Soames shuddered, coldly.
"You can rely upon me, Mr. Gianapolis," he protested, "to do absolutely what you wish—absolutely. I am a ruined man, and I know it—I know it. My only hope is that you will give me a chance."...
"You shall have every chance, Soames," replied Gianapolis—"every chance."
CAVE OF THE GOLDEN DRAGON
When the car stopped at the end of a short drive, Soames had not the slightest idea of his whereabouts. The blinds at the window of the limousine had been lowered during the whole journey, and now he descended from the step of the car on to the step of a doorway. He was in some kind of roofed-in courtyard, only illuminated by the headlamps of the car. Mr. Gianapolis pushed him forward, and, as the door was closed, he heard the gear of the car reversed; then—silence fell.
"My grip!" he began, nervously.
"It will be placed in your room, Soames."
The voice of the Greek answered him from the darkness.
Guided by the hand of Gianapolis, he passed on and descended a flight of stone steps. Ahead of him a light shone out beneath a door, and, as he stumbled on the steps, the door was thrown suddenly open.
He found himself looking into a long, narrow apartment.... He pulled up short with a smothered, gasping cry.
It was a cavern!—but a cavern the like of which he had never seen, never imagined. The walls had the appearance of being rough-hewn from virgin rock—from black rock—from rock black as the rocks of Shellal—black as the gates of Erebus.
Placed at regular intervals along the frowning walls, to right and left, were spiral, slender pillars, gilded and gleaming. They supported an archwork of fancifully carven wood, which curved gently outward to the center of the ceiling, forming, by conjunction with a similar, opposite curve, a pointed arch.
In niches of the wall were a number of grotesque Chinese idols. The floor was jet black and polished like ebony. Several tiger-skin rugs were strewn about it. But, dominating the strange place, in the center of the floor stood an ivory pedestal, supporting a golden dragon of exquisite workmanship; and before it, as before a shrine, an enormous Chinese vase was placed, of the hue, at its base, of deepest violet, fading, upward, through all the shades of rose pink seen in an Egyptian sunset, to a tint more elusive than a maiden's blush. It contained a mass of exotic poppies of every shade conceivable, from purple so dark as to seem black, to poppies of the whiteness of snow.
Just within the door, and immediately in front of Soames, stood a slim man of about his own height, dressed with great nicety in a perfectly fitting morning-coat, his well-cut cashmere trousers falling accurately over glossy boots having gray suede uppers. His linen was immaculate, and he wore a fine pearl in his black poplin cravat. Between two yellow fingers smoldered a cigarette.
Soames, unconsciously, clenched his fists: this slim man embodied the very spirit of the outre. The fantastic surroundings melted from the ken of Soames, and he seemed to stand in a shadow-world, alone with an incarnate shadow.
For this was a Chinaman! His jet black lusterless hair was not shaven in the national manner, but worn long, and brushed back from his slanting brow with no parting, so that it fell about his white collar behind, lankly. He wore gold-rimmed spectacles, which magnified his oblique eyes and lent him a terrifying beetle-like appearance. His mephistophelean eyebrows were raised interrogatively, and he was smiling so as to exhibit a row of uneven yellow teeth.
Soames, his amazement giving place to reasonless terror, fell back a step—into the arms of Gianapolis.
"This is our friend from Palace Mansions," said the Greek. He squeezed Soames' arm, reassuringly. "Your new principal, Soames, Mr. Ho-Pin, from whom you will take your instructions."
"I have these instructions for Mr. Soames," said Ho-Pin, in a metallic, monotonous voice. (He gave to r half the value of w, with a hint of the presence of l.) "He will wremain here as valet until the search fowr him becomes less wrigowrous."
Soames, scarce believing that he was awake, made no reply. He found himself unable to meet the glittering eyes of the Chinaman; he glanced furtively about the room, prepared at any moment to wake up from what seemed to him an absurd, a ghostly dream.
"Said will change his appeawrance," continued Ho-Pin, smoothly, "so that he will not wreadily be wrecognized. Said will come now."
Ho-Pin clapped his hands three times.
The door at the end of the room immediately opened, and a thick-set man of a pronounced Arabian type, entered. He wore a chauffeur's livery of dark blue; and Soames recognized him for the man who had driven the car.
"Said," said Ho-Pin very deliberately, turning to face the new arrival, "ahu hina—Lucas Effendi—Mr. Lucas. Waddi el—shenta ila beta oda. Fehimt?"
Said bowed his head.
"Fahim, effendi," he muttered rapidly.
Again Said bowed his head, then, glancing at Soames:—
"Ta'ala wayyaya!" he said.
Soames, looking helplessly at Gianapolis—who merely pointed to the door—followed Said from the room.
He was conducted along a wide passage, thickly carpeted and having its walls covered with a kind of matting kept in place by strips of bamboo. Its roof was similarly concealed. A door near to the end, and on the right, proved to open into a square room quite simply furnished in the manner of a bed-sitting room. A little bathroom opened out of it in one corner. The walls were distempered white, and there was no window. Light was furnished by an electric lamp, hanging from the center of the ceiling.
Soames, glancing at his bag, which Said had just placed beside the white-enameled bedstead, turned to his impassive guide.
"This is a funny go!" he began, with forced geniality. "Am I to live here?"
"Ma'lesh!" muttered Said—"ma'lesh!"
He indicated, by gestures, that Soames should remove his collar; he was markedly unemotional. He crossed to the bathroom, and could be heard filling the hand-basin with water.
"Kursi!" he called from within.
Soames, seriously doubting his own sanity, and so obsessed with a sense of the unreal that his senses were benumbed, began to take off his collar; he could not feel the contact of his fingers with his neck in the act. Collarless, he entered the little bathroom....
"Kursi!" repeated Said; then: "Ah! ana nesit! ma'lesh!"
Said—whilst Soames, docile in his stupor, watched him—went back, picked up the solitary cane chair which the apartment boasted, and brought it into the bathroom. Soames perceived that he was to be treated to something in the nature of a shampoo; for Said had ranged a number of bottles, a cake of soap, and several towels, along a shelf over the bath.
In a curious state of passivity, Soames submitted to the operation. His hair was vigorously toweled, then fanned in the most approved fashion; but this was no more than the beginning of the operation. As he leaned back in the chair:
"Am I dreaming?" he said aloud. "What's all this about?"
"Uskut!" muttered Said—"Uskut!"
Soames, at no time an aggressive character, resigned himself to the incredible.
Some lotion, which tingled slightly upon the scalp, was next applied by Said from a long-necked bottle. Then, fresh water having been poured into the basin, a dark purple liquid was added, and Soames' head dipped therein by the operating Eastern. This time no rubbing followed, but after some minutes of vigorous fanning, he was thrust back into the chair, and a dry towel tucked firmly into his collar-band. He anticipated that he was about to be shaved, and in this was not disappointed.
Said, filling a shaving-mug from the hot-water tap, lathered Soames' chin and the abbreviated whiskers upon which he had prided himself. Then the razor was skilfully handled, and Soames' face shaved until his chin was as smooth as satin.
Next, a dark brown solution was rubbed over the skin, and even upon his forehead and right into the roots of the hair; upon his throat, his ears, and the back of his neck. He was now past the putting of questions or the raising of protest; he was as clay in the hands of the silent Oriental. Having fanned his wet face again for some time, Said, breaking the long silence, muttered:
Soames stared. Said indicated, by pantomime, that he desired him to close his eyes, and Soames obeyed mechanically. Thereupon the Oriental busied himself with the ex-butler's not very abundant lashes for five minutes or more. Then the busy fingers were at work with his inadequate eyebrows: finally:—
"Khalas!" muttered Said, tapping him on the shoulder.
Soames wearily opened his eyes, wondering if his strange martyrdom were nearly at its end. He discovered his hair to be still rather damp, but, since it was sparse, it was rapidly drying. His eyes smarted painfully.
Removing all trace of his operations, Said, with no word of farewell, took up his towels, bottles and other paraphernalia and departed.
Soames watched the retreating figure crossing the outer room, but did not rise from the chair until the door had closed behind Said. Then, feeling strangely like a man who has drunk too heavily, he stood up and walked into the bedroom. There was a small shaving-glass upon the chest-of-drawers, and to this he advanced, filled with the wildest apprehensions.
One glance he ventured, and started back with a groan.
His apprehensions had fallen short of the reality. With one hand clutching the bedrail, he stood there swaying from side to side, and striving to screw up his courage to the point whereat he might venture upon a second glance in the mirror. At last he succeeded, looking long and pitifully.
"Oh, Lord!" he groaned, "what a guy!"
Beyond doubt he was strangely changed. By nature, Luke Soames had hair of a sandy color; now it was of so dark a brown as to seem black in the lamplight. His thin eyebrows and scanty lashes were naturally almost colorless; but they were become those of a pronounced brunette. He was of pale complexion, but to-night had the face of a mulatto, or of one long in tropical regions. In short, he was another man—a man whom he detested at first sight!
