She was nearly come to the end of the street (Gianapolis already had disappeared into an even narrower turning on the left) when a bright light suddenly swept from behind and cast her shadow far out in front of her upon the muddy road. She heard the faint thudding of a motor, but did not look back, for she was confident that this was the taxi-man following. She crept to the corner and peered around it; Gianapolis had disappeared.
The light grew brighter—brighter yet; and, with the engine running very silently, the car came up almost beside her. She considered this unwise on the man's part, yet welcomed his presence, for in this place not a soul was visible, and for the first time she began to feel afraid...
A shawl, or some kind of silken wrap, was suddenly thrown over her head!
She shrieked frenziedly, but the arm of her captor was now clasped tightly about her mouth and head. She felt herself to be suffocating. The silken thing which enveloped her was redolent of the perfume of roses; it was stifling her. She fought furiously, but her arms were now seized in an irresistible grasp, and she felt herself lifted—and placed upon a cushioned seat.
Instantly there was a forward movement of the vehicle which she had mistaken for a taxi-cab, and she knew that she was speeding through those unknown east-end streets—God! to what destination?
She could not cry out, for she was fighting for air—she seemed to be encircled by a swirling cloud of purplish mist. On—and on—and on, she was borne; she knew that she must have been drugged in some way, for consciousness was slipping—slipping...
Helpless as a child in that embrace which never faltered, she was lifted again and carried down many steps. Insensibility was very near now, but with all the will that was hers she struggled to fend it off. She felt herself laid down upon soft cushions...
A guttural voice was speaking, from a vast distance away:
"What is this that you bwring us, Mahara?"
Answered a sweet, silvery voice:
"Does it matter to you what I bringing? It is one I hate—hate—HATE! There will be TWO cases of 'ginger' to go away some day instead of ONE—that is all! Said, yalla!"
"Your pwrimitive passions will wruin us"...
The silvery voice grew even more silvery:
"Do you quarrel with me, Ho-Pin, my friend?"
"This is England, not Burma! Gianapolis"...
"Ah! Whisper—WHISPER it to HIM, and"...
Oblivion closed in upon Helen Cumberly; she seemed to be sinking into the heart of a giant rose.
IN DUNBAR'S ROOM
Dr. Cumberly, his face unusually pale, stood over by the window of Inspector Dunbar's room, his hands locked behind him. In the chair nearest to the window sat Henry Leroux, so muffled up in a fur-collared motor-coat that little of his face was visible; but his eyes were tragic as he leant forward resting his elbows upon his knees and twirling his cap between his thin fingers. He was watching Inspector Dunbar intently; only glancing from the gaunt face of the detective occasionally to look at Denise Ryland, who sat close to the table. At such times his gaze was pathetically reproachful, but always rather sorrowful than angry.
As for Miss Ryland, her habitual self-confidence seemed somewhat to have deserted her, and it was almost with respectful interest that she followed Dunbar's examination of a cabman who, standing cap in hand, completed the party so strangely come together at that late hour.
"This is what you have said," declared Dunbar, taking up an official form, and, with a movement of his hand warning the taxi-man to pay attention: "'I, Frederick Dean, motor-cab driver, was standing on the rank in Little Abbey Street to-night at about a quarter to nine. My cab was the second on the rank. A young lady who wore, I remember, a woolen cap and jersey, with a blue serge skirt, ran out from the corner of the Square and directed me to follow the cab in front of me, which had just been chartered by a dark man wearing a black overcoat and silk hat. She ordered me to keep him in sight; and as I drove off I heard her calling from the window of my cab to another lady who seemed to be following her. I was unable to see this other lady, but my fare addressed her as 'Denise.' I followed the first cab to Whitechapel Station; and as I saw it stop there, I swung into Mount Street. The lady gave me half-a-sovereign, and told me that she proposed to follow the man on foot. She asked me if I could manage to keep her in sight, without letting my cab be seen by the man she was following. I said I would try, and I crept along at some distance behind her, going as slowly as possible until she went into a turning branching off to the right of Cambridge Road; I don't know the name of this street. She was some distance ahead of me, for I had had trouble in crossing Whitechapel Road.
"'A big limousine had passed me a moment before, but as an electric tram was just going by on my off-side, between me and the limousine, I don't know where the limousine went. When I was clear of the tram I could not see it, and it may have gone down Cambridge Road and then down the same turning as the lady. I pulled up at the end of this turning, and could not see a sign of any one. It was quite deserted right to the end, and although I drove down, bore around to the right and finally came out near the top of Globe Road, I did not pass anyone. I waited about the district for over a quarter-of-an-hour and then drove straight to the police station, and they sent me on here to Scotland Yard to report what had occurred.'
"Have you anything to add to that?" said Dunbar, fixing his tawny eyes upon the cabman.
"Nothing at all," replied the man—a very spruce and intelligent specimen of his class and one who, although he had moved with the times, yet retained a slightly horsey appearance, which indicated that he had not always been a mechanical Jehu.
"It is quite satisfactory as far as it goes," muttered Dunbar. "I'll get you to sign it now and we need not detain you any longer."
"There is not the slightest doubt," said Dr. Cumberly, stepping forward and speaking in an unusually harsh voice, "that Helen endeavored to track this man Gianapolis, and was abducted by him or his associates. The limousine was the car of which we have heard so much"...
"If my cabman had not been such a... fool," broke in Denise Ryland, clasping her hands, "we should have had a different... tale to tell."
"I have no wish to reproach anybody," said Dunbar, sternly; "but I feel called upon to remark, madam, that you ought to have known better than to interfere in a case like this; a case in which we are dealing with a desperate and clever gang."
For once in her life Denise Ryland found herself unable to retort suitably. The mildly reproachful gaze of Leroux she could not meet; and although Dr. Cumberly had spoken no word of complaint against her, from his pale face she persistently turned away her eyes.
The cabman having departed, the door almost immediately reopened, and Sergeant Sowerby came in.
"Ah! there you are, Sowerby!" cried Dunbar, standing up and leaning eagerly across the table. "You have the particulars respecting the limousine?"
Sergeant Sowerby, removing his hat and carefully placing it upon the only vacant chair in the room, extracted a bulging notebook from a pocket concealed beneath his raincoat, cleared his throat, and reported as follows:
"There is only one car known to members of that division which answers to the description of the one wanted. This is a high-power, French car which seems to have been registered first in Paris, where it was made, then in Cairo, and lastly in London. It is the property of the gentleman whose telephone number is 18642 East—Mr. I. Gianapolis; and the reason of its frequent presence in the neighborhood of the West India Dock Road, is this: it is kept in a garage in Wharf-End Lane, off Limehouse Causeway. I have interviewed two constables at present on that beat, and they tell me that there is nothing mysterious about the car except that the chauffeur is a foreigner who speaks no English. He is often to be seen cleaning the car in the garage, and both the men are in the habit of exchanging good evening with him when passing the end of the lane. They rarely go that far, however, as it leads nowhere."
"But if you have the telephone number of this man, Gianapolis," cried Dr. Cumberly, "you must also have his address"...
"We obtained both from the Eastern Exchange," interrupted Inspector Dunbar. "The instrument, number 18642 East, is installed in an office in Globe Road. The office, which is situated in a converted private dwelling, bears a brass plate simply inscribed, 'I. Gianapolis, London and Smyrna.'"
"What is the man's reputed business?" jerked Cumberly.
"We have not quite got to the bottom of that, yet," replied Sowerby; "but he is an agent of some kind, and evidently in a large way of business, as he runs a very fine car, and seems to live principally in different hotels. I am told that he is an importer of Turkish cigarettes and"...
"He is an importer and exporter of hashish!" snapped Dunbar irritably. "If I could clap my eyes upon him I should know him at once! I tell you, Sowerby, he is the man who was convicted last year of exporting hashish to Egypt in faked packing cases which contained pottery ware, ostensibly, but had false bottoms filled with cakes of hashish"...
"But," began Dr. Cumberly...
"But because he came before a silly bench," snapped Dunbar, his eyes flashing angrily, "he got off with a fine—a heavy one, certainly, but he could well afford to pay it. It is that kind of judicial folly which ties the hands of Scotland Yard!"
"What makes you so confident that this is the man?" asked the physician.
"He was convicted under the name of G. Ionagis," replied the detective; "which I believe to be either his real name or his real name transposed. Do you follow me? I. Gianapolis is Ionagis Gianapolis, and G. Ionagis is Gianapolis Ionagis. I was not associated with the hashish case; he stored the stuff in a china warehouse within the city precincts, and at that time he did not come within my sphere. But I looked into it privately, and I could see that the prosecution was merely skimming the surface; we are only beginning to get down to the depths NOW."
Dr. Cumberly raised his hand to his head in a distracted manner.
"Surely," he said, and he was evidently exercising a great restraint upon himself—"surely we're wasting time. The office in Globe Road should be raided without delay. No stone should be left unturned to effect the immediate arrest of this man Gianapolis or Ionagis. Why, God almighty! while we are talking here, my daughter"...
"Morbleu! who talks of arresting Gianapolis?" inquired the voice of a man who silently had entered the room.
All turned their heads; and there in the doorway stood M. Gaston Max.
