THE BLACK BOX
THE SHIP OF HORROR
Quest leaned a little forward and gazed down the line of steamer chairs. The Professor, in a borrowed overcoat and cap, was reclining at full length, studying a book on seagulls which he had found in the library. Laura and Lenora were both dozing tranquilly. Mr. Harris of Scotland Yard was deep in a volume of detective stories.
“As a pleasure cruise,” Quest remarked grimly, “this little excursion seems to be a complete success.”
Laura opened her eyes at once.
“Trying to get my goat again, eh?” she retorted. “I suppose that’s what you’re after. Going to tell me, I suppose, that it wasn’t Craig I saw board this steamer?”
“We are all liable to make mistakes,” Quest observed, “and I am inclined to believe that this is one of yours.”
Laura’s expression was a little dogged.
“If he’s too clever for you and Mr. Harris,” she said, “I can’t help that. I only know that he came on board. My eyes are the one thing in life I do believe.”
“If you’ll excuse my saying so, Miss Laura,” Harris ventured, leaning deferentially towards her, “there isn’t a passenger on board this ship, or a servant, or one of the crew, whom we haven’t seen. We’ve been into every stateroom, and we’ve even searched the hold. We’ve been over the ship, backwards and forwards. The Captain’s own steward has been our guide, and we’ve conducted an extra search on our own account. Personally, I must say I have come to the same conclusion as Mr. Quest. At the present moment there is no such person as the man we are looking for, on board this steamer.”
“Then he either changed on to another one,” Laura declared obstinately, “or else he jumped overboard.”
Harris, who was a very polite man, gazed thoughtfully seaward. Quest smiled.
“When Laura’s set on a thing,” he remarked, “she takes a little moving. What do you think about it, Professor?”
The Professor laid down his book, keeping his finger in the place. He had the air of a man perfectly content with himself and his surroundings.
“My friend,” he said, “I boarded this steamer with only one thought in my mind—Craig. At the present moment, I feel myself compelled to plead guilty to a complete change of outlook. The horrors of the last few months seem to have passed from my brain like a dream. I lie here, I watch these white-winged birds wheeling around us, I watch the sunshine make jewels of the spray, I breathe this wonderful air, I relax my body to the slow, soothing movements of the boat, and I feel a new life stealing through me. Is Craig really on board? Was it really he whom Miss Laura here saw? At the present moment, I really do not care. I learn from the steward, who arranged my bath this morning, that we are bound for India. I am very glad to hear it. It is some time since I saw Bombay, and the thought of these long days of complete peace fills me with a most indescribable satisfaction.”
Quest grunted a little as he knocked the ash from his cigar.
“Not much of the bloodhound about the Professor,” he remarked. “What about you, Lenora?”
She smiled at him.
“I agree entirely with the Professor,” she murmured, “except that I am not quite so sure that I appreciate the rhythmical movement of the boat as he seems to. For the rest, I have just that feeling that I would like to go on and on and forget all the horrible things that have happened, to live in a sort of dream, and wake up in a world from which Craig had vanished altogether.”
“Enervating effect this voyage seems to be having upon you all,” Quest grumbled. “Even Harris there looks far too well contented with life.”
The detective smiled. He was young and fresh-coloured, with a shrewd but pleasant face. He glanced involuntarily at Laura as he spoke.
“Well, Mr. Quest,” he said, “I didn’t bring you on the steamer so I don’t feel any responsibility about it, but I must confess that I am enjoying the trip. I haven’t had a holiday this year.”
Quest struggled to his feet and threw back the rug in his chair.
“If you all persist in turning this into a pleasure cruise,” he remarked, “I suppose I’ll have to alter my own point of view. Come on, Harris, you and I promised to report to the Captain this morning. I don’t suppose he’ll be any too pleased with us. Let’s get through with it.”
The two men walked down the deck together. They found the Captain alone in his room, with a chart spread out in front of him and a pair of compasses in his hand. He turned round and greeted them.
“No luck, sir,” Quest announced. “Your steward has given us every assistance possible and we have searched the ship thoroughly. Unless he has found a hiding place unknown to your steward, and not apparent to us, the man is not on board.”
The Captain frowned slightly.
“You are not suggesting that that is possible, I suppose?”
Quest did not at once reply. He was thinking of Laura’s obstinacy.
“Personally,” he admitted, “I should not have believed it possible. The young lady of our party, however, who declares that she saw Craig board the steamer, is quite immovable.”
The Captain rose to his feet. He was a man of medium height, strongly built, with short brown beard and keen blue eyes.
“This matter must be cleared up entirely,” he declared brusquely. “If you will excuse me for a moment, I will talk to the young lady myself.”
He walked firmly down the deck to where the two girls were seated, and paused in front of Laura.
“So you’re the young lady,” he remarked, touching his cap, “who thinks that I come to sea with criminals stowed away on my ship?”
“I don’t know what your habits are, Captain,” Laura replied, “but this particular criminal boarded your ship all right in Southampton Harbour.”
“Anything wrong with your eyesight?” the Captain enquired blandly.