This was the price, or perhaps only part of the price, of his indiscretion. Mr. Soames was become Mr. Lucas. Clutching the top of the chest-of-drawers with both hands, he glared at his own reflection, dazedly.
In that pose, he was interrupted. Said, silently opening the door behind him, muttered:
Soames whirled around in a sudden panic, his heart leaping madly. The immobile brown face peered in at the door.
"Ta'ala wayyaya!" repeated Said, his face expressionless as a mask. He pointed along the corridor. "Ho-Pin Effendi!" he explained.
Soames, raising his hands to his collarless neck, made a swallowing noise, and would have spoken; but:
"Ta'ala wayyaya!" reiterated the Oriental.
Soames hesitated no more. Reentering the corridor, with its straw-matting walls, he made a curious discovery. Away to the left it terminated in a blank, matting-covered wall. There was no indication of the door by which he had entered it. Glancing hurriedly to the right, he failed also to perceive any door there. The bespectacled Ho-Pin stood halfway along the passage, awaiting him. Following Said in that direction, Soames was greeted with the announcement:
"Mr. King will see you."
The words taught Soames that his capacity for emotion was by no means exhausted. His endless conjectures respecting the mysterious Mr. King were at last to be replaced by facts; he was to see him, to speak with him. He knew now that it was a fearful privilege which gladly he would have denied himself.
Ho-Pin opened a door almost immediately behind him, a door the existence of which had not hitherto been evident to Soames. Beyond, was a dark passage.
"You will follow me, closely," said Ho-Pin with one of his piercing glances.
Soames, finding his legs none too steady, entered the passage behind Ho-Pin. As he did so, the door was closed by Said, and he found himself in absolute darkness.
"Keep close behind me," directed the metallic voice.
Soames could not see the speaker, since no ray of light penetrated into the passage. He stretched out a groping hand, and, although he was conscious of an odd revulsion, touched the shoulder of the man in front of him and maintained that unpleasant contact whilst they walked on and on through apparently endless passages, extensive as a catacomb. Many corners they turned; they turned to the right, they turned to the left. Soames was hopelessly bewildered. Then, suddenly, Ho-Pin stopped.
"Stand still," he said.
Soames became vaguely aware that a door was being closed somewhere near to him. A lamp lighted up directly over his head... he found himself in a small library!
Its four walls were covered with book-shelves from floor to ceiling, and the shelves were packed to overflowing with books in most unusual and bizarre bindings. A red carpet was on the floor and a red-shaded lamp hung from the ceiling, which was conventionally white-washed. Although there was no fireplace, the room was immoderately hot, and heavy with the perfume of roses. On three little tables were great bowls filled with roses, and there were other bowls containing roses in gaps between the books on the open shelves.
A tall screen of beautifully carved sandalwood masked one corner of the room, but beyond it protruded the end of a heavy writing-table upon which lay some loose papers, and, standing amid them, an enormous silver rose-bowl, brimming with sulphur-colored blooms.
Soames, obeying a primary instinct, turned, as the light leaped into being, to seek the door by which he had entered. As he did so, the former doubts of his own sanity returned with renewed vigor.
The book-lined wall behind him was unbroken by any opening.
Slowly, as a man awaking from a stupor, Soames gazed around the library.
It contained no door.
He rested his hand upon one of the shelves and closed his eyes. Beyond doubt he was going mad! The tragic events of that night had proved too much for him; he had never disguised from himself the fact that his mental capacity was not of the greatest. He was assured, now, that his brain had lost its balance shortly after his flight from Palace Mansions, and that the events of the past two hours had been phantasmal. He would presently return to sanity (or, blasphemously, he dared to petition heaven that he would) and find himself...? Perhaps in the hands of the police!
"Oh, God!" he groaned—"Oh, God!"
He opened his eyes...
A woman stood before the sandalwood screen! She had the pallidly dusky skin of a Eurasian, but, by virtue of nature or artifice, her cheeks wore a peachlike bloom. Her features were flawless in their chiseling, save for the slightly distended nostrils, and her black eyes were magnificent.
She was divinely petite, slender and girlish; but there was that in the lines of her figure, so seductively defined by her clinging Chinese dress, in the poise of her small head, with the blush rose nestling amid the black hair—above all in the smile of her full red lips—which discounted the youth of her body; which whispered "Mine is a soul old in strange sins—a soul for whom dead Alexandria had no secrets, that learnt nothing of Athenean Thais and might have tutored Messalina"...
In her fanciful robe of old gold, with her tiny feet shod in ridiculously small, gilt slippers, she stood by the screen watching the stupefied man—an exquisite, fragrantly youthful casket of ancient, unnameable evils.
"Good evening, Soames!" she said, stumbling quaintly with her English, but speaking in a voice musical as a silver bell. "You will here be known as Lucas. Mr. King he wishing me to say that you to receive two pounds, at each week."...
Soames, glassy-eyed, stood watching her. A horror, the horror of insanity, had descended upon him—a clammy, rose-scented mantle. The room, the incredible, book-lined room, was a red blur, surrounding the black, taunting eyes of the Eurasian. Everything was out of focus; past, present, and future were merged into a red, rose-haunted nothingness...
"You will attend to Block A," resumed the girl, pointing at him with a little fan. "You will also attend to the gentlemen."...
She laughed softly, revealing tiny white teeth; then paused, head tilted coquettishly, and appeared to be listening to someone's conversation—to the words of some person seated behind the screen. This fact broke in upon Soames' disordered mind and confirmed him in his opinion that he was a man demented. For only one slight sound broke the silence of the room. The red carpet below the little tables was littered with rose petals, and, in the super-heated atmosphere, other petals kept falling—softly, with a gentle rustling. Just that sound there was... and no other. Then:
"Mr. King he wishing to point out to you," said the girl, "that he hold receipts of you, which bind you to him. So you will be free man, and have liberty to go out sometimes for your own business. Mr. King he wishing to hear you say you thinking to agree with the conditions and be satisfied."
She ceased speaking, but continued to smile; and so complete was the stillness, that Soames, whose sense of hearing had become nervously stimulated, heard a solitary rose petal fall upon the corner of the writing-table.
"I... agree," he whispered huskily; "and... I am... satisfied."
He looked at the carven screen as a lost soul might look at the gate of Hades; he felt now that if a sound should come from beyond it he would shriek out, he would stop up his ears; that if the figure of the Unseen should become visible, he must die at the first glimpse of it.
The little brown girl was repeating the uncanny business of listening to that voice of silence; and Soames knew that he could not sustain his part in this eerie comedy for another half-minute without breaking out into hysterical laughter. Then:
"Mr. King he releasing you for to-night," announced the silver bell voice.
The light went out.
Soames uttered a groan of terror, followed by a short, bubbling laugh, but was seized firmly by the arm and led on into the blackness—on through the solid, book-laden walls, presumably; and on—on—on, along those interminable passages by which he had come. Here the air was cooler, and the odor of roses no longer perceptible, no longer stifling him, no longer assailing his nostrils, not as an odor of sweetness, but as a perfume utterly damnable and unholy.
With his knees trembling at every step, he marched on, firmly supported by his unseen companion.
"Stop!" directed a metallic, guttural voice.
Soames pulled up, and leaned weakly against the wall. He heard the clap of hands close behind him; and a door opened within twelve inches of the spot whereat he stood.
He tottered out into the matting-lined corridor from which he had started upon that nightmare journey; Ho-Pin appeared at his elbow, but no door appeared behind Ho-Pin!
"This is your wroom," said the Chinaman, revealing his yellow teeth in a mirthless smile.
He walked across the corridor, threw open a door—a real, palpable door... and there was Soames' little white room!
Soames staggered across, for it seemed a veritable haven of refuge—entered, and dropped upon the bed. He seemed to see the rose-petals fall—fall—falling in that red room in the labyrinth—the room that had no door; he seemed to see the laughing eyes of the beautiful Eurasian.
"Good night!" came the metallic voice of Ho-Pin.
The light in the corridor went out.
The newly-created Mr. Lucas entered upon a sort of cave-man existence in this fantastic abode where night was day and day was night; where the sun never shone.
He was awakened on the first morning of his sojourn in the establishment of Ho-Pin by the loud ringing of an electric bell immediately beside his bed. He sprang upright with a catching of the breath, peering about him at the unfamiliar surroundings and wondering, in the hazy manner of a sleeper newly awakened, where he was, and how come there. He was fully dressed, and his strapped-up grip lay beside him on the floor; for he had not dared to remove his clothes, had not dared to seek slumber after that terrifying interview with Mr. King. But outraged nature had prevailed, and sleep had come unbeckoned, unbidden.
The electric light was still burning in the room, as he had left it, and as he sat up, looking about him, a purring whistle drew his attention to a speaking-tube which protruded below the bell.