"Thank God you've come!" said Dunbar with sincerity. He dropped back into his chair, a strong man exhausted. "This case is getting beyond me!"
Denise Ryland was staring at the Frenchman as if fascinated. He, for his part, having glanced around the room, seemed called upon to give her some explanation of his presence.
"Madame," he said, bowing in his courtly way, "only because of very great interests did I dare to conceal my true identity. My name is Gaston, that is true, but only so far as it goes. My real name is Gaston Max, and you who live in Paris will perhaps have heard it."
"Gaston Max!" cried Denise Ryland, springing upright as though galvanized; "you are M. Gaston Max! But you are not the least bit in the world like"...
"Myself?" said the Frenchman, smiling. "Madame, it is only a man fortunate enough to possess no enemies who can dare to be like himself."
He bowed to her in an oddly conclusive manner, and turned again to Inspector Dunbar.
"I am summoned in haste," he said; "tell me quickly of this new development."
Sowerby snatched his hat from the vacant chair, and politely placed the chair for M. Max to sit upon. The Frenchman, always courteous, gently forced Sergeant Sowerby himself to occupy the chair, silencing his muttered protests with upraised hand. The matter settled, he lowered his hand, and, resting it fraternally upon the sergeant's shoulder, listened to Inspector Dunbar's account of what had occurred that night. No one interrupted the Inspector until he was come to the end of his narrative.
"Mille tonnerres!" then exclaimed M. Max; and, holding a finger of his glove between his teeth, he tugged so sharply that a long rent appeared in the suede.
His eyes were on fire; the whole man quivered with electric force.
In silence that group watched the celebrated Frenchman; instinctively they looked to him for aid. It is at such times that personality proclaims itself. Here was the last court of appeal, to which came Dr. Cumberly and Inspector Dunbar alike; whose pronouncement they awaited, not questioning that it would be final.
"To-morrow night," began Max, speaking in a very low voice, "we raid the headquarters of Ho-Pin. This disappearance of your daughter, Dr. Cumberly, is frightful; it could not have been foreseen or it should have been prevented. But the least mistake now, and"—he looked at Dr. Cumberly as if apologizing for his barbed words—"she may never return!"
"My God!" groaned the physician, and momentarily dropped his face into his hands.
But almost immediately he recovered himself and with his mouth drawn into a grim straight line, looked again at M. Max, who continued:
"I do not think that this abduction was planned by the group; I think it was an accident and that they were forced, in self-protection, to detain your daughter, who unwisely—morbleu! how unwisely!—forced herself into their secrets. To arrest Gianapolis (even if that were possible) would be to close their doors to us permanently; and as we do not even know the situation of those doors, that would be to ruin everything. Whether Miss Cumberly is confined in the establishment of Ho-Pin or somewhere else, I cannot say; whether she is a captive of Gianapolis or of Mr. King, I do not know. But I know that the usual conduct of the establishment is not being interrupted at present; for only half-an-hour ago I telephoned to Mr. Gianapolis!"
"At Globe Road?" snapped Dunbar, with a flash of the tawny eyes.
"At Globe Road—yes (oh! they would not detain her there!). Mr. Gianapolis was present to speak to me. He met me very agreeably in the matter of occupying my old room in the delightful Chinese hotel of Mr. Ho-Pin. Therefore"—he swept his left hand around forensically, as if to include the whole of the company—"to-morrow night at eleven o'clock I shall be meeting Mr. Gianapolis at Piccadilly Circus, and later we shall join the limousine and be driven to the establishment of Ho-Pin." He turned to Inspector Dunbar. "Your arrangements for watching all the approaches to the suspected area are no doubt complete?"
"Not a stray cat," said Dunbar with emphasis, "can approach Limehouse Causeway or Pennyfields, or any of the environs of the place, to-morrow night after ten o'clock, without the fact being reported to me! You will know at the moment that you step from the limousine that a cyclist scout, carefully concealed, is close at your heels with a whole troup to follow; and if, as you suspect, the den adjoins the river bank, a police cutter will be lying at the nearest available point."
"Eh bien!" said M. Max; then, turning to Denise Ryland and Dr. Cumberly, and shrugging his shoulders: "you see, frightful as your suspense must be, to make any foolish arrests to-night, to move in this matter at all to-night—would be a case of more haste and less speed"...
"But," groaned Cumberly, "is Helen to lie in that foul, unspeakable den until the small hours of to-morrow morning? Good God! they may"...
"There is one little point," interrupted M. Max with upraised hand, "which makes it impossible that we should move to-night—quite apart from the advisability of such a movement. We do not know exactly where this place is situated. What can we do?"
He shrugged his shoulders, and, with raised eyebrows, stared at Dr. Cumberly.
"It is fairly evident," replied the other slowly, and with a repetition of the weary upraising of his hand to his head, "it is fairly evident that the garage used by the man Gianapolis must be very near to—most probably adjoining—the entrance to this place of which you speak."
"Quite true," agreed the Frenchman. "But these are clever, these people of Mr. King. They are Chinese, remember, and the Chinese—ah, I know it!—are the most mysterious and most cunning people in the world. The entrance to the cave of black and gold will not be as wide as a cathedral door. A thousand men might search this garage, which, as Detective Sowerby" (he clapped the latter on the shoulder) "informed me this afternoon, is situated in Wharf-End Lane—all day and all night, and become none the wiser. To-morrow evening"—he lowered his voice—"I myself, shall be not outside, but inside that secret place; I shall be the concierge for one night—Eh bien, that concierge will admit the policeman!"
A groan issued from Dr. Cumberly's lips; and M. Max, with ready sympathy, crossed the room and placed his hands upon the physician's shoulders, looking steadfastly into his eyes.
"I understand, Dr. Cumberly," he said, and his voice was caressing as a woman's. "Pardieu! I understand. To wait is agony; but you, who are a physician, know that to wait sometimes is necessary. Have courage, my friend, have courage!"
Luke Soames, buttoning up his black coat, stood in the darkness, listening.
His constitutional distaste for leaping blindfolded had been over-ridden by circumstance. He felt himself to be a puppet of Fate, and he drifted with the tide because he lacked the strength to swim against it. That will-o'-the-wisp sense of security which had cheered him when first he had realized how much he owed to the protective wings of Mr. King had been rudely extinguished upon the very day of its birth; he had learnt that Mr. King was a sinister protector; and almost hourly he lived again through the events of that night when, all unwittingly, he had become a witness of strange happenings in the catacombs.
Soames had counted himself a lost man that night; the only point which he had considered debatable was whether he should be strangled or poisoned. That his employers were determined upon his death, he was assured; yet he had lived through the night, had learnt from his watch that the morning was arrived... and had seen the flecks at the roots of his dyed hair, blanched by the terrors of that vigil—of that watching, from moment to moment, for the second coming of Ho-Pin.
Yes, the morning had dawned, and with it a faint courage. He had shaved and prepared himself for his singular duties, and Said had brought him his breakfast as usual. The day had passed uneventfully, and once, meeting Ho-Pin, he had found himself greeted with the same mirthless smile but with no menace. Perhaps they had believed his story, or had disbelieved it but realized that he was too closely bound to them to be dangerous.
Then his mind had reverted to the conversation overheard in the music-hall. Should he seek to curry favor with his employers by acquainting them with the fact that, contrary to Gianapolis' assertion, an important clue had fallen into the hands of the police? Did they know this already? So profound was his belief in the omniscience of the invisible Mr. King that he could not believe that Power ignorant of anything appertaining to himself.
Yet it was possible that those in the catacombs were unaware how Scotland Yard, night and day, quested for Mr. King. The papers made no mention of it; but then the papers made no mention of another fact—the absence of Mrs. Leroux. Now that he was no longer panic-ridden, he could mentally reconstruct that scene of horror, could hear again, imaginatively, the shrieks of the maltreated woman. Perhaps this same active imagination of his was playing him tricks, but, her voice... Always he preferred to dismiss these ideas.
He feared Ho-Pin in the same way that an average man fears a tarantula, and he was only too happy to avoid the ever smiling Chinaman; so that the days passed on, and, finding himself unmolested and the affairs of the catacombs proceeding apparently as usual, he kept his information to himself, uncertain if he shared it with his employers or otherwise, but hesitating to put the matter to the test—always fearful to approach Ho-Pin, the beetlesque.
But this could not continue indefinitely; at least he must speak to Ho-Pin in order to obtain leave of absence. For, since that unforgettable night, he had lived the life of a cave-man indeed, and now began to pine for the wider vault of heaven. Meeting the impassive Chinaman in the corridor one morning, on his way to valet one of the living dead, Soames ventured to stop him.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, confusedly, "but would there be any objection to my going out on Friday evening for an hour?"
"Not at all, Soames," replied Ho-Pin, with his mirthless smile: "you may go at six, wreturn at ten."
Ho-Pin passed on.
Soames heaved a gentle sigh of relief. The painful incident was forgotten, then. He hurried into the room, the door of which Said was holding open, quite eager for his unsavory work.
In crossing its threshold, he crossed out of his new peace into a mental turmoil greater in its complexities than any he yet had known; he met M. Gaston Max, and his vague doubts respecting the omniscience of Mr. King were suddenly reinforced.
