far too sentimental. I knew what it meant to us, Petrie, what it meant to the world, but I hadn’t the heart. I owed her your life—I had to square the account.»
NIGHT fell on Redmoat. I glanced from the window at the nocturne in silver and green which lay beneath me. To the west of the shrubbery, with its broken canopy of elms and beyond the copper beech which marked the center of its mazes, a gap offered a glimpse of the Waverney where it swept into a broad. Faint bird-calls floated over the water. These, with the whisper of leaves, alone claimed the ear.
Ideal rural peace, and the music of an English summer evening; but to my eyes, every shadow holding fantastic terrors; to my ears, every sound a signal of dread. For the deathful hand of Fu-Manchu was stretched over Redmoat, at any hour to loose strange, Oriental horrors upon its inmates.
«Well,» said Nayland Smith, joining me at the window, «we had dared to hope him dead, but we know now that he lives!»
The Rev. J. D. Eltham coughed nervously, and I turned, leaning my elbow upon the table, and studied the play of expression upon the refined, sensitive face of the clergyman.
«You think I acted rightly in sending for you, Mr. Smith?»
Nayland Smith smoked furiously.
«Mr. Eltham,» he replied, «you see in me a man groping in the dark. I am to-day no nearer to the conclusion of my mission than upon the day when I left Mandalay. You offer me a clew; I am here. Your affair, I believe, stands thus: A series of attempted burglaries, or something of the kind, has alarmed your household. Yesterday, returning from London with your daughter, you were both drugged in some way and, occupying a compartment to yourselves, you both slept. Your daughter awoke, and saw someone else in the carriage—a yellow-faced man who held a case of instruments in his hands.»
«Yes; I was, of course, unable to enter into particulars over the telephone. The man was standing by one of the windows. Directly he observed that my daughter was awake, he stepped towards her.»
«What did he do with the case in his hands?»
«She did not notice—or did not mention having noticed. In fact, as was natural, she was so frightened that she recalls nothing more, beyond the fact that she strove to arouse me, without succeeding, felt hands grasp her shoulders—and swooned.»
«But someone used the emergency cord, and stopped the train.»
«Greba has no recollection of having done so.»
«Hm! Of course, no yellow-faced man was on the train. When did you awake?»
«I was aroused by the guard, but only when he had repeatedly shaken me.»
«Upon reaching Great Yarmouth you immediately called up Scotland Yard? You acted very wisely, sir. How long were you in China?»
Mr. Eltham’s start of surprise was almost comical.
«It is perhaps not strange that you should be aware of my residence in China, Mr. Smith,» he said; «but my not having mentioned it may seem so. The fact is»—his sensitive face flushed in palpable embarrassment—»I left China under what I may term an episcopal cloud. I have lived in retirement ever since. Unwittingly—I solemnly declare to you, Mr. Smith, unwittingly—I stirred up certain deep-seated prejudices in my endeavors to do my duty—my duty. I think you asked me how long I was in China? I was there from 1896 until 1900—four years.»
«I recall the circumstances, Mr. Eltham,» said Smith, with an odd note in his voice. «I have been endeavoring to think where I had come across the name, and a moment ago I remembered. I am happy to have met you, sir.»
The clergyman blushed again like a girl, and slightly inclined his head, with its scanty fair hair.
«Has Redmoat, as its name implies, a moat round it? I was unable to see in the dusk.»
«It remains. Redmoat—a corruption of Round Moat—was formerly a priory, disestablished by the eighth Henry in 1536.» His pedantic manner was quaint at times. «But the moat is no longer flooded. In fact, we grow cabbages in part of it. If you refer to the strategic strength of the place»—he smiled, but his manner was embarrassed again—»it is considerable. I have barbed wire fencing, and—other arrangements. You see, it is a lonely spot,» he added apologetically. «And now, if you will excuse me, we will resume these gruesome inquiries after the more pleasant affairs of dinner.»
He left us.
«Who is our host?» I asked, as the door closed.
«You are wondering what caused the ‘episcopal cloud?'» he suggested. «Well, the deep-seated prejudices which our reverend friend stirred up culminated in the Boxer Risings.»