Soames rolled from the bed, head throbbing, and an acrid taste in his mouth, and spoke into the tube:
"You will pwrepare for youwr duties," came the metallic gutturals of Ho-Pin. "Bwreakfast will be bwrought to you in a quawrter-of-an-hour."
He made no reply, but stood looking about him dully. It had not been a dream, then, nor was he mad. It was a horrible reality; here, in London, in modern, civilized London, he was actually buried in some incredible catacomb; somewhere near to him, very near to him, was the cave of the golden dragon, and, also adjacent—terrifying thought—was the doorless library, the rose-scented haunt where the beautiful Eurasian spoke, oracularly, the responses of Mr. King!
Soames could not understand it all; he felt that such things could not be; that there must exist an explanation of those seeming impossibilities other than that they actually existed. But the instructions were veritable enough, and would not be denied.
Rapidly he began to unpack his grip. His watch had stopped, since he had neglected to wind it, and he hurried with his toilet, fearful of incurring the anger of Ho-Pin—of Ho-Pin, the beetlesque.
He observed, with passive interest, that the operation of shaving did not appreciably lighten the stain upon his skin, and, by the time that he was shaved, he had begun to know the dark-haired, yellow-faced man grimacing in the mirror for himself; but he was far from being reconciled to his new appearance.
Said peeped in at the door. He no longer wore his chauffeur's livery, but was arrayed in a white linen robe, red-sashed, and wore loose, red slippers; a tarboosh perched upon his shaven skull.
Pushing the door widely open, he entered with a tray upon which was spread a substantial breakfast.
"Hurryup!" he muttered, as one word; wherewith he departed again.
Soames seated himself at the little table upon which the tray rested, and endeavored to eat. His usual appetite had departed with his identity; Mr. Lucas was a poor, twitching being of raw nerves and internal qualms. He emptied the coffee-pot, however, and smoked a cigarette which he found in his case.
"Ta'ala!" he directed.
Soames having learnt that that term was evidently intended as an invitation to follow Said, rose and followed, dumbly.
He was conducted along the matting-lined corridor to the left; and now, where formerly he had seen a blank wall, he saw an open door! Passing this, he discovered himself in the cave of the golden dragon. Ho-Pin, dressed in a perfectly fitting morning coat and its usual accompaniments, received him with a mirthless smile.
"Good mowrning!" he said; "I twrust your bwreakfast was satisfactowry?"
"Quite, sir," replied Soames, mechanically, and as he might have replied to Mr. Leroux.
"Said will show you to a wroom," continued Ho-Pin, "where you will find a gentleman awaiting you. You will valet him and perfowrm any other services which he may wrequire of you. When he departs, you will clean the wroom and adjoining bath-wroom, and put it into thowrough order for an incoming tenant. In short, your duties in this wrespect will be identical to those which formerly you perfowrmed at sea. There is one important diffewrence: your name is Lucas, and you will answer no questions."
The metallic voice seemed to reach Soames' comprehension from some place other than the room of the golden dragon—from a great distance, or as though he were fastened up in a box and were being addressed by someone outside it.
"Yes, sir," he replied.
Said opened the yellow door upon the right of the room, and Soames followed him into another of the matting-lined corridors, this one running right and left and parallel with the wall of the apartment which he had just quitted. Six doors opened out of this corridor; four of them upon the side opposite to that by which he had entered, and one at either end.
These doors were not readily to be detected; and the wall, at first glance, presented an unbroken appearance. But from experience, he had learned that where the strips of bamboo which overlay the straw matting formed a rectangular panel, there was a door, and by the light of the electric lamp hung in the center of the corridor, he counted six of these.
Said, selecting a key from a bunch which he carried, opened one of the doors, held it ajar for Soames to enter, and permitted it to reclose behind him.
Soames entered nervously. He found himself in a room identical in size with his own private apartment; a bathroom, etc., opened out of it in one corner after the same fashion. But there similarity ended.
The bed in this apartment was constructed more on the lines of a modern steamer bunk; that is, it was surrounded by a rail, and was raised no more than a foot from the floor. The latter was covered with a rich carpet, worked in many colors, and the wall was hung with such paper as Soames had never seen hitherto in his life. The scheme of this mural decoration was distinctly Chinese, and consisted in an intricate design of human and animal figures, bewilderingly mingled; its coloring was brilliant, and the scheme extended, unbroken, over the entire ceiling. Cushions, most fancifully embroidered, were strewn about the floor, and the bed coverlet was a piece of heavy Chinese tapestry. A lamp, shaded with silk of a dull purple, swung in the center of the apartment, and an ebony table, inlaid with ivory, stood on one side of the bed; on the other was a cushioned armchair figured with the eternal, chaotic Chinese design, and being littered, at the moment, with the garments of the man in the bed. The air of the room was disgusting, unbreathable; it caught Soames by the throat and sickened him. It was laden with some kind of fumes, entirely unfamiliar to his nostrils. A dainty Chinese tea-service stood upon the ebony table.
For fully thirty seconds Soames, with his back to the door, gazed at the man in the bed, and fought down the nausea which the air of the place had induced in him.
This sleeper was a man of middle age, thin to emaciation and having lank, dark hair. His face was ghastly white, and he lay with his head thrown back and with his arms hanging out upon either side of the bunk, so that his listless hands rested upon the carpet. It was a tragic face; a high, intellectual brow and finely chiseled features; but it presented an indescribable aspect of decay; it was as the face of some classic statue which has long lain buried in humid ruins.
Soames shook himself into activity, and ventured to approach the bed. He moistened his dry lips and spoke:
"Good morning, sir"—the words sounded wildly, fantastically out of place. "Shall I prepare your bath?"
The sleeper showed no signs of awakening.
Soames forced himself to touch one of the thrown-back shoulders. He shook it gently.
The man on the bed raised his arms and dropped them back again into their original position, without opening his eyes.
"They... are hiding," he murmured thickly... "in the... orange grove.... If the felucca sails... closer... they will"...
Soames, finding something very horrifying in the broken words, shook the sleeper more urgently.
"Wake up, sir!" he cried; "I am going to prepare your bath."
"Don't let them... escape," murmured the man, slowly opening his eyes—"I have not"...
He struggled upright, glaring madly at the intruder. His light gray eyes had a glassiness as of long sickness, and his pupils, which were unnaturally dilated, began rapidly to contract; became almost invisible. Then they expanded again—and again contracted.
"Who—the deuce are you?" he murmured, passing his hand across his unshaven face.
"My name is—Lucas, sir," said Soames, conscious that if he remained much longer in the place he should be physically sick. "At your service—shall I prepare the bath?"
"The bath?" said the man, sitting up more straightly—"certainly, yes—of course"...
He looked at Soames, with a light of growing sanity creeping into his eyes; a faint flush tinged the pallid face, and his loose mouth twitched sensitively.
"Then, Said," he began, looking Soames up and down... "let me see, whom did you say you were?"
"Lucas, sir—at your service."
"Ah," muttered the man, lowering his eyes in unmistakable shame—"yes, yes, of course. You are new here?"
"Yes, sir. Shall I prepare your bath?"
"Yes, please. This is Wednesday morning?"
"Wednesday morning, sir; yes."
"Of course—it is Wednesday. You said your name was?"
"Lucas, sir," reiterated Soames, and, crossing the fantastic apartment, he entered the bathroom beyond.
This contained the most modern appointments and was on an altogether more luxurious scale than that attached to his own quarters. He noted, without drawing any deduction from the circumstance, that the fittings were of American manufacture. Here, as in the outer room, there was no window; an electric light hung from the center of the ceiling. Soames busied himself in filling the bath, and laying out the towels upon the rack.
"Fairly warm, sir?" he asked.
"Not too warm, thank you," replied the other, now stumbling out of bed and falling into the armchair—"not too warm."
"If you will take your bath, sir," said Soames, returning to the outer room, "I will brush your clothes and be ready to shave you."
"Yes, yes," said the man, rubbing his hands over his face wearily. "You are new here?"
Soames, who was becoming used to answering this question, answered it once more without irritation.
"Yes, sir, will you take your bath now? It is nearly full, I think."
The man stood up unsteadily and passed into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. Soames, seeking to forget his surroundings, took out from a small hand-bag which he found beneath the bed, a razor-case and a shaving stick. The clothes-brush he had discovered in the bathroom; and now he set to work to brush the creased garments stacked in the armchair. He noted that they were of excellent make, and that the linen was of the highest quality. He was thus employed when the outer door silently opened and the face of Said looked in.
"Gazm," said the Oriental; and he placed inside, upon the carpet, a pair of highly polished boots.
The door was reclosed.
Soames had all the garments in readiness by the time that the man emerged from the bathroom, looking slightly less ill, and not quite so pallid. He wore a yellow silk kimono; and, with greater composure than he had yet revealed, he seated himself in the armchair that Soames might shave him.
This operation Soames accomplished, and the subject, having partially dressed, returned to the bathroom to brush his hair. When his toilet was practically completed:
"Shall I pack the rest of the things in the bag, sir?" asked Soames.