Soames' perturbation was so great on that occasion that he feared it must unfailingly be noticed. He realized that now he was definitely in communication with the enemies of Mr. King! Ah; but Mr. King did not know how formidable was the armament of those enemies! He (Soames) had overrated Mr. King; and because that invisible being could inspire Fear in an inconceivable degree, he had thought him all-powerful. Now, he realized that Mr. King was unaware of the existence of at least one clue held by the police; was unaware that his name was associated with the Palace Mansions murder.
The catacombs of Ho-Pin were a sinking ship, and Soames was first of the rats to leave.
He kept his appointment at the "Three Nuns" as has appeared; he accepted the blood-money that was offered him, and he returned to the garage adjoining Kan-Suh Concessions, that night, hugging in his bosom a leather case containing implements by means whereof his new accomplice designed to admit the police to the cave of the golden dragon.
Also, in the pocket of his overcoat, he had a neat Browning pistol; and when the door at the back of the garage was opened for him by Said, he found that the touch of this little weapon sent a thrill of assurance through him, and he began to conceive a sentiment for the unknown investigator to whom he was bound, akin to that which formerly he had cherished for Mr. King!
Now the time was come.
The people of the catacombs acquired a super-sensitive power of hearing, and Soames was able at this time to detect, as he sat or lay in his own room, the movements of persons in the corridor outside and even in the cave of the golden dragon. That mysterious trap in the wall gave him many qualms, and to-night he had glanced at it a thousand times. He held the pistol in his hand, and buttoned up within his coat was the leather case. Only remained the opening of his door in order to learn if the lights were extinguished in the corridor.
He did not anticipate any serious difficulty, provided he could overcome his constitutional nervousness. In his waistcoat pocket was a brand new Yale key which, his latest employer had assured him, fitted the lock of the end door of Block A. The door between the cave of the dragon and Block A was never locked, so far as Soames was aware, nor was that opening from the corridor in which his own room was situated. Therefore, only a few moments—fearful moments, certainly—need intervene, ere he should have a companion; and within a few minutes of that time, the police—his friends!—would be there to protect him! He recognized that the law, after all, was omnipotent, and of all masters was the master to be served.
There was no light in the corridor. Leaving his door ajar, he tiptoed cautiously along toward the cave. Assuring himself once again that the pistol lay in his pocket, he fumbled for the lever which opened the door, found it, depressed it, and stepped quietly forward in his slippered feet.
The unmistakable odor of the place assailed his nostrils. All was in darkness, and absolute silence prevailed. He had a rough idea of the positions of the various little tables, and he stepped cautiously in order to skirt them; but evidently he had made a miscalculation. Something caught his foot, and with a muffled thud he sprawled upon the floor, barely missing one of the tables which he had been at such pains to avoid.
Trembling like a man with an ague, he lay there, breathing in short, staccato breaths, and clutching the pistol in his pocket. Certainly he had made no great noise, but...
Soames summoned up courage to rise and to approach again the door of Block A. Without further mishap he reached it, opened it, and entered the blackness of the corridor. He could make no mistake in regard to the door, for it was the end one. He stole quietly along, his fingers touching the matting, until he came in contact with the corner angle; then, feeling along from the wall until he touched the strip of bamboo which marked the end of the door, he probed about gently with the key; for he knew to within an inch or so where the keyhole was situated.
Ah! he had it! His hand trembling slightly, he sought to insert the key in the lock. It defied his efforts. He felt it gently with the fingers of his left hand, thinking that he might have been endeavoring to insert the key with the irregular edge downward, and not uppermost; but no—such was not the case.
Again he tried, and with no better result. His nerves were threatening to overcome him, now; he had not counted upon any such hitch as this: but fear sharpened his wits. He recollected the fall which he had sustained, and how he had been precipitated upon the polished floor, outside.
Could he have mistaken his direction? Was it not possible that owing to his momentary panic, he had arisen, facing not the door at the foot of the steps, as he had supposed, but that by which a moment earlier he had entered the cave of the golden dragon?
Desperation was with him now; he was gone too far to draw back. Trailing his fingers along the matting covering of the wall, he retraced his steps, came to the open door, and reentered the apartment of the dragon. He complimented himself, fearfully, upon his own address, for he was inspired with an idea whereby he might determine his position. Picking his way among the little tables and the silken ottomans, he groped about with his hands in the impenetrable darkness for the pedestal supporting the dragon. At last his fingers touched the ivory. He slid them downward, feeling for the great vase of poppies which always stood before the golden image....
The vase was on the LEFT and not on the RIGHT of the pedestal. His theory was correct; he had been groping in the mysterious precincts of that Block B which he had never entered, which he had never seen any one else enter, and from whence he had never known any one to emerge! It was the fall that had confused him; now, he took his bearings anew, bent down to feel for any tables that might lie in his path, and crept across the apartment toward the door which he sought.
Ah! this time there could be no mistake! He depressed the lever handle, and, as the door swung open before him, crept furtively into the corridor.
Repeating the process whereby he had determined the position of the end door, he fumbled once again for the keyhole. He found it with even less difficulty than he had experienced in the wrong corridor, inserted the key in the lock, and with intense satisfaction felt it slip into place.
He inhaled a long breath of the lifeless air, turned the key, and threw the door open. One step forward he took...
A whistle (God! he knew it!) a low, minor whistle, wavered through the stillness. He was enveloped, mantled, choked, by the perfume of ROSES!
The door, which, although it had opened easily, had seemed to be a remarkably heavy one, swung to behind him; he heard the click of the lock. Like a trapped animal, he turned, leaped back, and found his quivering hands in contact with books—books—books...
A lamp lighted up in the center of the room.
Soames turned and stood pressed closely against the book-shelves, against the book-shelves which magically had grown up in front of the door by which he had entered. He was in the place of books and roses—in the haunt of MR. KING!
A great clarity of mind came to him, as it comes to a drowning man; he knew that those endless passages, through which once he had been led in darkness, did not exist, that he had been deceived, had been guided along the same corridor again and again; he knew that this room of roses did not lie at the heart of a labyrinth, but almost adjoined the cave of the golden dragon.
He knew that he was a poor, blind fool; that his plotting had been known to those whom he had thought to betray; that the new key which had opened a way into this place of dread was not the key which his accomplice had given him. He knew that that upon which he had tripped at the outset of his journey had been set in his path by cunning design, in order that the fall might confuse his sense of direction. He knew that the great vase of poppies had been moved, that night....
God! his brain became a seething furnace.
There, before him, upstood the sandalwood screen, with one corner of the table projecting beyond it. Nothing of life was visible in the perfumed place, where deathly silence prevailed....
No lion has greater courage than a cornered rat. Soames plucked the pistol from his pocket and fired at the screen—ONCE!—TWICE!
He heard the muffled report, saw the flash of the little weapon, saw the two holes in the carven woodwork, and gained a greater, hysterical courage—the courage of a coward's desperation.
Immediately before him was a little ebony table, bearing a silver bowl, laden to the brim with sulphur-colored roses. He overturned the table with his foot, laughing wildly. In three strides he leapt across the room, grasped the sandalwood screen, and hurled it to the floor....
In the instant of its fall, he became as Lot's wife. The pistol dropped from his nerveless grasp, thudding gently on the carpet, and, with his fingers crooked paralytically, he stood swaying... and looking into the face of MR. KING!
Soames' body already was as rigid as it would be in death; his mind was numbed—useless. But his outraged soul forced utterance from the lips of the man.
A scream, a scream to have made the angels shudder, to have inspired pity in the devils of Hell, burst from him. Two yellow hands leaped at his throat....
THE SECRET TRAPS
Gaston Max, from his silken bed in the catacombs of Ho-Pin, watched the hand of his watch which lay upon the little table beside him. Already it was past two o'clock, and no sign had come from Soames; a hundred times his imagination had almost tricked him into believing that the door was opening; but always the idea had been illusory and due to the purple shadow of the lamp-shade which overcast that side of the room and the door.
He had experienced no difficulty in arranging with Gianapolis to occupy the same room as formerly; and, close student of human nature though he was, he had been unable to detect in the Greek's manner, when they had met that night, the slightest restraint, the slightest evidence of uneasiness. His reception by Ho-Pin had varied scarce one iota from that accorded him on his first visit to the cave of the golden dragon. The immobile Egyptian had brought him the opium, and had departed silently as before. On this occasion, the trap above the bed had not been opened. But hour after hour had passed, uneventfully, silently, in that still, suffocating room....
A key in the lock!—yes, a key was being inserted in the lock! He must take no unnecessary risks; it might be another than Soames. He waited—the faint sound of fumbling ceased. Still, he waited, listening intently.
Half-past-two. If it had been Soames, why had he withdrawn? M. Max arose noiselessly and looked about him. He was undecided what to do, when...
Two shots, followed by a most appalling shriek—the more frightful because it was muffled; the shriek of a man in extremis, of one who stands upon the brink of Eternity, brought him up rigid, tense, with fists clenched, with eyes glaring; wrought within this fearless investigator an emotion akin to terror.
Just that one gruesome cry there was and silence again.
What did it mean?
M. Max began hastily to dress. He discovered, in endeavoring to fasten his collar, that his skin was wet with cold perspiration.
"Pardieu!" he said, twisting his mouth into that wry smile, "I know, now, the meaning of fright!"