«Good heavens, Smith!» I said; for I could not reconcile the diffident personality of the clergyman with the memories which those words awakened.
«He evidently should be on our danger list,» my friend continued quickly; «but he has so completely effaced himself of recent years that I think it probable that someone else has only just recalled his existence to mind. The Rev. J. D. Eltham, my dear Petrie, though he may be a poor hand at saving souls, at any rate, has saved a score of Christian women from death—and worse.»
«J. D. Eltham—» I began.
«Is ‘Parson Dan’!» rapped Smith, «the ‘Fighting Missionary,’ the man who with a garrison of a dozen cripples and a German doctor held the hospital at Nan-Yang against two hundred Boxers. That’s who the Rev. J. D. Eltham is! But what is he up to, now, I have yet to find out. He is keeping something back—something which has made him an object of interest to Young China!»
During dinner the matters responsible for our presence there did not hold priority in the conversation. In fact, this, for the most part, consisted in light talk of books and theaters.
Greba Eltham, the clergyman’s daughter, was a charming young hostess, and she, with Vernon Denby, Mr. Eltham’s nephew, completed the party. No doubt the girl’s presence, in part, at any rate, led us to refrain from the subject uppermost in our minds.
These little pools of calm dotted along the torrential course of the circumstances which were bearing my friend and me onward to unknown issues form pleasant, sunny spots in my dark recollections.
So I shall always remember, with pleasure, that dinner-party at Redmoat, in the old-world dining-room; it was so very peaceful, so almost grotesquely calm. For I, within my very bones, felt it to be the calm before the storm. When, later, we men passed to the library, we seemed to leave that atmosphere behind us.
«Redmoat,» said the Rev. J. D. Eltham, «has latterly become the theater of strange doings.»
He stood on the hearth-rug. A shaded lamp upon the big table and candles in ancient sconces upon the mantelpiece afforded dim illumination. Mr. Eltham’s nephew, Vernon Denby, lolled smoking on the window-seat, and I sat near to him. Nayland Smith paced restlessly up and down the room.
«Some months ago, almost a year,» continued the clergyman, «a burglarious attempt was made upon the house. There was an arrest, and the man confessed that he had been tempted by my collection.» He waved his hand vaguely towards the several cabinets about the shadowed room.
«It was shortly afterwards that I allowed my hobby for—playing at forts to run away with me.» He smiled an apology. «I virtually fortified Redmoat—against trespassers of any kind, I mean. You have seen that the house stands upon a kind of large mound. This is artificial, being the buried ruins of a Roman outwork; a portion of the ancient castrum.» Again he waved indicatively, this time toward the window.
«When it was a priory it was completely isolated and defended by its environing moat. Today it is completely surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. Below this fence, on the east, is a narrow stream, a tributary of the Waverney; on the north and west, the high road, but nearly twenty feet below, the banks being perpendicular. On the south is the remaining part of the moat—now my kitchen garden; but from there up to the level of the house is nearly twenty feet again, and the barbed wire must also be counted with.
«The entrance, as you know, is by the way of a kind of cutting. There is a gate at the foot of the steps (they are some of the original steps of the priory, Dr. Petrie), and another gate at the head.»
He paused, and smiled around upon us boyishly.
«My secret defenses remain to be mentioned,» he resumed; and, opening a cupboard, he pointed to a row of batteries, with a number of electric bells upon the wall behind. «The more vulnerable spots are connected at night with these bells,» he said triumphantly. «Any attempt to scale the barbed wire or to force either gate would set two or more of these ringing. A stray cow raised one false alarm,» he added, «and a careless rook threw us into a perfect panic on another occasion.»
He was so boyish—so nervously brisk and acutely sensitive—that it was difficult to see in him the hero of the Nan-Yang hospital. I could only suppose that he had treated the Boxers’ raid in the same spirit wherein he met would-be trespassers within the precincts of Redmoat. It had been an escapade, of which he was afterwards ashamed, as, faintly, he was ashamed of his «fortifications.» «But,» rapped Smith, «it was not the visit of the burglar which prompted these elaborate precautions.»