The man nodded affirmatively.
Five minutes later he was ready to depart, and stood before the ex-butler a well-dressed, intellectual, but very debauched-looking gentleman. Being evidently well acquainted with the regime of the establishment, he pressed an electric bell beside the door, presented Soames with half-a-sovereign, and, as Said reappeared, took his departure, leaving Soames more reconciled to his lot than he could ever have supposed possible.
The task of cleaning the room was now commenced by Soames. Said returned, bringing him the necessary utensils; and for fifteen minutes or so he busied himself between the outer apartment and the bathroom. During this time he found leisure to study the extraordinary mural decorations; and, as he looked at them, he learned that they possessed a singular property.
If one gazed continuously at any portion of the wall, the intertwined figures thereon took shape—nay, took life; the intricate, elaborate design ceased to be a design, and became a procession, a saturnalia; became a sinister comedy, which, when first visualized, shocked Soames immoderately. The horrors presented by these devices of evil cunning, crowding the walls, appalled the narrow mind of the beholder, revolted him in an even greater degree than they must have revolted a man of broader and cleaner mind. He became conscious of a quality of evil which pervaded the room; the entire place seemed to lie beneath a spell, beneath the spell of an invisible, immeasurably wicked intelligence.
His reflections began to terrify him, and he hastened to complete his duties. The stench of the place was sickening him anew, and when at last Said opened the door, Soames came out as a man escaping from some imminent harm.
"Di," muttered Said.
He pointed to the opened door of a second room, identical in every respect with the first; and Soames started back with a smothered groan. Had his education been classical he might have likened himself to Hercules laboring for Augeus; but his mind tending scripturally, he wondered if he had sold his soul to Satan in the person of the invisible Mr. King!
Soames' character was of a pliable sort, and ere many days had passed he had grown accustomed to this unnatural existence among the living corpses in the catacombs of Ho-Pin.
He rarely saw Ho-Pin, and desired not to see him at all; as for Mr. King, he even endeavored to banish from his memory the name of that shadowy being. The memory of the Eurasian he could not banish, and was ever listening for the silvery voice, but in vain. He had no particular duties, apart from the care of the six rooms known as Block A, and situated in the corridor to the left of the cave of the golden dragon; this, and the valeting of departing occupants. But the hours at which he was called upon to perform these duties varied very greatly. Sometimes he would attend to four human wrecks in the same morning; whilst, perhaps on the following day, he would not be called upon to officiate until late in the evening. One fact early became evident to him. There was a ceaseless stream of these living dead men pouring into the catacombs of Ho-Pin, coming he knew not whence, and issuing forth again, he knew not whither.
Twice in the first week of his new and strange service he recognized the occupants of the rooms as men whom he had seen in the upper world. On entering the room of one of these (at ten o'clock at night) he almost cried out in his surprise; for the limp, sallow-faced creature extended upon the bed before him was none other than Sir Brian Malpas—the brilliant politician whom his leaders had earmarked for office in the next Cabinet!
As Soames stood contemplating him stretched there in his stupor, he found it hard to credit the fact that this was the same man whom political rivals feared for his hard brilliance, whom society courted, and whose engagement to the daughter of a peer had been announced only a few months before.
Throughout this time, Soames had made no attempt to seek the light of day: he had not seen a newspaper; he knew nothing of the hue and cry raised throughout England, of the hunt for the murderer of Mrs. Vernon. He suffered principally from lack of companionship. The only human being with whom he ever came in contact was Said, the Egyptian; and Said, at best, was uncommunicative. A man of very limited intellect, Luke Soames had been at a loss for many days to reconcile Block A and its temporary occupants with any comprehensible scheme of things. Whereas some of the rooms would be laden with nauseating fumes, others would be free of these; the occupants, again, exhibited various symptoms.
That he was a servant of an opium-den de luxe did not for some time become apparent to him; then, when first the theory presented itself, he was staggered by a discovery so momentous.
But it satisfied his mind only partially. Some men whom he valeted might have been doped with opium, certainly, but all did not exhibit those indications which, from hearsay, he associated with the resin of the white poppy.
Knowing nothing of the numerous and exotic vices which have sprung from the soil of the Orient, he was at a loss for a full explanation of the facts as he saw them.
Finding himself unmolested, and noting, in the privacy of his own apartment, how handsomely his tips were accumulating, Soames was rapidly becoming reconciled to his underground existence, more especially as it spelt safety to a man wanted by the police. His duties thus far had never taken him beyond the corridor known as Block A; what might lie on the other side of the cave of the golden dragon he knew not. He never saw any of the habitues arrive, or actually leave; he did not know whether the staff of the place consisted of himself, Said, Ho-Pin, the Eurasian girl—and... the other, or if there were more servants of this unseen master. But never a day passed by that the clearance of at least one apartment did not fall to his lot, and never an occupant quitted those cells without placing a golden gratuity in the valet's palm.
His appetite returned, and he slept soundly enough in his clean white bedroom, content to lose the upper world, temporarily, and to become a dweller in the catacombs—where tips were large and plentiful. His was the mind of a domestic animal, neither learning from the past nor questioning the future; but dwelling only in the well-fed present.
No other type of European, however lowly, could have supported existence in such a place.
Thus the days passed, and the nights passed, the one merged imperceptibly in the other. At the end of the first week, two sovereigns appeared upon the breakfast tray which Said brought to Soames' room; and, some little time later, Said reappeared with his bottles and paraphernalia to renew the ex-butler's make-up. As he was leaving the room:
"Ahu hina—G'nap'lis effendi!" he muttered, and went out as Mr. Gianapolis entered.
At sight of the Greek, Soames realized, in one emotional moment, how really lonely he had been and how in his inmost heart he longed for a sight of the sun, for a breath of unpolluted air, for a glimpse of gray, homely London.
All the old radiance had returned to Gianapolis; his eyes were crossed in an amiable smile.
"My dear Soames!" he cried, greeting the really delighted man. "How well your new complexion suits you! Sit down, Soames, sit down, and let us talk."
Soames placed a chair for Gianapolis, and seated himself upon the bed, twirling his thumbs in the manner which was his when under the influence of excitement.
"Now, Soames," continued Gianapolis—"I mean Lucas!—my anticipations, which I mentioned to you on the night of—the accident... you remember?"
"Yes," said Soames rapidly, "yes."
"Well, they have been realized. Our establishment, here, continues to flourish as of yore. Nothing has come to light in the press calculated to prejudice us in the eyes of our patrons, and although your own name, Soames"...
Soames started and clutched at the bedcover.
"Although your own name has been freely mentioned on all sides, it is not generally accepted that you perpetrated the deed."
Soames discovered his hair to be bristling; his skin tingled with a nervous apprehension.
"That I," he began dryly, paused and swallowed—"that I perpetrated.... Has it been"...
"It has been hinted at by one or two Fleet Street theorists—yes, Soames! But the post-mortem examination of—the victim, revealed the fact that she was addicted to drugs"...
"Opium?" asked Soames, eagerly.
"What an observant mind you have, Soames!" he said. "So you have perceived that these groves are sacred to our Lady of the Poppies? Well, in part that is true. Here, under the auspices of Mr. Ho-Pin, fretful society seeks the solace of the brass pipe; yes, Soames, that is true. Have you ever tried opium?"
"Never!" declared Soames, with emphasis, "never!"
"Well, it is a delight in store for you! But the reason of our existence as an institution, Soames, is not far to seek. Once the joys of Chandu become perceptible to the neophyte, a great need is felt—a crying need. One may drink opium or inject morphine; these, and other crude measures, may satisfy temporarily, but if one would enjoy the delights of that fairyland, of that enchanted realm which bountiful nature has concealed in the heart of the poppy, one must retire from the ken of goths and vandals who do not appreciate such exquisite delights; one must dedicate, not an hour snatched from grasping society, but successive days and nights to the goddess"...
Soames, barely understanding this discourse, listened eagerly to every word of it, whilst Gianapolis, waxing eloquent upon his strange thesis, seemed to be addressing, not his solitary auditor, but an invisible concourse.
"In common with the lesser deities," he continued, "our Lady of the Poppies is exacting. After a protracted sojourn at her shrine, so keen are the delights which she opens up to her worshipers, that a period of lassitude, of exhaustion, inevitably ensues. This precludes the proper worship of the goddess in the home, and necessitates—I say NECESSITATES the presence, in such a capital as London, of a suitable Temple. You have the honor, Soames, to be a minor priest of that Temple!"
Soames brushed his dyed hair with his fingers and endeavored to look intelligent.
"A branch establishment—merely a sacred caravanserai where votaries might repose ere reentering the ruder world," continued Gianapolis—"has unfortunately been raided by the police!"
With that word, POLICE, he seemed to come to earth again.
"Our arrangements, I am happy to say, were such that not one of the staff was found on the premises and no visible link existed between that establishment and this. But now let us talk about yourself. You may safely take an evening off, I think"...