He was ever glancing toward the door, not hopefully as hitherto, but apprehensively, fearfully.
That shriek in the night might portend merely the delirium of some other occupant of the catacombs; but the shots...
"It was SOAMES!" he whispered aloud; "I have risked too much; I am fast in the rat-trap!"
He looked about him for a possible weapon. The time for inactivity was past. It would be horrible to die in that reeking place, whilst outside, it might be, immediately above his head, Dunbar and the others waited and watched.
The construction of the metal bunk attracted his attention. As in the case of steamer bunks one of the rails—that nearer to the door—was detachable in order to facilitate the making of the bed. Rapidly, nervously, he unscrewed it; but the hinges were riveted to the main structure, and after a brief examination he shrugged his shoulders despairingly. Then, he recollected that in the adjoining bathroom there was a metal towel rail, nickeled, and with a heavy knock at either end, attached by two brackets to the wall.
He ran into the inner room and eagerly examined these fastenings. They were attached by small steel screws. In an instant he was at work with the blade of his pocket-knife. Six screws in all there were to be dealt with, three at either end. The fifth snapped the blade and he uttered an exclamation of dismay. But the shortened implement proved to be an even better screw-driver than the original blade, and half a minute later he found himself in possession of a club such as would have delighted the soul of Hercules.
He managed to unscrew one of the knobs, and thus to slide off from the bar the bracket attachments; then, replacing the knob, he weighed the bar in his hand, appreciatively. His mind now was wholly composed, and his course determined. He crossed the little room and rapped loudly upon the door.
The rapping sounded muffled and dim in that sound-proof place. Nothing happened, and thrice he repeated the rapping with like negative results. But he had learnt something: the door was a very heavy one.
He made a note of the circumstance, although it did not interfere with the plan which he had in mind. Wheeling the armchair up beside the bed, he mounted upon its two arms and, ONCE—TWICE—THRICE—crashed the knob of the iron bar against that part of the wall which concealed the trap.
Here the result was immediate. At every blow of the bar the trap behind yielded. A fourth blow sent the knob crashing through the gauze material, and far out into some dark place beyond. There was a sound as of a number of books falling.
He had burst the trap.
Up on the back of the chair he mounted, resting his bar against the wall, and began in feverish haste to tear away the gauze concealing the rectangular opening.
An almost overpowering perfume of roses was wafted into his face. In front of him was blackness.
Having torn away all the gauze, he learned that the opening was some two feet long by one foot high. Resting the bar across the ledge he extended his head and shoulders forward through this opening into the rose-scented place beyond, and without any great effort drew himself up with his hands, so that, provided he could find some support upon the other side, it would be a simple matter to draw himself through entirely.
He felt about with his fingers, right and left, and in doing so disturbed another row of books, which fell upon the floor beneath him. He had apparently come out in the middle of a large book-shelf. To the left of him projected the paper-covered door of the trap, at right angles; above and below were book-laden shelves, and on the right there had been other books, until his questing fingers had disturbed them.
M. Max, despite his weight, was an agile man. Clutching the shelf beneath, he worked his way along to the right, gradually creeping further and further into the darkened room, until at last he could draw his feet through the opening and crouch sideways upon the shelf.
He lowered his left foot, sought for and found another shelf beneath, and descended as by a ladder to the thickly carpeted floor. Grasping the end of the bar, he pulled that weapon down; then he twisted the button which converted his timepiece into an electric lantern, and, holding the bar in one tensely quivering hand, looked rapidly about him.
This was a library; a small library, with bowls of roses set upon tables, shelves, in gaps between the books, and one lying overturned upon the floor. Although it was almost drowned by their overpowering perfume, he detected a faint smell of powder. In one corner stood a large writing-table with papers strewn carelessly upon it. Its appointments were markedly Chinese in character, from the singular, gold inkwell to the jade paperweight; markedly Chinese—and—FEMININE. A very handsome screen lay upon the floor in front of this table, and the rich carpet he noted to be disordered as if a struggle had taken place upon it. But, most singular circumstance of all, and most disturbing... there was no door to this room!
For a moment he failed to appreciate the entire significance of this. A secret room difficult to enter he could comprehend, but a secret room difficult to QUIT passed his comprehension completely. Moreover, he was no better off for his exploit.
Three minutes sufficed him in which to examine the shelves covering the four walls of the room from floor to ceiling. None of the books were dummies, and slowly the fact began to dawn upon his mind that what at first he had assumed to be a rather simple device, was, in truth, almost incomprehensible.
For how, in the name of Sanity, did the occupant of this room—and obviously it was occupied at times—enter and leave it?
"Ah!" he muttered, shining the light upon a row of yellow-bound volumes from which he had commenced his tour of inspection and to which that tour had now led him back, "it is uncanny—this!"
He glanced back at the rectangular patch of light which marked the trap whereby he had entered this supernormal room. It was situated close to one corner of the library, and, acting upon an idea which came to him (any idea was better than none) he proceeded to throw down the books occupying the corresponding position at the other end of the shelf.
A second trap was revealed, identical with that through which he had entered!
It was fastened with a neat brass bolt; and, standing upon one of the little Persian tables—from which he removed a silver bowl of roses—he opened this trap and looked into the lighted room beyond. He saw an apartment almost identical with that which he himself recently had quitted; but in one particular it differed. It was occupied... AND BY A WOMAN!
Arrayed in a gossamer nightrobe she lay in the bed, beneath the trap, her sunken face matching the silken whiteness. Her thin arms drooped listlessly over the rails of the bunk, and upon her left hand M. Max perceived a wedding ring. Her hair, flaxen in the electric light, was spread about in wildest disorder upon the pillow, and a breath of fetid air assailed his nostrils as he pressed his face close to the gauze masking the opening in order to peer closely at this victim of the catacombs.
He watched the silken covering of her bosom, intently, but failed to detect the slightest movement.
"Morbleu!" he muttered, "is she dead?"
He rent the gauze with a sweep of his left hand, and standing upon the bottom shelf of the case, craned forward into the room, looking all about him. A purple shaded lamp burnt above the bed as in the adjoining apartment which he himself had occupied. There were dainty feminine trifles littered in the big armchair, and a motor-coat hung upon the hook of the bathroom door. A small cabin-trunk in one corner of the room bore the initials: "M. L."
Max dropped back into the incredible library with a stifled gasp.
"Pardieu!" he said. "It is Mrs. Leroux that I have found!"
A moment he stood looking from trap to trap; then turned and surveyed again the impassable walls, the rows of works, few of which were European, some of them bound in vellum, some in pigskin, and one row of huge volumes, ten in number, on the bottom shelf, in crocodile hide.
"It is weird, this!" he muttered, "nightmare!"—turning the light from row to row. "How is this lamp lighted that swings here?"
He began to search for the switch, and, even before he found it, had made up his mind that, once discovered, it would not only enable him more fully to illuminate the library, but would constitute a valuable clue.
At last he found it, situated at the back of one of the shelves, and set above a row of four small books, so that it could readily be reached by inserting the hand.
He flooded the place with light; and perceived at a glance that a length of white flex crossing the ceiling enabled anyone seated at the table to ignite the lamp from there also. Then, replacing his torch in his pocket, and assuring himself that the iron bar lay within easy reach, he began deliberately to remove all of the books from the shelves covering that side of the room upon which the switch was situated. His theory was a sound one; he argued that the natural and proper place for such a switch in such a room would be immediately inside the door, so that one entering could ignite the lamp without having to grope in the darkness. He was encouraged, furthermore, by the fact that at a point some four feet to the left of this switch there was a gap in the bookcases, running from floor to ceiling; a gap no more than four inches across.
Having removed every book from its position, save three, which occupied a shelf on a level with his shoulder and adjoining the gap, he desisted wearily, for many of the volumes were weighty, and the heat of the room was almost insufferable. He dropped with a sigh upon a silk ottoman close beside him....
A short, staccato, muffled report split the heavy silence... and a little round hole appeared in the woodwork of the book-shelf before which, an instant earlier, M. Max had been standing—in the woodwork of that shelf, which had been upon a level with his head.
In one giant leap he hurled himself across the room—... as a second bullet pierced the yellow silk of the ottoman.
Close under the trap he crouched, staring up, fearful-eyed....
A yellow hand and arm—a hand and arm of great nervous strength and of the hue of old ivory, directed a pistol through the opening above him. As he leaped, the hand was depressed with a lightning movement, but, lunging suddenly upward, Max seized the barrel of the pistol, and with a powerful wrench, twisted it from the grasp of the yellow hand. It was his own Browning!
At the time—in that moment of intense nervous excitement—he ascribed his sensations to his swift bout with Death—with Death who almost had conquered; but later, even now, as he wrenched the weapon into his grasp, he wondered if physical fear could wholly account for the sickening revulsion which held him back from that rectangular opening in the bookcase. He thought that he recognized in this a kindred horror—as distinct from terror—to that which had come to him with the odor of roses through this very trap, upon the night of his first visit to the catacombs of Ho-Pin.
It was not as the fear which one has of a dangerous wild beast, but as the loathing which is inspired by a thing diseased, leprous, contagious....
A mighty effort of will was called for, but he managed to achieve it. He drew himself upright, breathing very rapidly, and looked through into the room—the room which he had occupied, and from which a moment ago the murderous yellow hand had protruded.