Mr. Eltham coughed nervously.
«I am aware,» he said, «that having invoked official aid, I must be perfectly frank with you, Mr. Smith. It was the burglar who was responsible for my continuing the wire fence all round the grounds, but the electrical contrivance followed, later, as a result of several disturbed nights. My servants grew uneasy about someone who came, they said, after dusk. No one could describe this nocturnal visitor, but certainly we found traces. I must admit that.
«Then—I received what I may term a warning. My position is a peculiar one—a peculiar one. My daughter, too, saw this prowling person, over by the Roman castrum, and described him as a yellow man. It was the incident in the train following closely upon this other, which led me to speak to the police, little as I desired to—er—court publicity.»
Nayland Smith walked to a window, and looked out across the sloping lawn to where the shadows of the shrubbery lay. A dog was howling dismally somewhere.
«Your defenses are not impregnable, after all, then?» he jerked. «On our way up this evening Mr. Denby was telling us about the death of his collie a few nights ago.»
The clergyman’s face clouded.
«That, certainly, was alarming,» he confessed.
«I had been in London for a few days, and during my absence Vernon came down, bringing the dog with him. On the night of his arrival it ran, barking, into the shrubbery yonder, and did not come out. He went to look for it with a lantern, and found it lying among the bushes, quite dead. The poor creature had been dreadfully beaten about the head.»
«The gates were locked,» Denby interrupted, «and no one could have got out of the grounds without a ladder and someone to assist him. But there was so sign of a living thing about. Edwards and I searched every corner.»
«How long has that other dog taken to howling?» inquired Smith.
«Only since Rex’s death,» said Denby quickly.
«It is my mastiff,» explained the clergyman, «and he is confined in the yard. He is never allowed on this side of the house.»
Nayland Smith wandered aimlessly about the library.
«I am sorry to have to press you, Mr. Eltham,» he said, «but what was the nature of the warning to which you referred, and from whom did it come?»
Mr. Eltham hesitated for a long time.
«I have been so unfortunate,» he said at last, «in my previous efforts, that I feel assured of your hostile criticism when I tell you that I am contemplating an immediate return to Ho-Nan!»
Smith jumped round upon him as though moved by a spring.
«Then you are going back to Nan-Yang?» he cried. «Now I understand! Why have you not told me before? That is the key for which I have vainly been seeking. Your troubles date from the time of your decision to return?»
«Yes, I must admit it,» confessed the clergyman diffidently.
«And your warning came from China?»
«From a Chinaman?»
«From the Mandarin, Yen-Sun-Yat.»
«Yen-Sun-Yat! My good sir! He warned you to abandon your visit? And you reject his advice? Listen to me.» Smith was intensely excited now, his eyes bright, his lean figure curiously strung up, alert. «The Mandarin Yen-Sun-Yat is one of the seven!»
«I do not follow you, Mr. Smith.»
«No, sir. China to-day is not the China of ’98. It is a huge secret machine, and Ho-Nan one of its most important wheels! But if, as I understand, this official is a friend of yours, believe me, he has saved your life! You would be a dead man now if it were not for your friend in China! My dear sir, you must accept his counsel.»
Then, for the first time since I had made his acquaintance, «Parson Dan» showed through the surface of the Rev. J. D. Eltham.
«No, sir!» replied the clergyman—and the change in his voice was startling. «I am called to Nan-Yang. Only One may deter my going.»
The admixture of deep spiritual reverence with intense truculence in his voice was dissimilar from anything I ever had heard.
«Then only One can protect you,» cried Smith, «for, by Heaven, no MAN will be able to do so! Your presence in Ho-Nan can do no possible good at present. It must do harm. Your experience in 1900 should be fresh in your memory.»
«Hard words, Mr. Smith.»
«The class of missionary work which you favor, sir, is injurious to international peace. At the present moment, Ho-Nan is a barrel of gunpowder; you would be the lighted match. I do not willingly stand between any man and what he chooses to consider his duty, but I insist that you abandon your visit to the interior of China!»
«You insist, Mr. Smith?»
«As your guest, I regret the necessity for reminding you that I hold authority to enforce it.»