He scrutinized Soames attentively.
"You will be discreet as a matter of course, and I should not recommend your visiting any of your former haunts. I make this proposal, of course, with the full sanction of Mr. King."
The muscles of Soames' jaw tightened at sound of the name, and he avoided the gaze of the crossed eyes.
"And the real purpose of my visit here this morning is to acquaint you with the little contrivance by which we ensure our privacy here. Once you are acquainted with it, you can take the air every evening at suitable hours, on application to Mr. Ho-Pin."
Soames coughed dryly.
"Very good," he said in a strained voice; "I am glad of that."
"I knew you would be glad, Soames," declared the smiling Gianapolis; "and now, if you will step this way, I will show you the door by which you must come and go." He stood up, then bent confidentially to Soames' ear. "Mr. King, very wisely," he whispered, "has retained you on the premises hitherto, because some doubt, some little doubt, remained respecting the information which had come into the possession of the police."
Again that ominous word! But ere Soames had time to reflect, Gianapolis led the way out of the room and along the matting-lined corridor into the apartment of the golden dragon. Soames observed, with a nervous tremor, that Mr. Ho-Pin sat upon one of the lounges, smoking a cigarette, and arrayed in his usual faultless manner. He did not attempt to rise, however, as the pair entered, but merely nodded to Gianapolis and smiled mirthlessly at Soames.
They quitted the room by the door opening on the stone steps—the door by which Soames had first entered into that evil Aladdin's cave. Gianapolis went ahead, and Soames, following him, presently emerged through a low doorway into a concrete-paved apartment, having walls of Portland stone and a white-washed ceiling. One end consisted solely of a folding gate, evidently designed to admit the limousine.
Gianapolis turned, as Soames stepped up beside him.
"If you will glance back," he said, "you will see exactly where the door is situated."
Soames did as directed, and suppressed a cry of surprise. Four of the stone blocks were fictitious—were, in verity, a heavy wooden door, faced in some way with real, or imitation granite—a door communicating with the steps of the catacombs.
"Observe!" said Gianapolis.
He closed the door, which opened outward, and there remained nothing to show the keenest observer—unless he had resorted to sounding—that these four blocks differed in any way from their fellows.
"Ingenious, is it not?" said Gianapolis, genially. "And now, my dear Soames, observe again!"
He rolled back the folding gates; and beyond was a garage, wherein stood the big limousine.
"I keep my car here, Soames, for the sake of—convenience! And now, my dear Soames, when you go out this evening, Said will close this entrance after you. When you return, which, I understand, you must do at ten o'clock, you will enter the garage by the side door yonder, which will not be locked, and you will press the electric button at the back of the petrol cans here—look! you can see it!—the inner door will then be opened for you. Step this way."
He passed between the car and the wall of the garage, opened the door at the left of the entrance gates, and, Soames following, came out into a narrow lane. For the first time in many days Soames scented the cleaner air of the upper world, and with it he filled his lungs gratefully.
Behind him was the garage, before him the high wall of a yard, and, on his right, for a considerable distance, extended a similar wall; in the latter case evidently that of a wharf—for beyond it flowed the Thames.
Proceeding along beside this wall, the two came to the gates of a warehouse. They passed these, however, and entered a small office. Crossing the office, they gained the interior of the warehouse, where chests bearing Chinese labels were stacked in great profusion.
"Then this place," began Soames...
"Is a ginger warehouse, Soames! There is a very small office staff, but sufficiently large to cope with the limited business done—in the import and export of ginger! The firm is known as Kan-Suh Concessions and imports preserved Chinese ginger from its own plantations in that province of the Celestial Empire. There is a small wharf attached, as you may have noted. Oh! it is a going concern and perfectly respectable!"
Soames looked about him with wide-opened eyes.
"The ginger staff," said Gianapolis, "is not yet arrived. Mr. Ho-Pin is the manager. The lane, in which the establishment is situated, communicates with Limehouse Causeway, and, being a cul-de-sac, is little frequented. Only this one firm has premises actually opening into it and I have converted the small corner building at the extremity of the wharf into a garage for my car. There are no means of communication between the premises of Kan-Suh Concessions and those of the more important enterprise below—and I, myself, am not officially associated with the ginger trade. It is a precaution which we all adopt, however, never to enter or leave the garage if anyone is in sight."...
Soames became conscious of a new security. He set about his duties that morning with a greater alacrity than usual, valeting one of the living dead men—a promising young painter whom he chanced to know by sight—with a return to the old affable manner which had rendered him so popular during his career as cabin steward.
He felt that he was now part and parcel of Kan-Suh Concessions; that Kan-Suh Concessions and he were at one. He had yet to learn that his sense of security was premature, and that his added knowledge might be an added danger.
When Said brought his lunch into his room, he delivered also a slip of paper bearing the brief message:
"Go out 6.30—return 10."
Mr. Soames uncorked his daily bottle of Bass almost gaily, and attacked his lunch with avidity.
THE WORLD ABOVE
The night had set in grayly, and a drizzle of fine rain was falling. West India Dock Road presented a prospect so uninviting that it must have damped the spirits of anyone but a cave-dweller.
Soames, buttoned up in a raincoat kindly lent by Mr. Gianapolis, and of a somewhat refined fit, with a little lagoon of rainwater forming within the reef of his hat-brim, trudged briskly along. The necessary ingredients for the manufacture of mud are always present (if invisible during dry weather) in the streets of East-end London, and already Soames' neat black boots were liberally bedaubed with it. But what cared Soames? He inhaled the soot-laden air rapturously; he was glad to feel the rain beating upon his face, and took a childish pleasure in ducking his head suddenly and seeing the little stream of water spouting from his hat-brim. How healthy they looked, these East-end workers, these Italian dock-hands, these Jewish tailors, these nondescript, greasy beings who sometimes saw the sun. Many of them, he knew well, labored in cellars; but he had learnt that there are cellars and cellars. Ah! it was glorious, this gray, murky London!
Yet, now that temporarily he was free of it, he realized that there was that within him which responded to the call of the catacombs; there was a fascination in the fume-laden air of those underground passages; there was a charm, a mysterious charm, in the cave of the golden dragon, in that unforgettable place which he assumed to mark the center of the labyrinth; in the wicked, black eyes of the Eurasian. He realized that between the abstraction of silver spoons and deliberate, organized money-making at the expense of society, a great chasm yawned; that there may be romance even in felony.
Soames at last felt himself to be a traveler on the highroad to fortune; he had become almost reconciled to the loss of his bank balance, to the loss of his place in the upper world. His was the constitution of a born criminal, and, had he been capable of subtle self-analysis, he must have known now that fear, and fear only, hitherto had held him back, had confined him to the ranks of the amateurs. Well, the plunge was taken.
Deep in such reflections, he trudged along through the rain, scarce noting where his steps were leading him, for all roads were alike to-night. His natural inclinations presently dictated a halt at a brilliantly lighted public house; and, taking off his hat to shake some of the moisture from it, he replaced it on his head and entered the saloon lounge.
The place proved to be fairly crowded, principally with local tradesmen whose forefathers had toiled for Pharaoh; and conveying his glass of whisky to a marble-topped table in a corner comparatively secluded, Soames sat down for a consideration of past, present, and future; an unusual mental exercise. Curiously enough, he had lost something of his old furtiveness; he no longer examined, suspiciously, every stranger who approached his neighborhood; for as the worshipers of old came by the gate of Fear into the invisible presence of Moloch, so he—of equally untutored mind—had entered the presence of Mr. King! And no devotee of the Ammonite god had had greater faith in his potent protection than Soames had in that of his unseen master. What should a servant of Mr. King fear from the officers of the law? How puny a thing was the law in comparison with the director of that secret, powerful, invulnerable organization whereof to-day he (Soames) formed an unit!
Then, oddly, the old dormant cowardice of the man received a sudden spurring, and leaped into quickness. An evening paper lay upon the marble top of the table, and carelessly taking it up, Soames, hitherto lost in imaginings, was now reminded that for more than a week he had lain in ignorance of the world's doings. Good Heavens! how forgetful he had been! It was the nepenthe of the catacombs. He must make up for lost time and get in touch again with passing events: especially he must post himself up on the subject of... the murder....
The paper dropped from his hands, and, feeling himself blanch beneath his artificial tan, Soames, in his old furtive manner, glanced around the saloon to learn if he were watched. Apparently no one was taking the slightest notice of him, and, with an unsteady hand, he raised his glass and drained its contents. There, at the bottom of the page before him, was the cause of this sudden panic; a short paragraph conceived as follows:—
REPORTED ARREST OF SOAMES
It is reported that a man answering to the description of Soames, the butler wanted in connection with the Palace Mansions outrage, has been arrested in Birmingham. He was found sleeping in an outhouse belonging to Major Jennings, of Olton, and as he refused to give any account of himself, was handed over, by the gentleman's gardener, to the local police. His resemblance to the published photograph being observed, he was closely questioned, and although he denies being Luke Soames, he is being held for further inquiry.