That room was empty... empty as he had left it!
"Mille tonnerres! he has escaped me!" he cried aloud, and the words did not seem of his own choosing.
WHO had escaped? Someone—man or woman; rather some THING, which, yellow handed, had sought to murder him!
Max ran across to the second trap and looked down at the woman whom he knew, beyond doubt, to be Mrs. Leroux. She lay in her death-like trance, unmoved.
Strung up to uttermost tension, he looked down at her and listened—listened, intently.
Above the fumes of the apartment in which the woman lay, a stifling odor of roses was clearly perceptible. The whole place was tropically hot. Not a sound, save the creaking of the shelf beneath him, broke the heavy stillness.
Feverishly, Max clutched at the last three books upon the shelf adjoining the gap. Of these, the center volume, a work bound in yellow calf and bearing no title, proved to be irremovable; right and left it could be inclined, but not moved outward. It masked the lever handle of the door!
But that door was locked.
Max, with upraised arms, swept the perspiration from his brows and eyes; he leant dizzily up against the door which defied him; his mind was working with febrile rapidity. He placed the pistol in his pocket, and, recrossing the room, mounted up again upon the shelves, and crept through into the apartment beyond, from which the yellow hand had protruded. He dropped, panting, upon the bed, then, eagerly leaping to the door, grasped the handle.
"Pardieu!" he muttered, "it is unlocked!"
Though the light was still burning in this room, the corridor outside was in darkness. He pressed the button of the ingenious lamp which was also a watch, and made for the door communicating with the cave of the dragon. It was readily to be detected by reason of its visible handle; the other doors being externally indistinguishable from the rest of the matting-covered wall.
The cave of the dragon proved to be empty, and in darkness. He ran across its polished floor and opened at random the door immediately facing him. A corridor similar to the one which he had just quitted was revealed. Another door was visible at one end, and to this he ran, pulled it open, stepped through the opening, and found himself back in the cave of the dragon!
"Morbleu!" he muttered, "it is bewildering—this!"
Yet another door, this time one of ebony, he opened; and yet another matting-lined corridor presented itself to his gaze. He swept it with the ray of the little lamp, detected a door, opened it, and entered a similar suite to those with which he already was familiar. It was empty, but, unlike the one which he himself had tenanted, this suite possessed two doors, the second opening out of the bathroom. To this he ran; it was unlocked; he opened it, stepped ahead... and was back again in the cave of the dragon.
"Mon dieu!" he cried, "this is Chinese—quite Chinese!"
He stood looking about him, flashing the ray of light upon doors which were opened and upon openings in the walls where properly there should have been no doors.
"I am too late!" he muttered; "they had information of this and they have 'unloaded.' That they intend to fly the country is proven by their leaving Mrs. Leroux behind. Ah, nom d'un nom, the good God grant that they have left also."...
Coincident with his thoughts of her, the voice of Helen Cumberly reached his ears! He stood there quivering in every nerve, as: "Help! Help!" followed by a choking, inarticulate cry, came, muffled, from somewhere—he could not determine where.
But the voice was the voice of Helen Cumberly. He raised his left fist and beat his brow as if to urge his brain to super-activity. Then, leaping, he was off.
Door after door he threw open, crying, "Miss Cumberly! Miss Cumberly! Where are you? Have courage! Help is here!"
But the silence remained unbroken—and always his wild search brought him back to the accursed cave of the golden dragon. He began to grow dizzy; he felt that his brain was bursting. For somewhere—somewhere but a few yards removed from him—a woman was in extreme peril!
Clutching dizzily at the pedestal of the dragon, he cried at the top of his voice:—
"Miss Cumberly! For the good God's sake answer me! Where are you?"
"Here, M. Max!" he was answered; "the door on your right... and then to your right again—quick! QUICK! Saints! she has killed me!"
It was Gianapolis who spoke!
Max hurled himself through the doorway indicated, falling up against the matting wall by reason of the impetus of his leap. He turned, leaped on, and one of the panels was slightly ajar; it was a masked door. Within was darkness out of which came the sounds of a great turmoil, as of wild beasts in conflict.
Max kicked the door fully open and flashed the ray of the torch into the room. It poured its cold light upon a group which, like some masterpiece of classic statuary, was to remain etched indelibly upon his mind.
Helen Cumberly lay, her head and shoulders pressed back upon the silken pillows of the bed, with both hands clutching the wrist of the Eurasian and striving to wrench the latter's fingers from her throat, in the white skin of which they were bloodily embedded. With his left arm about the face and head of the devilish half-caste, and grasping with his right hand her slender right wrist—putting forth all his strength to hold it back—was Gianapolis!
His face was of a grayish pallor and clammy with sweat; his crooked eyes had the glare of madness. The lithe body of the Eurasian writhing in his grasp seemed to possess the strength of two strong men; for palpably the Greek was weakening. His left sleeve was torn to shreds—to bloody shreds beneath the teeth of the wild thing with which he fought; and lower, lower, always nearer to the throat of the victim, the slender, yellow arm forced itself, forced the tiny hand clutching a poniard no larger than a hatpin but sharp as an adder's tooth.
"Hold her!" whispered Gianapolis in a voice barely audible, as Max burst into the room. "She came back for this and... I followed her. She has the strength of... a tigress!"
Max hurled himself into the melee, grasping the wrist of the Eurasian below where it was clutched by Gianapolis. Nodding to the Greek to release his hold, he twisted it smartly upward.
The dagger fell upon the floor, and with an animal shriek of rage, the Eurasian tottered back. Max caught her about the waist and tossed her unceremoniously into a corner of the room.
Helen Cumberly slipped from the bed, and lay very white and still upon the garish carpet, with four tiny red streams trickling from the nail punctures in her throat. Max stooped and raised her shoulders; he glanced at the Greek, who, quivering in all his limbs, and on the verge of collapse, only kept himself upright by dint of clutching at the side of the doorway. Max realized that Gianapolis was past aiding him; his own resources were nearly exhausted, but, stooping, he managed to lift the girl and to carry her out into the corridor.
"Follow me!" he gasped, glancing back at Gianapolis; "Morbleu, make an effort! The keys—the keys!"
Laying Helen Cumberly upon one of the raised divans, with her head resting upon a silken cushion, Max, teeth tightly clenched and dreadfully conscious that his strength was failing him, waited for Gianapolis. Out from the corridor the Greek came staggering, and Max now perceived that he was bleeding profusely from a wound in the breast.
"She came back," whispered Gianapolis, clutching at the Frenchman for support... "the hellcat!... I did not know... that... Miss Cumberly was here. As God is my witness I did not know! But I followed... HER—Mahara... thank God I did! She has finished me, I think, but"—he lowered the crooked eyes to the form of Helen Cumberly—"never mind... Saints!"
He reeled and sank upon his knees. He clutched at the edge of his coat and raised it to his lips, wherefrom blood was gushing forth. Max stooped eagerly, for as the Greek had collapsed upon the floor, he had heard the rattle of keys.
"She had... the keys," whispered Gianapolis. "They have... tabs... upon them... Mrs. Leroux... number 3 B. The door to the stair"—very, very slowly, he inclined his head toward the ebony door near which Max was standing—"is marked X. The door... at the top—into garage... B."
"Tell me," said Max, his arm about the dying man's shoulders—"try to tell me: who killed Mrs. Vernon and why?"
"MR. KING!" came in a rattling voice. "Because of the... carelessness of someone... Mrs. Vernon wandered into the room ... of Mrs. Leroux. She seems to have had a fit of remorse... or something like it. She begged Mrs. Leroux to pull up... before... too late. Ho-Pin arrived just as she was crying to ... Mrs. Leroux... and asking if she could ever forgive her ... for bringing her here.... It was Mrs. Vernon who... introduced Mrs.... Leroux. Ho-Pin heard her... say that she ... would tell... Leroux the truth... as the only means"...
"Yes, yes, morbleu! I understand! And then?"
"Ho-Pin knows... women... like a book. He thought Mrs. Vernon would... shirk the scandal. We used to send our women ... to Nurse Proctor's, then... to steady up a bit... We let Mrs. Vernon go... as usual. The scene with... Mrs. Leroux had shaken... her and she fainted... in the car... Victoria Street.... I was with her. Nurse Proctor had... God! I am dying!... a time with her;... she got so hysterical that they had to... detain her... and three days later... her husband died; Proctor, the... fool... somehow left a paper containing the news in Mrs. Vernon's room.... They had had to administer an injection that afternoon... and they thought she was... sleeping."...
"Morbleu! Yes, yes!—a supreme effort, my friend!"
"Directly Ho-Pin heard of Vernon's death, he knew that his hold ... on Mrs. Vernon... was lost.... He... and Mahara... and... MR. KING... drove straight to... Gillingham... Street... to... arrange.... Ah!... she rushed like a mad woman into the street, a moment before... they arrived. A cab was passing, and"...
"I know this! I know this! What happened at Palace Mansions?"
The Greek's voice grew fainter.