Denby fidgeted uneasily. The tone of the conversation was growing harsh and the atmosphere of the library portentous with brewing storms.
There was a short, silent interval.
«This is what I had feared and expected,» said the clergyman. «This was my reason for not seeking official protection.»
«The phantom Yellow Peril,» said Nayland Smith, «to-day materializes under the very eyes of the Western world.»
«The ‘Yellow Peril’!»
«You scoff, sir, and so do others. We take the proffered right hand of friendship nor inquire if the hidden left holds a knife! The peace of the world is at stake, Mr. Eltham. Unknowingly, you tamper with tremendous issues.»
Mr. Eltham drew a deep breath, thrusting both hands in his pockets.
«You are painfully frank, Mr. Smith,» he said; «but I like you for it. I will reconsider my position and talk this matter over again with you to-morrow.»
Thus, then, the storm blew over. Yet I had never experienced such an overwhelming sense of imminent peril—of a sinister presence—as oppressed me at that moment. The very atmosphere of Redmoat was impregnated with Eastern devilry; it loaded the air like some evil perfume. And then, through the silence, cut a throbbing scream—the scream of a woman in direst fear.
«My God, it’s Greba!» whispered Mr. Eltham.
IN what order we dashed down to the drawing-room I cannot recall. But none was before me when I leaped over the threshold and saw Miss Eltham prone by the French windows.
These were closed and bolted, and she lay with hands outstretched in the alcove which they formed. I bent over her. Nayland Smith was at my elbow.
«Get my bag» I said. «She has swooned. It is nothing serious.»
Her father, pale and wide-eyed, hovered about me, muttering incoherently; but I managed to reassure him; and his gratitude when, I having administered a simple restorative, the girl sighed shudderingly and opened her eyes, was quite pathetic.
I would permit no questioning at that time, and on her father’s arm she retired to her own rooms.
It was some fifteen minutes later that her message was brought to me. I followed the maid to a quaint little octagonal apartment, and Greba Eltham stood before me, the candlelight caressing the soft curves of her face and gleaming in the meshes of her rich brown hair.
When she had answered my first question she hesitated in pretty confusion.
«We are anxious to know what alarmed you, Miss Eltham.»
She bit her lip and glanced with apprehension towards the window.
«I am almost afraid to tell father,» she began rapidly. «He will think me imaginative, but you have been so kind. It was two green eyes! Oh! Dr. Petrie, they looked up at me from the steps leading to the lawn. And they shone like the eyes of a cat.»
The words thrilled me strangely.
«Are you sure it was not a cat, Miss Eltham?»
«The eyes were too large, Dr. Petrie. There was something dreadful, most dreadful, in their appearance. I feel foolish and silly for having fainted, twice in two days! But the suspense is telling upon me, I suppose. Father thinks»—she was becoming charmingly confidential, as a woman often will with a tactful physician—»that shut up here we are safe from—whatever threatens us.» I noted, with concern, a repetition of the nervous shudder. «But since our return someone else has been in Redmoat!»
«Whatever do you mean, Miss Eltham?»
«Oh! I don’t quite know what I do mean, Dr. Petrie. What does it ALL mean? Vernon has been explaining to me that some awful Chinaman is seeking the life of Mr. Nayland Smith. But if the same man wants to kill my father, why has he not done so?»
«I am afraid you puzzle me.»
«Of course, I must do so. But—the man in the train. He could have killed us both quite easily! And—last night someone was in father’s room.»
«In his room!»
«I could not sleep, and I heard something moving. My room is the next one. I knocked on the wall and woke father. There was nothing; so I said it was the howling of the dog that had frightened me.»
«How could anyone get into his room?»
«I cannot imagine. But I am not sure it was a man.»
«Miss Eltham, you alarm me. What do you suspect?»
«You must think me hysterical and silly, but whilst father and I have been away from Redmoat perhaps the usual precautions have been neglected. Is there any creature, any large creature, which could climb up the wall to the window? Do you know of anything with a long, thin body?»