Soames laid down the paper, and, walking across to the bar, ordered a second glass of whisky. With this he returned to the table and began more calmly to re-read the paragraph. From it he passed to the other news. He noted that little publicity was given to the Palace Mansions affair, from which he judged that public interest in the matter was already growing cold. A short summary appeared on the front page, and this he eagerly devoured. It read as follows:—
PALACE MANSIONS MYSTERY
The police are following up an important clue to the murderer of Mrs. Vernon, and it is significant in this connection that a man answering to the description of Soames was apprehended at Olton (Birmingham) late last night. (See Page 6). The police are very reticent in regard to the new information which they hold, but it is evident that at last they are confident of establishing a case. Mr. Henry Leroux, the famous novelist, in whose flat the mysterious outrage took place, is suffering from a nervous breakdown, but is reported to be progressing favorably by Dr. Cumberly, who is attending him. Dr. Cumberly, it will be remembered, was with Mr. Leroux, and Mr. John Exel, M. P., at the time that the murder was discovered. The executors of the late Mr. Horace Vernon are faced with extraordinary difficulties in administering the will of the deceased, owing to the tragic coincidence of his wife's murder within twenty-four hours of his own demise.
Public curiosity respecting the nursing home in Gillingham Street, with its electric baths and other modern appliances, has by no means diminished, and groups of curious spectators regularly gather outside the former establishment of Nurse Proctor, and apparently derive some form of entertainment from staring at the windows and questioning the constable on duty. The fact that Mrs. Vernon undoubtedly came from this establishment on the night of the crime, and that the proprietors of the nursing home fled immediately, leaving absolutely no clue behind them, complicates the mystery which Scotland Yard is engaged in unraveling.
It is generally believed that the woman, Proctor, and her associates had actually no connection with the crime, and that realizing that the inquiry might turn in their direction, they decamped. The obvious inference, of course, is that the nursing home was conducted on lines which would not bear official scrutiny.
The flight of the butler, Soames, presents a totally different aspect, and in this direction the police are very active.
Soames searched the remainder of the paper scrupulously, but failed to find any further reference to the case. The second Scottish stimulant had served somewhat to restore his failing courage; he congratulated himself upon taking the only move which could have saved him from arrest; he perceived that he owed his immunity entirely to the protective wings of Mr. King. He trembled to think that his fate might indeed have been that of the man arrested at Olton; for, without money and without friends, he would have become, ere this, just such an outcast and natural object of suspicion.
He noted, as a curious circumstance, that throughout the report there was no reference to the absence of Mrs. Leroux; therefore—a primitive reasoner—he assumed that she was back again at Palace Mansions. He was mentally incapable of fitting Mrs. Leroux into the secret machine engineered by Mr. King through the visible agency of Ho-Pin. On the whole, he was disposed to believe that her several absences—ostensibly on visits to Paris—had nothing to do with the catacombs of Ho-Pin, but were to be traced to the amours of the radiant Gianapolis. Taking into consideration his reception by the Chinaman in the cave of the golden dragon, he determined, to his own satisfaction, that this had been dictated by prudence, and by Mr. Gianapolis. In short he believed that the untimely murder of Mrs. Vernon had threatened to direct attention to the commercial enterprise of the Greek, and that he, Soames, had become incorporated in the latter in this accidental fashion. He believed himself to have been employed in a private intrigue during the time that he was at Palace Mansions, and counted it a freak of fate that Mr. Gianapolis' affairs of the pocket had intruded upon his affairs of the heart.
It was all very confusing, and entirely beyond Soames' mental capacity to unravel.
He treated himself to a third scotch whisky, and sallied out into the rain. A brilliantly lighted music hall upon the opposite side of the road attracted his attention. The novelty of freedom having worn off, he felt no disposition to spend the remainder of the evening in the street, for the rain was now falling heavily, but determined to sample the remainder of the program offered by the "first house," and presently was reclining in a plush-covered, tip-up seat in the back row of the stalls.
The program was not of sufficient interest wholly to distract his mind, and during the performance of a very tragic comedian, Soames found his thoughts wandering far from the stage. His seat was at the extreme end of the back row, and, quite unintentionally, he began to listen to the conversation of two men, who, standing just inside the entrance door and immediately behind him to the right, were talking in subdued voices.
"There are thousands of Kings in London," said one...
Soames slowly lowered his hands to the chair-arms on either side of him and clutched them tightly. Every nerve in his body seemed to be strung up to the ultimate pitch of tensity. He was listening, now, as a man arraigned might listen for the pronouncement of a judgment.
"That's the trouble," replied a second voice; "but you know Max's ideas on the subject? He has his own way of going to work; but my idea, Sowerby, is that if we can find the one Mr. Soames—and I am open to bet he hasn't left London—we shall find the right Mr. King."
The comedian finished, and the orchestra noisily chorded him off. Soames, his forehead wet with perspiration, began to turn his head, inch by inch. The lights in the auditorium were partially lowered, and he prayed, devoutly, that they would remain so; for now, glancing out of the corner of his right eye, he saw the speakers.
The taller of the two, a man wearing a glistening brown overall and rain-drenched tweed cap, was the detective who had been in Leroux's study and who had ordered him to his room on the night of the murder!
Then commenced for Soames such an ordeal as all his previous life had not offered him; an ordeal beside which even the interview with Mr. King sank into insignificance. His one hope was in the cunning of Said's disguise; but he knew that Scotland Yard men judged likenesses, not by complexions, which are alterable, not by the color of the hair, which can be dyed, but by certain features which are measurable, and which may be memorized because nature has fashioned them immutable.
What should he do?—What should he do? In the silence:
"No good stopping any longer," came the whispered voice of the shorter detective; "I have had a good look around the house, and there is nobody here."...
Soames literally held his breath.
"We'll get along down to the Dock Gate," was the almost inaudible reply; "I am meeting Stringer there at nine o'clock."
Walking softly, the Scotland Yard men passed out of the theater.
THE LIVING DEAD
The night held yet another adventure in store for Soames. His encounter with the two Scotland Yard men had finally expelled all thoughts of pleasure from his mind. The upper world, the free world, was beset with pitfalls; he realized that for the present, at any rate, there could be no security for him, save in the catacombs of Ho-Pin. He came out of the music-hall and stood for a moment just outside the foyer, glancing fearfully up and down the rain-swept street. Then, resuming the drenched raincoat which he had taken off in the theater, and turning up its collar about his ears, he set out to return to the garage adjoining the warehouse of Kan-Suh Concessions.
He had fully another hour of leave if he cared to avail himself of it, but, whilst every pedestrian assumed, in his eyes, the form of a detective, whilst every dark corner seemed to conceal an ambush, whilst every passing instant he anticipated feeling a heavy hand upon his shoulder, and almost heard the words:—"Luke Soames, I arrest you"... Whilst this was his case, freedom had no joys for him.
No light guided him to the garage door, and he was forced to seek for the handle by groping along the wall. Presently, his hand came in contact with it, he turned it—and the way was open before him.
Being far from familiar with the geography of the place, he took out a box of matches, and struck one to light him to the shelf above which the bell-push was concealed.
Its feeble light revealed, not only the big limousine near which he was standing and the usual fixtures of a garage, but, dimly penetrating beyond into the black places, it also revealed something else....
The door in the false granite blocks was open!
Soames, who had advanced to seek the bell-push, stopped short. The match burnt down almost to his fingers, whereupon he blew it out and carefully crushed it under his foot. A faint reflected light rendered perceptible the stone steps below. At the top, Soames stood looking down. Nothing stirred above, below, or around him. What did it mean? Dimly to his ears came the hooting of some siren from the river—evidently that of a large vessel. Still he hesitated; why he did so, he scarce knew, save that he was afraid—vaguely afraid.
Then, he asked himself what he had to fear, and conjuring up a mental picture of his white bedroom below, he planted his foot firmly upon the first step, and from thence, descended to the bottom, guided by the faint light which shone out from the doorway beneath.
But the door proved to be only partly opened, and Soames knocked deferentially. No response came to his knocking, and he so greatly ventured as to push the door fully open.
The cave of the golden dragon was empty. Half frightfully, Soames glanced about the singular apartment, in amid the mountainous cushions of the leewans, behind the pedestal of the dragon; to the right and to the left of the doorway wherein he stood.
There was no one there; but the door on the right—the door inlaid with ebony and green stone, which he had never yet seen open was open now, widely opened. He glided across the floor, his wet boots creaking unmusically, and peeped through. He saw a matting-lined corridor identical with that known as Block A. The door of one apartment, that on the extreme left, was opened. Sickly fumes were wafted out to him, and these mingled with the incense-like odor which characterized the temple of the dragon.
A moment he stood so, then started back, appalled.
An outcry—the outcry of a woman, of a woman whose very soul is assailed—split the stillness. Not from the passageway before him, but from somewhere behind him—from the direction of Block A—it came.