"Mr. King followed... her... upstairs. Too late;... but whilst Leroux was in... Cumberly's flat... leaving door open ... Mr. King went... in... Mahara... was watching... gave signal... whistle... of someone's approach. It was thought... Mr. King... had secured ALL the message... Mrs. Vernon... was... writing.... Mr. King opened the door of ... the lift-shaft... lift not working... climbed down that way... and out by door on... ground floor... when Mr.... the Member of Parliament... went upstairs."...
"Ah! pardieu! one last word! WHO IS MR. KING?"
Gianapolis lurched forward, his eyes glazing, half raised his arm—pointing back into the cave of the dragon—and dropped, face downward, on the floor, with a crimson pool forming slowly about his head.
An unfamiliar sound had begun to disturb the silence of the catacombs. Max glanced at the white face of Helen Cumberly, then directed the ray of the little lamp toward the further end of the apartment. A steady stream of dirty water was pouring into the cave of the dragon through the open door ahead of him.
Into the disc of light, leaped, fantastic, the witch figure of the Eurasian. She turned and faced him, threw up both her arms, and laughed shrilly, insanely. Then she turned and ran like a hare, her yellow silk dress gleaming in the moving ray. Inhaling sibilantly, Max leaped after her. In three strides he found his foot splashing in water. An instant he hesitated. Through the corridor ahead of him sped the yellow figure, and right to the end. The seemingly solid wall opened before her; it was another masked door.
Max crossed the threshold hard upon her heels. Three descending steps were ahead of him, and then a long brick tunnel in which swirled fully three feet of water, which, slowly rising, was gradually flooding the cave of the dragon.
On went the Eurasian, up to her waist in the flood, with Max gaining upon her, now, at every stride. There was a damp freshness in the air of the passage, and a sort of mist seemed to float above the water. This mist had a familiar smell....
They were approaching the river, and there was a fog to-night!
Even as he realized the fact, the quarry vanished, and the ray of light from Max's lamp impinged upon the opening in an iron sluice gate. The Eurasian had passed it, but Max realized that he must lower his head if he would follow. He ducked rapidly, almost touching the muddy water with his face. A bank of yellow fog instantly enveloped him, and he pulled up short, for, instinctively, he knew that another step might precipitate him into the Thames.
He strove to peer about him, but the feeble ray of the lamp was incapable of penetrating the fog. He groped with his fingers, right and left, and presently found slimy wooden steps. He drew himself closely to these, and directed the light upon them. They led upward. He mounted cautiously, and was clear of the oily water, now, and upon a sort of gangway above which lowered a green and rotting wooden roof.
Obviously, the tide was rising; and, after seeking vainly to peer through the fog ahead, he turned and descended the steps again, finding himself now nearly up to his armpits in water. He just managed to get in under the sluice gate without actually submerging his head, and to regain the brick tunnel.
He paused for a moment, hoping to be able to lower the gate, but the apparatus was out of his reach, and he had nothing to stand upon to aid him in manipulating it.
Three or four inches of water now flooded the cave of the golden dragon. Max pulled the keys from his pocket, and unlocked the door at the foot of the steps. He turned, resting the electric lamp upon one of the little ebony tables, and lifting Helen Cumberly, carried her half-way up the steps, depositing her there with her back to the wall. He staggered down again; his remarkable physical resources were at an end; it must be another's work to rescue Mrs. Leroux. He stooped over Gianapolis, and turned his head. The crooked eyes glared up at him deathly.
"May the good God forgive you," he whispered. "You tried to make your peace with Him."
The sound of muffled blows began to be audible from the head of the steps. Max staggered out of the cave of the golden dragon. A slight freshness and dampness was visible in its atmosphere, and the gentle gurgling of water broke its heavy stillness. There was a new quality come into it, and, strangely, an old quality gone out from it. As he lifted the lamp from the table—now standing in slowly moving water—the place seemed no longer to be the cave of the golden dragon he had known....
He mounted the steps again, with difficulty, resting his shaking hands upon the walls. Shattering blows were being delivered upon the door, above.
"Dunbar!" he cried feebly, stepping aside to avoid Helen Cumberly, where she lay. "Dunbar!"...
DAWN AT THE NORE
The river police seemed to be floating, suspended in the fog, which now was so dense that the water beneath was invisible. Inspector Rogers, who was in charge, fastened up his coat collar about his neck and turned to Stringer, the Scotland Yard man, who sat beside him in the stern of the cutter gloomily silent.
"Time's wearing on," said Rogers, and his voice was muffled by the fog as though he were speaking from inside a box. "There must be some hitch."
"Work it out for yourself," said the C. I. D. man gruffly. "We know that the office in Globe Road belongs to Gianapolis, and according to the Eastern Exchange he was constantly ringing up East 39951; that's the warehouse of Kan-Suh Concessions. He garages his car next door to the said warehouse, and to-night our scouts follow Gianapolis and Max from Piccadilly Circus to Waterloo Station, where they discharge the taxi and pick up Gianapolis' limousine. Still followed, they drive—where? Straight to the garage at the back of that wharf yonder! Neither Gianapolis, Max, nor the chauffeur come out of the garage. I said, and I still say, that we should have broken in at once, but Dunbar was always pigheaded, and he thinks Max is a tin god."...
"Well, there's no sign from Max," said Rogers; "and as we aren't ten yards above the wharf, we cannot fail to hear the signal. For my part I never noticed anything suspicious, and never had anything reported, about this ginger firm, and where the swell dope-shop I've heard about can be situated, beats me. It can't very well be UNDER the place, or it would be below the level of the blessed river!"
"This waiting makes me sick!" growled Stringer. "If I understand aright—and I'm not sure that I do—there are two women tucked away there somewhere in that place"—he jerked his thumb aimlessly into the fog; "and here we are hanging about with enough men in yards, in doorways, behind walls, and freezing on the river, to raid the Houses of Parliament!"
"It's a pity we didn't get the word from the hospitals before Max was actually inside," said Rogers. "For three wealthy ladies to be driven to three public hospitals in a sort of semi-conscious condition, with symptoms of opium, on the same evening isn't natural. It points to the fact that the boss of the den has UNLOADED! He's been thoughtful where his lady clients were concerned, but probably the men have simply been kicked out and left to shift for themselves. If we only knew one of them it might be confirmed."
"It's not worth worrying about, now," growled Stringer. "Let's have a look at the time."
He fumbled inside his overcoat and tugged out his watch.
"Here's a light," said Rogers, and shone the ray of an electric torch upon the watch-face.
"A quarter-to-three," grumbled Stringer. "There may be murder going on, and here we are."...
A sudden clamor arose upon the shore, near by; a sound as of sledge-hammers at work. But above this pierced shrilly the call of a police whistle.
"What's that?" snapped Rogers, leaping up. "Stand by there!"
The sound of the whistle grew near and nearer; then came a voice—that of Sergeant Sowerby—hailing them through the fog.
"DUNBAR'S IN! But the gang have escaped! They've got to a motor launch twenty yards down, on the end of the creek"...
But already the police boat was away.
"Let her go!" shouted Rogers—"close inshore! Keep a sharp lookout for a cutter, boys!"
Stringer, aroused now to excitement, went blundering forward through the fog, joining the men in the bows. Four pairs of eyes were peering through the mist, the damnable, yellow mist that veiled all things.
"Curse the fog!" said Stringer; "it's just our damn luck!"
"Cutter 'hoy!" bawled a man at his side suddenly, one of the river police more used to the mists of the Thames. "Cutter on the port bow, sir!"
"Keep her in sight," shouted Rogers from the stern; "don't lose her for your lives!"
Stringer, at imminent peril of precipitating himself into the water, was craning out over the bows and staring until his eyes smarted.
"Don't you see her?" said one of the men on the lookout. "She carries no lights, of course, but you can just make out the streak of her wake."
Harder, harder stared Stringer, and now a faint, lighter smudge in the blackness, ahead and below, proclaimed itself the wake of some rapidly traveling craft.
"I can hear her motor!" said another voice.
Stringer began, now, also to listen.
Muffled sirens were hooting dismally all about Limehouse Reach, and he knew that this random dash through the night was fraught with extreme danger, since this was a narrow and congested part of the great highway. But, listen as he might, he could not detect the sounds referred to.
The brazen roar of a big steamer's siren rose up before them. Rogers turned the head of the cutter sharply to starboard but did not slacken speed. The continuous roar grew deeper, grew louder.
"Sharp lookout there!" cried the inspector from the stern.
Suddenly over their bows uprose a black mass.
"My God!" cried Stringer, and fell back with upraised arms as if hoping to fend off that giant menace.
He lurched, as the cutter was again diverted sharply from its course, and must have fallen under the very bows of the oncoming liner, had not one of the lookouts caught him by the collar and jerked him sharply back into the boat.
A blaze of light burst out over them, and there were conflicting voices raised one in opposition to another. Above them all, even above the beating of the twin screws and the churning of the inky water, arose that of an officer from the bridge of the steamer.
"Where the flaming hell are YOU going?" inquired this stentorian voice; "haven't you got any blasted eyes and ears"...
High on the wash of the liner rode the police boat; down she plunged again, and began to roll perilously; up again—swimming it seemed upon frothing milk.
The clangor of bells, of voices, and of churning screws died, remote, astern.
"Damn close shave!" cried Rogers. "It must be clear ahead; they've just run into it."
One of the men on the lookout in the bows, who had never departed from his duty for an instant throughout this frightful commotion, now reported:
"Cutter crossing our bow, sir! Getting back to her course."