For a moment I offered no reply, studying the girl’s pretty face, her eager, blue-gray eyes widely opened and fixed upon mine. She was not of the neurotic type, with her clear complexion and sun-kissed neck; her arms, healthily toned by exposure to the country airs, were rounded and firm, and she had the agile shape of a young Diana with none of the anaemic languor which breeds morbid dreams. She was frightened; yes, who would not have been? But the mere idea of this thing which she believed to be in Redmoat, without the apparition of the green eyes, must have prostrated a victim of «nerves.»
«Have you seen such a creature, Miss Eltham?»
She hesitated again, glancing down and pressing her finger-tips together.
«As father awoke and called out to know why I knocked, I glanced from my window. The moonlight threw half the lawn into shadow, and just disappearing in this shadow was something—something of a brown color, marked with sections!»
«What size and shape?»
«It moved so quickly I could form no idea of its shape; but I saw quite six feet of it flash across the grass!»
«Did you hear anything?»
«A swishing sound in the shrubbery, then nothing more.»
She met my eyes expectantly. Her confidence in my powers of understanding and sympathy was gratifying, though I knew that I but occupied the position of a father-confessor.
«Have you any idea,» I said, «how it came about that you awoke in the train yesterday whilst your father did not?»
«We had coffee at a refreshment-room; it must have been drugged in some way. I scarcely tasted mine, the flavor was so awful; but father is an old traveler and drank the whole of his cupful!»
Mr. Eltham’s voice called from below.
«Dr. Petrie,» said the girl quickly, «what do you think they want to do to him?»
«Ah!» I replied, «I wish I knew that.»
«Will you think over what I have told you? For I do assure you there is something here in Redmoat—something that comes and goes in spite of father’s ‘fortifications’? Caesar knows there is. Listen to him. He drags at his chain so that I wonder he does not break it.»
As we passed downstairs the howling of the mastiff sounded eerily through the house, as did the clank-clank of the tightening chain as he threw the weight of his big body upon it.
I sat in Smith’s room that night for some time, he pacing the floor smoking and talking.
«Eltham has influential Chinese friends,» he said; «but they dare not have him in Nan-Yang at present. He knows the country as he knows Norfolk; he would see things!
«His precautions here have baffled the enemy, I think. The attempt in the train points to an anxiety to waste no opportunity. But whilst Eltham was absent (he was getting his outfit in London, by the way) they have been fixing some second string to their fiddle here. In case no opportunity offered before he returned, they provided for getting at him here!»
«But how, Smith?»
«That’s the mystery. But the dead dog in the shrubbery is significant.»
«Do you think some emissary of Fu-Manchu is actually inside the moat?»
«It’s impossible, Petrie. You are thinking of secret passages, and so forth. There are none. Eltham has measured up every foot of the place. There isn’t a rathole left unaccounted for; and as for a tunnel under the moat, the house stands on a solid mass of Roman masonry, a former camp of Hadrian’s time. I have seen a very old plan of the Round Moat Priory as it was called. There is no entrance and no exit save by the steps. So how was the dog killed?»
I knocked out my pipe on a bar of the grate.
«We are in the thick of it here,» I said.
«We are always in the thick of it,» replied Smith. «Our danger is no greater in Norfolk than in London. But what do they want to do? That man in the train with the case of instruments—WHAT instruments? Then the apparition of the green eyes to-night. Can they have been the eyes of Fu-Manchu? Is some peculiarly unique outrage contemplated—something calling for the presence of the master?»
«He may have to prevent Eltham’s leaving England without killing him.»
«Quite so. He probably has instructions to be merciful. But God help the victim of Chinese mercy!»
I went to my own room then. But I did not even undress, refilling my pipe and seating myself at the open window. Having looked upon the awful Chinese doctor, the memory of his face, with its filmed green eyes, could never leave me. The idea that he might be near at that moment was a poor narcotic.
The howling and baying of the mastiff was almost continuous.
When all else in Redmoat was still the dog’s mournful note yet rose on the night with something menacing in it. I sat looking out across the sloping turf to where the shrubbery showed as a black island in a green sea. The moon swam in a cloudless sky, and the air was warm and fragrant with country scents.