"For God's sake—oh! for God's sake, have mercy! Let me go!... let me go!" Higher, shriller, more fearful and urgent, grew the voice—"LET ME GO!"...
Soames' knees began to tremble beneath him; he clutched at the black wall for support; then turned, and with unsteady footsteps crossed to the door communicating with the corridor which contained his room. It had a lever handle of the Continental pattern, and, trembling with apprehension that it might prove to be locked, Soames pressed down this handle.
The door opened...
The voice sounded like that of Said....
"Oh! God in Heaven help me!... Help!—help!"...
Footsteps were pattering upon the stone stairs; someone was descending from the warehouse! The frenzied shrieks of the woman continued. Soames broke into a cold perspiration; his heart, which had leaped wildly, seemed now to have changed to a cold stone in his breast. Just at the entrance to the corridor he stood, frozen with horror at those cries.
"Ikfil el-bab!" came now, in the voice of Ho-Pin,—and nearer.
"Let me go!... only let me go, and I will never breathe a word. ... Ah! Ah! Oh! God of mercy! not the needle again! You are killing me!... not the needle!"...
Soames staggered on to his own room and literally fell within—as across the cave of the golden dragon, behind him, SOMEONE—one whom he did not see but only heard, one whom with all his soul he hoped had not seen HIM—passed rapidly.
Another shriek, more frightful than any which had preceded it, struck the trembling man as an arrow might have struck him. He dropped upon his knees at the side of the bed and thrust his fingers firmly into his ears. He had never swooned in his life, and was unfamiliar with the symptoms, but now he experienced a sensation of overpowering nausea; a blood-red mist floated before his eyes, and the floor seemed to rock beneath him like the deck of a ship....
That soul-appalling outcry died away, merged into a sobbing, moaning sound which defied Soames' efforts to exclude it.... He rose to his feet, feeling physically ill, and turned to close his door....
They were dragging someone—someone who sighed, shudderingly, and whose sighs sank to moans, and sometimes rose to sobs,—across the apartment of the dragon. In a faint, dying voice, the woman spoke again:—
"Not Mr. King!... NOT MR. KING!... Is there no God in Heaven!... AH! spare me... spare"...
Soames closed the door and stood propped up against it, striving to fight down the deathly sickness which assailed him. His clothes were sticking to his clammy body, and a cold perspiration was trickling down his forehead and into his eyes. The sensation at his heart was unlike anything that he had ever known; he thought that he must be dying.
The awful sounds died away... then a muffled disturbance drew his attention to a sort of square trap which existed high up on one wall of the room, but which admitted no light, and which hitherto had never admitted any sound. Now, in the utter darkness, he found himself listening—listening...
He had learnt, during his duties in Block A, that each of the minute suites was rendered sound-proof in some way, so that what took place in one would be inaudible to the occupant of the next, provided that both doors were closed. He perceived, now, that some precaution hitherto exercised continuously had been omitted to-night, and that the sounds which he could hear came from the room next to his own—the room which opened upon the corridor that he had never entered, and which now he classified, mentally, as Block B.
What did it mean?
Obviously there had been some mishap in the usually smooth conduct of Ho-Pin's catacombs. There had been a hurried outgoing in several directions... a search?
And by the accident of his returning an hour earlier than he was expected, he was become a witness of this incident, or of its dreadful, concluding phases. He had begun to move away from the door, but now he returned, and stood leaning against it.
That stifling room where roses shed their petals, had been opened to-night; a chill touched the very center of his being and told him so. The occupant of that room—the Minotaur of this hideous labyrinth—was at large to-night, was roaming the passages about him, was perhaps outside his very door....
Dull moaning sounds reached him through the trap. He realized that if he had the courage to cross the room, stand upon a chair and place his ear to the wall, he might be able to detect more of what was passing in the next apartment. But craven fear held him in its grip, and in vain he strove to shake it off. Trembling wildly, he stood with his back to the door, whilst muttered words, and moans, ever growing fainter, reached him from beyond. A voice, a harsh, guttural voice—surely not that of Ho-Pin—was audible, above the moaning.
For two minutes—three minutes—four minutes—he stood there, tottering on the brink of insensibility, then... a faint sound—a new sound,—drew his gaze across the room, and up to the corner where the trap was situated.
A very dim light was dawning there; he could just detect the outline of an opening—a half-light breaking the otherwise impenetrable darkness.
He felt that his capacity for fear was strained to its utmost; that he could support nothing more, yet a new horror was in store for him; for, as he watched that gray patch, in it, as in a frame, a black silhouette appeared—the silhouette of a human head... a woman's head!
Soames convulsively clenched his jaws, for his teeth were beginning to chatter.
A whistle, an eerie, minor whistle, subscribed the ultimate touch of terror to the night. The silhouette disappeared, and, shortly afterwards, the gray luminance. A faint click told of some shutter being fastened; complete silence reigned.
Soames groped his way to the bed and fell weakly upon it, half lying down and burying his face in the pillow. For how long, he had no idea, but for some considerable time, he remained so, fighting to regain sufficient self-possession to lie to Ho-Pin, who sooner or later must learn of his return.
At last he managed to sit up. He was not trembling quite so wildly, but he still suffered from a deathly sickness. A faint streak of light from the corridor outside shone under his door. As he noted it, it was joined by a second streak, forming a triangle.
There was a very soft rasping of metal. Someone was opening the door!
Soames lay back upon the bed. This time he was past further panic and come to a stage of sickly apathy. He lay, now, because he could not sit upright, because stark horror had robbed him of physical strength, and had drained the well of his emotions dry.
Gradually—so that the operation seemed to occupy an interminable time, the door opened, and in the opening a figure appeared.
The switch clicked, and the room was flooded with electric light.
Ho-Pin stood watching him.
Soames—in his eyes that indescribable expression seen in the eyes of a bird placed in a cobra's den—met the Chinaman's gaze. This gaze was no different from that which habitually he directed upon the people of the catacombs. His yellow face was set in the same mirthless smile, and his eyebrows were raised interrogatively. For the space of ten seconds, he stood watching the man on the bed. Then:—
"You wreturn vewry soon, Mr. Soames?" he said, softly.
Soames groaned like a dying man, whispering:
"I was... taken ill—very ill."...
"So you wreturn befowre the time awranged for you?"
His metallic voice was sunk in a soothing hiss. He smiled steadily: he betrayed no emotion.
"Yes... sir," whispered Soames, his hair clammily adhering to his brow and beads of perspiration trickling slowly down his nose.
"And when you wreturn, you see and you hear—stwrange things, Mr. Soames?"
Soames, who was in imminent danger of becoming physically ill, gulped noisily.
"No, sir," he whispered,—tremulously, "I've been—in here all the time."
Ho-Pin nodded, slowly and sympathetically, but never removed the glittering eyes from the face of the man on the bed.
"So you hear nothing, and see nothing?"
The words were spoken even more softly than he had spoken hitherto.
"Nothing," protested Soames. He suddenly began to tremble anew, and his trembling rattled the bed. "I have been—very ill indeed, sir."
Ho-Pin nodded again slowly, and with deep sympathy.
"Some medicine shall be sent to you, Mr. Soames," he said.
He turned and went out slowly, closing the door behind him.
ABRAHAM LEVINSKY BUTTS IN
At about the time that this conversation was taking place in Ho-Pin's catacombs, Detective-Inspector Dunbar and Detective-Sergeant Sowerby were joined by a third representative of New Scotland Yard at the appointed spot by the dock gates. This was Stringer, the detective to whom was assigned the tracing of the missing Soames; and he loomed up through the rain-mist, a glistening but dejected figure.
"Any luck?" inquired Sowerby, sepulchrally.
Stringer, a dark and morose looking man, shook his head.
"I've beaten up every 'Chink' in Wapping and Limehouse, I should reckon," he said, plaintively. "They're all as innocent as babes unborn. You can take it from me: Chinatown hasn't got a murder on its conscience at present. BRR! it's a beastly night. Suppose we have one?"
Dunbar nodded, and the three wet investigators walked back for some little distance in silence, presently emerging via a narrow, dark, uninviting alleyway into West India Dock Road. A brilliantly lighted hostelry proved to be their objective, and there, in a quiet corner of the deserted billiard room, over their glasses, they discussed this mysterious case, which at first had looked so simple of solution if only because it offered so many unusual features, but which, the deeper they probed, merely revealed fresh complications.
"The business of those Fry people, in Scotland, was a rotten disappointment," said Dunbar, suddenly. "They were merely paid by the late Mrs. Vernon to re-address letters to a little newspaper shop in Knightsbridge, where an untraceable boy used to call for them! Martin has just reported this evening. Perth wires for instructions, but it's a dead-end, I'm afraid."
"You know," said Sowerby, fishing a piece of cork from the brown froth of a fine example by Guinness, "to my mind our hope's in Soames; and if we want to find Soames, to my mind we want to look, not east, but west."