"Keep her in view," roared Rogers.
"Keep her in view!"
"As she is, sir!"
Again they settled down to the pursuit, and it began to dawn upon Stringer's mind that the boat ahead must be engined identically with that of the police; for whilst they certainly gained nothing upon her, neither did they lose.
"Try a hail," cried Rogers from the stern. "We may be chasing the wrong boat!"
"Cutter 'hoy!" bellowed the man beside Stringer, using his hands in lieu of a megaphone—"heave to!"
"Give 'em 'in the King's name!'" directed Rogers again.
"Cutter 'hoy," roared the man through his trumpeted hands,—"heave to—in the King's name!"
Stringer glared through the fog, clutching at the shoulder of the shouter almost convulsively.
"Take no notice, sir," reported the man.
"Then it's the gang!" cried Rogers from the stern; "and we haven't made a mistake. Where the blazes are we?"
"Well on the way to Blackwall Reach, sir," answered someone. "Fog lifting ahead."
"It's the rain that's doing it," said the man beside Stringer.
Even as he spoke, a drop of rain fell upon the back of Stringer's hand. This was the prelude; then, with ever-increasing force, down came the rain in torrents, smearing out the fog from the atmosphere, as a painter, with a sponge, might wipe a color from his canvas. Long tails of yellow vapor, twining—twining—but always coiling downward, floated like snakes about them; and the oily waters of the Thames became pock-marked in the growing light.
Stringer now quite clearly discerned the quarry—a very rakish-looking motor cutter, painted black, and speeding seaward ahead of them. He quivered with excitement.
"Do you know the boat?" cried Rogers, addressing his crew in general.
"No, sir," reported his second-in-command; "she's a stranger to me. They must have kept her hidden somewhere." He turned and looked back into the group of faces, all directed toward the strange craft. "Do any of you know her?" he demanded.
A general shaking of heads proclaimed the negative.
"But she can shift," said one of the men. "They must have been going slow through the fog; she's creeping up to ten or twelve knots now, I should reckon."
"Your reckoning's a trifle out!" snapped Rogers, irritably, from the stern; "but she's certainly showing us her heels. Can't we put somebody ashore and have her cut off lower down?"
"While we're doing that," cried Stringer, excitedly, "she would land somewhere and we should lose the gang!"
"That's right," reluctantly agreed Rogers. "Can you see any of her people?"
Through the sheets of rain all peered eagerly.
"She seems to be pretty well loaded," reported the man beside Stringer, "but I can't make her out very well."
"Are we doing our damnedest?" inquired Rogers.
"We are, sir," reported the engineer; "she hasn't got another oat in her!"
Rogers muttered something beneath his breath, and sat there glaring ahead at the boat ever gaining upon her pursuer.
"So long as we keep her in sight," said Stringer, "our purpose is served. She can't land anybody."
"At her present rate," replied the man upon whose shoulders he was leaning, "she'll be out of sight by the time we get to Tilbury or she'll have hit a barge and gone to the bottom!"
"I'll eat my hat if I lose her!" declared Rogers angrily. "How the blazes they slipped away from the wharf beats me!"
"They didn't slip away from the wharf," cried Stringer over his shoulder. "You heard what Sowerby said; they lay in the creek below the wharf, and there was some passageway underneath."
"But damn it all, man!" cried Rogers, "it's high tide; they must be a gang of bally mermaids. Why, we were almost level with the wharf when we left, and if they came from BELOW that, as you say, they must have been below water!"
"There they are, anyway," growled Stringer.
Mile after mile that singular chase continued through the night. With every revolution of the screw, the banks to right and left seemed to recede, as the Thames grew wider and wider. A faint saltiness was perceptible in the air; and Stringer, moistening his dry lips, noted the saline taste.
The shipping grew more scattered. Whereas, at first, when the fog had begun to lift, they had passed wondering faces peering at them from lighters and small steamers, tow boats and larger anchored craft, now they raced, pigmy and remote, upon open waters, and through the raindrift gray hulls showed, distant, and the banks were a faint blur. It seemed absurd that, with all those vessels about, they nevertheless could take no steps to seek assistance in cutting off the boat which they were pursuing, but must drive on through the rain, ever losing, ever dropping behind that black speck ahead.
A faint swell began to be perceptible. Stringer, who throughout the whole pursuit thus far had retained his hold upon the man in the bows, discovered that his fingers were cramped. He had much difficulty in releasing that convulsive grip.
"Thank you!" said the man, smiling, when at last the detective released his grip. "I'll admit I'd scarcely noticed it myself, but now I come to think of it, you've been fastened onto me like a vise for over two hours!"
"Two hours!" cried Stringer; and, crouching down to steady himself, for the cutter was beginning to roll heavily, he pulled out his watch, and in the gray light inspected the dial.
It was true! They had been racing seaward for some hours!
"Good God!" he muttered.
He stood up again, unsteadily, feet wide apart, and peered ahead through the grayness.
The banks he could not see. Far away on the port bow a long gray shape lay—a moored vessel. To starboard were faint blurs, indistinguishable, insignificant; ahead, a black dot with a faint comet-like tail—the pursued cutter—and ahead of that, again, a streak across the blackness, with another dot slightly to the left of the quarry...
He turned and looked along the police boat, noting that whereas, upon the former occasion of his looking, forms and faces had been but dimly visible, now he could distinguish them all quite clearly. The dawn was breaking.
"Where are we?" he inquired hoarsely.
"We're about one mile northeast of Sheerness and two miles southwest of the Nore Light!" announced Rogers—and he laughed, but not in a particularly mirthful manner.
Stringer temporarily found himself without words.
"Cutter heading for the open sea, sir," announced a man in the bows, unnecessarily.
"Quite so," snapped Rogers. "So are you!"
"We have got them beaten," said Stringer, a faint note of triumph in his voice. "We've given them no chance to land."
"If this breeze freshens much," replied Rogers, with sardonic humor, "they'll be giving US a fine chance to sink!"
Indeed, although Stringer's excitement had prevented him from heeding the circumstance, an ever-freshening breeze was blowing in his face, and he noted now that, quite mechanically, he had removed his bowler hat at some time earlier in the pursuit and had placed it in the bottom of the boat. His hair was blown in the wind, which sang merrily in his ears, and the cutter, as her course was slightly altered by Rogers, ceased to roll and began to pitch in a manner very disconcerting to the lands-man.
"It'll be rather fresh outside, sir," said one of the men, doubtfully. "We're miles and miles below our proper patrol"...
"Once we're clear of the bank it'll be more than fresh," replied Rogers; "but if they're bound for France, or Sweden, or Denmark, that's OUR destination, too!"...
On—and on—and on they drove. The Nore Light lay astern; they were drenched with spray. Now green water began to spout over the nose of the laboring craft.
"I've only enough juice to run us back to Tilbury, sir, if we put about now!" came the shouted report.
"It's easy to TALK!" roared Rogers. "If one of these big 'uns gets us broadside on, our number's up!"...
"Cutter putting over for Sheppey coast, sir!" bellowed the man in the bows.
Stringer raised himself, weakly, and sought to peer through the driving spray and rain-mist.
"By God! THEY'VE TURNED—TURTLE!"...
"Stand by with belts!" bellowed Rogers.
Rapidly life belts were unlashed; and, ahead, to port, to starboard, brine-stung eyes glared out from the reeling craft. Gray in the nascent dawn stretched the tossing sea about them; and lonely they rode upon its billows.
"PORT! PORT! HARD A-PORT!" screamed the lookout.
But Rogers, grimly watching the oncoming billows, knew that to essay the maneuver at that moment meant swamping the cutter. Straight ahead they drove. A wave, higher than any they yet had had to ride, came boiling down upon them... and twisting, writhing, upcasting imploring arms to the elements—the implacable elements—a girl, a dark girl, entwined, imprisoned in silken garments, swept upon its crest!
Out shot a cork belt into the boiling sea... and fell beyond her reach. She was swept past the cutter. A second belt was hurled from the stern...
The Eurasian, uttering a wailing cry like that of a seabird, strove to grasp it...
Close beside her, out of the wave, uprose a yellow hand, grasping—seeking—clutching. It fastened itself into the meshes of her floating hair...
"Here goes!" roared Rogers.
They plunged down into an oily trough; they turned; a second wave grew up above them, threateningly, built its terrible wall higher and higher over their side. Round they swung, and round, and round...
Down swept the eager wave... down—down—down... It lapped over the stern of the cutter; the tiny craft staggered, and paused, tremulous—dragged back by that iron grip of old Neptune—then leaped on—away—headed back into the Thames estuary, triumphant.
"God's mercy!" whispered Stringer—"that was touch-and-go!"
No living thing moved upon the waters.
Detective-Sergeant Sowerby reported himself in Inspector Dunbar's room at New Scotland Yard.
"I have completed my inquiries in Wharf-end Lane," he said; and pulling out his bulging pocketbook, he consulted it gravely.
Inspector Dunbar looked up.
"Anything important?" he asked.
"We cannot trace the makers of the sanitary fittings, and so forth, but they are all of American pattern. There's nothing in the nature of a trademark to be found from end to end of the place; even the iron sluice-gate at the bottom of the brick tunnel has had the makers' name chipped off, apparently with a cold chisel. So you see they were prepared for all emergencies!"