It was in the shrubbery that Denby’s collie had met his mysterious death—that the thing seen by Miss Eltham had disappeared. What uncanny secret did it hold?
Caesar became silent.
As the stopping of a clock will sometimes awaken a sleeper, the abrupt cessation of that distant howling, to which I had grown accustomed, now recalled me from a world of gloomy imaginings.
I glanced at my watch in the moonlight. It was twelve minutes past midnight.
As I replaced it the dog suddenly burst out afresh, but now in a tone of sheer anger. He was alternately howling and snarling in a way that sounded new to me. The crashes, as he leapt to the end of his chain, shook the building in which he was confined. It was as I stood up to lean from the window and commanded a view of the corner of the house that he broke loose.
With a hoarse bay he took that decisive leap, and I heard his heavy body fall against the wooden wall. There followed a strange, guttural cry … and the growling of the dog died away at the rear of the house. He was out! But that guttural note had not come from the throat of a dog. Of what was he in pursuit?
At which point his mysterious quarry entered the shrubbery I do not know. I only know that I saw absolutely nothing, until Caesar’s lithe shape was streaked across the lawn, and the great creature went crashing into the undergrowth.
Then a faint sound above and to my right told me that I was not the only spectator of the scene. I leaned farther from the window.
«Is that you, Miss Eltham?» I asked.
«Oh, Dr. Petrie!» she said. «I am so glad you are awake. Can we do nothing to help? Caesar will be killed.»
«Did you see what he went after?»
«No,» she called back, and drew her breath sharply.
For a strange figure went racing across the grass. It was that of a man in a blue dressing-gown, who held a lantern high before him, and a revolver in his right hand. Coincident with my recognition of Mr. Eltham he leaped, plunging into the shrubbery in the wake of the dog.
But the night held yet another surprise; for Nayland Smith’s voice came:
«Come back! Come back, Eltham!»
I ran out into the passage and downstairs. The front door was open. A terrible conflict waged in the shrubbery, between the mastiff and something else. Passing round to the lawn, I met Smith fully dressed. He just had dropped from a first-floor window.
«The man is mad!» he snapped. «Heaven knows what lurks there! He should not have gone alone!»
Together we ran towards the dancing light of Eltham’s lantern. The sounds of conflict ceased suddenly. Stumbling over stumps and lashed by low-sweeping branches, we struggled forward to where the clergyman knelt amongst the bushes. He glanced up with tears in his eyes, as was revealed by the dim light.
«Look!» he cried.
The body of the dog lay at his feet.
It was pitiable to think that the fearless brute should have met his death in such a fashion, and when I bent and examined him I was glad to find traces of life.
«Drag him out. He is not dead,» I said.
«And hurry,» rapped Smith, peering about him right and left.
So we three hurried from that haunted place, dragging the dog with us. We were not molested. No sound disturbed the now perfect stillness.
By the lawn edge we came upon Denby, half dressed; and almost immediately Edwards the gardener also appeared. The white faces of the house servants showed at one window, and Miss Eltham called to me from her room:
«Is he dead?»
«No,» I replied; «only stunned.»
We carried the dog round to the yard, and I examined his head. It had been struck by some heavy blunt instrument, but the skull was not broken. It is hard to kill a mastiff.
«Will you attend to him, Doctor?» asked Eltham. «We must see that the villain does not escape.»
His face was grim and set. This was a different man from the diffident clergyman we knew: this was «Parson Dan» again.
I accepted the care of the canine patient, and Eltham with the others went off for more lights to search the shrubbery. As I was washing a bad wound between the mastiff’s ears, Miss Eltham joined me. It was the sound of her voice, I think, rather than my more scientific ministration, which recalled Caesar to life. For, as she entered, his tail wagged feebly, and a moment later he struggled to his feet—one of which was injured.
Having provided for his immediate needs, I left him in charge of his young mistress and joined the search party. They had entered the shrubbery from four points and drawn blank.
«There is absolutely nothing there, and no one can possibly have left the grounds,» said Eltham amazedly.
We stood on the lawn looking at one another, Nayland Smith, angry but thoughtful, tugging at the lobe of his left ear, as was his habit in moments of perplexity.