"Hear, hear!" concorded Stringer, gloomily sipping hot rum.
"It seems to me," continued Sowerby, "that Limehouse is about the last place in the world a man like Soames would think of hiding in."
"It isn't where he'll be THINKING of hiding," snapped Dunbar, turning his fierce eyes upon the last speaker. "You can't seem to get the idea out of your head, Sowerby, that Soames is an independent agent. He ISN'T an independent agent. He's only the servant; and through the servant we hope to find the master."
"But why in the east-end?" came the plaintive voice of Stringer; "for only one reason, that I can see—because Max says that there's a Chinaman in the case."
"There's opium in the case, isn't there?" said Dunbar, adding more water to his whisky, "and where there's opium there is pretty frequently a Chinaman."
"But to my mind," persisted Sowerby, his eyebrows drawn together in a frown of concentration, "the place where Mrs. Vernon used to get the opium was the place we raided in Gillingham Street."
"Nurse Proctor's!" cried Stringer, banging his fist on the table. "Exactly my idea! There may have been a Chinaman concerned in the management of the Gillingham Street stunt, or there may not, but I'll swear that was where the opium was supplied. In fact I don't think that there's any doubt about it. Medical evidence (opinions differed a bit, certainly) went to show that she had been addicted to opium for some years. Other evidence—you got it yourself, Inspector—went to show that she came from Gillingham Street on the night of the murder. Gillingham Street crowd vanished like a beautiful dream before we had time to nab them! What more do you want? What are we up to, messing about in Limehouse and Wapping?"
Sowerby partook of a long drink and turned his eyes upon Dunbar, awaiting the inspector's reply.
"You both have the wrong idea!" said Dunbar, deliberately; "you are all wrong! You seem to be under the impression that if we could lay our hands upon the missing staff of the so-called Nursing Home, we should find the assassin to be one of the crowd. It doesn't follow at all. For a long time, you, Sowerby,"—he turned his tawny eyes upon the sergeant—"had the idea that Soames was the murderer, and I'm not sure that you have got rid of it yet! You, Stringer, appear to think that Nurse Proctor is responsible. Upon my word, you are a hopeless pair! Suppose Soames had nothing whatever to do with the matter, but merely realized that he could not prove an alibi? Wouldn't YOU bolt? I put it to you."
Sowerby stared hard, and Stringer scratched his chin, reflectively.
"The same reasoning applies to the Gillingham Street people," continued Dunbar. "We haven't the slightest idea of THEIR whereabouts because we don't even know who they were; but we do know something about Soames, and we're looking for him, not because we think he did the murder, but because we think he can tell us who did."
"Which brings us back to the old point," interrupted Stringer, softly beating his fist upon the table at every word; "why are we looking for Soames in the east-end?"
"Because," replied Dunbar, "we're working on the theory that Soames, though actually not accessory to the crime, was in the pay of those who were"...
"Well?"—Stringer spoke the word eagerly, his eyes upon the inspector's face.
"And those who WERE accessory,"—continued Dunbar, "were servants of Mr. King."
"Ah!" Stringer brought his fist down with a bang—"Mr. King! That's where I am in the dark, and where Sowerby, here, is in the dark." He bent forward over the table. "Who the devil is Mr. King?"
Dunbar twirled his whisky glass between his fingers.
"We don't know," he replied quietly, "but Soames does, in all probability; and that's why we're looking for Soames."
"Is it why we're looking in Limehouse?" persisted Stringer, the argumentative.
"It is," snapped Dunbar. "We have only got one Chinatown worthy of the name, in London, and that's not ten minutes' walk from here."
"Chinatown—yes," said Sowerby, his red face glistening with excitement; "but why look for Mr. King in Chinatown?"
"Because," replied Dunbar, lowering his voice, "Mr. King in all probability is a Chinaman."
"Who says so?" demanded Stringer.
"Max says so..."
"MAX!"—again Stringer beat his fist upon the table. "Now we have got to it! We're working, then, not on our own theories, but on those of Max?"
Dunbar's sallow face flushed slightly, and his eyes seemed to grow brighter.
"Mr. Gaston Max obtained information in Paris," he said, "which he placed, unreservedly, at my disposal. We went into the matter thoroughly, with the result that our conclusions were identical. A certain Mr. King is at the bottom of this mystery, and, in all probability, Mr. King is a Chinaman. Do I make myself clear?"
Sowerby and Stringer looked at one another, perplexedly. Each man finished his drink in silence. Then:
"What took place in Paris?" began Sowerby.
There was an interruption. A stooping figure in a shabby, black frock-coat, the figure of a man who wore a dilapidated bowler pressed down upon his ears, who had a greasy, Semitic countenance, with a scrubby, curling, sandy colored beard, sparse as the vegetation of a desert, appeared at Sowerby's elbow.
He carried a brimming pewter pot. This he set down upon a corner of the table, depositing himself in a convenient chair and pulling out a very dirty looking letter from an inside pocket. He smoothed it carefully. He peered, little-eyed, from the frowning face of Dunbar to the surprised countenance of Sowerby, and smiled with native amiability at the dangerous-looking Stringer.
"Excuthe me," he said, and his propitiatory smile was expansive and dazzling, "excuthe me buttin' in like thith. It theemth rude, I know—it doth theem rude; but the fact of the matter ith I'm a tailor—thath's my pithneth, a tailor. When I thay a tailor, I really mean a breecheth-maker—tha'th what I mean, a breecheth-maker. Now thethe timeth ith very hard timeth for breecheth-makerth."...
Dunbar finished his whisky, and quietly replaced the glass upon the table, looking from Sowerby to Stringer with unmistakable significance. Stringer emptied his glass of rum, and Sowerby disposed of his stout.
"I got thith letter lath night," continued the breeches-maker, bending forward confidentially over the table. (The document looked at least twelve months old.) "I got thith letter latht night with thethe three fiverth in it; and not havin' no friendth in London—I'm an American thitithen, by birth,—Levinthky, my name ith—Abraham Levinthky—I'm a Noo Englander. Well, not havin' no friendth in London, and theein' you three gentlemen thittin' here, I took the liberty"...
Dunbar stood up, glared at Levinsky, and stalked out of the billiard-room, followed by his equally indignant satellites. Having gained the outer door:
"Of all the blasted impudence!" he said, turning to Sowerby and Stringer; but there was a glint of merriment in the fierce eyes. "Can you beat that? Did you tumble to his game?"
Sowerby stared at Stringer, and Stringer stared at Sowerby.
"Except," began the latter in a voice hushed with amazement, "that he's got the coolest cheek of any mortal being I ever met."...
Dunbar's grim face relaxed, and he laughed boyishly, his square shoulders shaking.
"He was leading up to the confidence trick!" he said, between laughs. "Damn it all, man, it was the old confidence trick! The idea of a confidence-merchant spreading out his wares before three C. I. D. men!"
He was choking with laughter again; and now, Sowerby and Stringer having looked at one another for a moment, the surprised pair joined him in his merriment. They turned up their collars and went out into the rain, still laughing.
"That man," said Sowerby, as they walked across to the stopping place of the electric trains, "is capable of calling on the Commissioner and asking him to 'find the lady'!"
THE STUDIO IN SOHO
Certainly, such impudence as that of Mr. Levinsky is rare even in east-end London, and it may be worth while to return to the corner of the billiard-room and to study more closely this remarkable man.
He was sitting where the detectives had left him, and although their departure might have been supposed to have depressed him, actually it had had a contrary effect; he was chuckling with amusement, and, between his chuckles, addressing himself to the contents of the pewter with every mark of appreciation. Three gleaming golden teeth on the lower row, and one glittering canine, made a dazzling show every time that he smiled; he was a very greasy and a very mirthful Hebrew.
Finishing his tankard of ale, he shuffled out into the street, the line of his bent shoulders running parallel with that of his hat-brim. His hat appeared to be several sizes too large for his head, and his skull was only prevented from disappearing into the capacious crown by the intervention of his ears, which, acting as brackets, supported the whole weight of the rain-sodden structure. He mounted a tram proceeding in the same direction as that which had borne off the Scotland Yard men. Quitting this at Bow Road, he shuffled into the railway station, and from Bow Road proceeded to Liverpool Street. Emerging from the station at Liverpool Street, he entered a motor-'bus bound westward.
His neighbors, inside, readily afforded him ample elbow room; and, smiling agreeably at every one, including the conductor (who resented his good-humor) and a pretty girl in the corner seat (who found it embarrassing) he proceeded to Charing Cross. Descending from the 'bus, he passed out into Leicester Square and plunged into the network of streets which complicates the map of Soho. It will be of interest to follow him.
In a narrow turning off Greek Street, and within hail of the popular Bohemian restaurants, he paused before a doorway sandwiched between a Continental newsagent's and a tiny French cafe; and, having fumbled in his greasy raiment he presently produced a key, opened the door, carefully closed it behind him, and mounted the dark stair.