"Evidently," said Dunbar, resting his chin on the palms of his hands and his elbows upon the table.
"The office and warehouse staff of the ginger importing concern are innocent enough, as you know already. Kan-Suh Concessions was conducted merely as a blind, of course, but it enabled the Chinaman, Ho-Pin, to appear in Wharf-end Lane at all times of the day and night without exciting suspicion. He was supposed to be the manager, of course. The presence of the wharf is sufficient to explain how they managed to build the place without exciting suspicion. They probably had all the material landed there labeled as preserved ginger, and they would take it down below at night, long after the office and warehouse staff of Concessions had gone home. The workmen probably came and went by way of the river, also, commencing work after nightfall and going away before business commenced in the morning."
"It beats me," said Dunbar, reflectively, "how masons, plumbers, decorators, and all the other artisans necessary for a job of that description, could have been kept quiet."
"Foreigners!" said Sowerby triumphantly. "I'll undertake to say there wasn't an Englishman on the job. The whole of the gang was probably imported from abroad somewhere, boarded and lodged during the day-time in the neighborhood of Limehouse, and watched by Mr. Ho-Pin or somebody else until the job was finished; then shipped back home again. It's easily done if money is no object."
"That's right enough," agreed Dunbar; "I have no doubt you've hit upon the truth. But now that the place has been dismantled, what does it look like? I haven't had time to come down myself, but I intend to do so before it's closed up."
"Well," said Sowerby, turning over a page of his notebook, "it looks like a series of vaults, and the Rev. Mr. Firmingham, a local vicar whom I got to inspect it this morning, assures me, positively, that it's a crypt."
"A crypt!" exclaimed Dunbar, fixing his eyes upon his subordinate.
"A crypt—exactly. A firm dealing in grease occupied the warehouse before Kan-Suh Concessions rented it, and they never seem to have suspected that the place possessed any cellars. The actual owner of the property, Sir James Crozel, an ex-Lord Mayor, who is also ground landlord of the big works on the other side of the lane, had no more idea than the man in the moon that there were any cellars beneath the place. You see the vaults are below the present level of the Thames at high tide; that's why nobody ever suspected their existence. Also, an examination of the bare walls—now stripped—shows that they were pretty well filled up to the top with ancient debris, to within a few years ago, at any rate."
"You mean that our Chinese friends excavated them?"
"No doubt about it. They were every bit of twenty feet below the present street level, and, being right on the bank of the Thames, nobody would have thought of looking for them unless he knew they were there."
"What do you mean exactly, Sowerby?" said Dunbar, taking out his fountain-pen and tapping his teeth with it.
"I mean," said Sowerby, "that someone connected with the gang must have located the site of these vaults from some very old map or book."
"I think you said that the Reverend Somebody-or-Other avers that they were a crypt?"
"He does; and when he pointed out to me the way the pillars were placed, as if to support the nave of a church, I felt disposed to agree with him. The place where the golden dragon used to stand (it isn't really gold, by the way!) would be under the central aisle, as it were; then there's a kind of side aisle on the right and left and a large space at top and bottom. The pillars are stone and of very early Norman pattern, and the last three or four steps leading down to the place appear to belong to the original structure. I tell you it's the crypt of some old forgotten Norman church or monastery chapel."
"Most extraordinary!" muttered Dunbar.
"But I suppose it is possible enough. Probably the church was burnt or destroyed in some other way; deposits of river mud would gradually cover up the remaining ruins; then in later times, when the banks of the Thames were properly attended to, the site of the place would be entirely forgotten, of course. Most extraordinary!"
"That's the reverend gentleman's view, at any rate," said Sowerby, "and he's written three books on the subject of early Norman churches! He even goes so far as to say that he has heard—as a sort of legend—of the existence of a very large Carmelite monastery, accommodating over two hundred brothers, which stood somewhere adjoining the Thames within the area now covered by Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields. There is a little turning not far from the wharf, known locally—it does not appear upon any map—as Prickler's Lane; and my friend, the vicar, tells me that he has held the theory for a long time"—Sowerby referred to his notebook with great solemnity—"that this is a corruption of Pre-aux-Clerce Lane."
"H'm!" said Dunbar; "very ingenious, at any rate. Anything else?"
"Nothing much," said Sowerby, scanning his notes, "that you don't know already. There was some very good stuff in the place—Oriental ware and so on, a library of books which I'm told is unique, and a tremendous stock of opium and hashish. It's a perfect maze of doors and observation-traps. There's a small kitchen at the end, near the head of the tunnel—which, by the way, could be used as a means of entrance and exit at low tide. All the electric power came through the meter of Kan-Suh Concessions."
"I see," said Dunbar, reflectively, glancing at his watch; "in a word, we know everything except"...
"What's that?" said Sowerby, looking up.
"The identity of Mr. King!" replied the inspector, reaching for his hat which lay upon the table.
Sowerby replaced his book in his pocket.
"I wonder if any of the bodies will ever come ashore?" he said.
"God knows!" rapped Dunbar; "we can't even guess how many were aboard. You might as well come along, Sowerby, I've just heard from Dr. Cumberly. Mrs. Leroux"...
"Dying," replied the inspector; "expected to go at any moment. But the doctor tells me that she may—it's just possible—recover consciousness before the end; and there's a bare chance"...
"I see," said Sowerby eagerly; "of course she must know!"
The two hastened to Palace Mansions. Despite the lateness of the hour, Whitehall was thronged with vehicles, and all the glitter and noise of midnight London surrounded them.
"It only seems like yesterday evening," said Dunbar, as they mounted the stair of Palace Mansions, "that I came here to take charge of the case. Damme! it's been the most exciting I've ever handled, and it's certainly the most disappointing."
"It is indeed," said Sowerby, gloomily, pressing the bell-button at the side of Henry Leroux's door.
The door was opened by Garnham; and these two, fresh from the noise and bustle of London's streets, stepped into the hushed atmosphere of the flat where already a Visitant, unseen but potent, was arrived, and now was beckoning, shadowlike, to Mira Leroux.
"Will you please sit down and wait," said Garnham, placing chairs for the two Scotland Yard men in the dining-room.
"Who's inside?" whispered Dunbar, with that note of awe in his voice which such a scene always produces; and he nodded in the direction of the lobby.
"Mr. Leroux, sir," replied the man, "the nurse, Miss Cumberly, Dr. Cumberly and Miss Ryland"...
"No one else?" asked the detective sharply.
"And Mr. Gaston Max," added the man. "You'll find whisky and cigars upon the table there, sir."
He left the room. Dunbar glanced across at Sowerby, his tufted brows raised, and a wry smile upon his face.
"In at the death, Sowerby!" he said grimly, and lifted the stopper from the cut-glass decanter.
In the room where Mira Leroux lay, so near to the Borderland that her always ethereal appearance was now positively appalling, a hushed group stood about the bed.
"I think she is awake, doctor," whispered the nurse softly, peering into the emaciated face of the patient.
Mira Leroux opened her eyes and smiled at Dr. Cumberly, who was bending over her. The poor faded eyes turned from the face of the physician to that of Denise Ryland, then to M. Max, wonderingly; next to Helen, whereupon an indescribable expression crept into them; and finally to Henry Leroux, who, with bowed head, sat in the chair beside her. She feebly extended her thin hand and laid it upon his hair. He looked up, taking the hand in his own. The eyes of the dying woman filled with tears as she turned them from the face of Leroux to Helen Cumberly—who was weeping silently.
"Look after... him," whispered Mira Leroux.
Her hand dropped and she closed her eyes again. Cumberly bent forward suddenly, glancing back at M. Max who stood in a remote corner of the room watching this scene.
Big Ben commenced to chime the hour of midnight. That frightful coincidence so startled Leroux that he looked up and almost rose from his chair in his agitation. Indeed it startled Cumberly, also, but did not divert him from his purpose.
"It is now or never!" he whispered.
He took the seemingly lifeless hand in his own, and bending over Mira Leroux, spoke softly in her ear:
"Mrs. Leroux," he said, "there is something which we all would ask you to tell us; we ask it for a reason—believe me."
Throughout the latter part of this scene the big clock had been chiming the hour, and now was beating out the twelve strokes of midnight; had struck six of them and was about to strike the seventh.
SEVEN! boomed the clock.
Mira Leroux opened her eyes and looked up into the face of the physician.
"Who," whispered Dr. Cumberly, "is he?"
In the silence following the clock-stroke, Mira Leroux spoke almost inaudibly.
"You mean... MR. KING?"
"Yes, yes! Did you ever SEE him?"...
Every head in the room was craned forward; every spectator tensed up to the highest ultimate point.
"Yes," said Mira Leroux quite clearly; "I saw him, Dr. Cumberly... He is"...
Mira Leroux moved her head and smiled at Helen Cumberly; then seemed to sink deeper into the downy billows of the bed. Dr. Cumberly stood up very slowly, and turned, looking from face to face.
"It is finished," he said—"we shall never know!"
But Henry Leroux and Helen Cumberly, their glances meeting across the bed of the dead Mira, knew that for them it was not finished, but that Mr. King, the invisible, invisibly had linked them.