“No,” Laura assured him. “I saw the man, saw him just as plainly as I see you now.”
“Do you know,” the Captain persisted, “that Mr. Quest and Mr. Harris have searched every nook and corner of the ship? They have had an absolutely free hand, and my own steward has been their guide. They have seen every man, boy, woman and animal amongst my crew or passengers.”
“They’ve been fooled somehow,” Laura muttered.
The Captain frowned. He was on the point of a sharp rejoinder when he met Laura’s eyes. She was smiling very faintly and there was something in her expression which changed his whole point of view.
“I’ll go and make a few enquiries myself,” he declared. “See you at dinner-time, I hope, young ladies.”
“If you keep her as steady as this,” Laura promised, “there are hopes.”
He disappeared along the deck, and presently re-entered his room, where Harris and Quest were waiting for him. He was followed by his steward, an under-sized man with pallid complexion and nervous manner. He closed the door behind him.
“Brown,” he said, turning to the steward, “I understand you to say that you have taken these gentlemen into every corner of the ship, that you have ransacked every possible hiding-place, that you have given them every possible opportunity of searching for themselves?”
“That is quite true, sir,” the man acknowledged.
“You agree with me that it is impossible for any one to remain hidden in this ship?”
“You hear, gentlemen?” the Captain continued. “I really can do no more. It is perfectly clear to me that the man you are seeking is not on my ship. Your very charming young lady friend seems to think it impossible that she could have been mistaken, but as a matter of fact she was. If I might take the liberty, Mr. Quest, I would suggest that you ask her, at any rate, to keep her suspicions to herself.”
“I’ll see she doesn’t talk,” Quest promised. “Very sorry to have given you all this trouble, I’m sure.”
“It’s no trouble,” the Captain replied, “and apart from the disagreeable nature of your business, I am delighted to have you on board. If you can forget your suspicions about this fellow Craig, I shall do my best to make your trip a pleasant one as far as Port Said, or on to India if you decide to take the trip with me.”
“Very good of you, Captain, I’m sure,” Quest pronounced. “We shall go on keeping our eyes open, of course, but apart from that we’ll forget the fellow.”
The Captain nodded.
“I am coming down to dinner to-night,” he announced, “and shall hope to find you in your places. What the mischief are you hanging about for, Brown?” he asked, turning to the steward, who was standing by with a carpet-sweeper in his hand.
“Room wants cleaning out badly, sir.”
The Captain glanced distastefully at the carpet-sweeper.
“Do it when I am at dinner, then,” he ordered, “and take that damned thing away.”
The steward obeyed promptly. Quest and Harris followed him down the deck.
“Queer-looking fellow, that,” the latter remarked. “Doesn’t seem quite at his ease, does he?”
“Seemed a trifle over-anxious, I thought, when he was showing us round the ship,” Quest agreed.
“M-m,” Harris murmured softly, “as the gentleman who wrote the volume of detective stories I am reading puts it, we’d better keep our eye on Brown.”…
The Captain, who was down to dinner unusually early, rose to welcome Quest’s little party and himself arranged the seats.
“You, Miss Lenora,” he said, “will please sit on my left, and you, Miss Laura, on my right. Mr. Quest, will you sit on the other side of Miss Laura, and Mr. Harris two places down on my left. There is an old lady who expects to be at the table, but the steward tells me she hasn’t been in yet.”
They settled down into the places arranged for them. Harris was looking a little glum. Lenora and Quest exchanged a meaning glance.
“I’m not sure that I appreciate this arrangement,” Harris whispered to his neighbour.
“You may be candid,” Lenora replied, “but you aren’t very polite, are you?”
Harris almost blushed as he realized his slip.
“I am sorry,” he said, “but to tell you the truth,” he added, glancing towards Quest, “I fancied that you were feeling about the same.”
“We women are poor dissemblers,” Lenora murmured. “Do look how angry this old woman seems.”
An elderly lady, dressed in somewhat oppressive black, with a big cameo brooch at her throat and a black satin bag in her hand, was being shown by the steward to a seat by Quest’s side. She acknowledged the Captain’s greeting acidly.
“Good evening, Captain,” she said. “I understood from the second steward that the seat on your right hand would be reserved for me. I am Mrs. Foston Rowe.”
The Captain received the announcement calmly.
“Very pleased to have you at the table, madam,” he replied. “As to the seating, I leave that entirely to the steward. I never interfere myself.”
Laura pinched his arm, and Lenora glanced away to hide a smile. Mrs. Foston Rowe studied the menu disapprovingly.
“Hors d’oeuvres,” she declared, “I never touch. No one knows how long they’ve been opened. Bouillon—I will have some bouillon, steward.”
“In one moment, madam.”
The Professor just then came ambling along towards the table.
“I fear that I am a few moments late,” he remarked, as he took the chair next to Mrs. Foston Rowe. “I offer you my apologies, Captain. I congratulate you upon your library. I have discovered a most interesting book upon the habits of seagulls. It kept me engrossed until the very last moment.”
“Very disagreeable habits, those I’ve noticed,” Mrs. Foston Rowe sniffed.
“Madam,” the Professor assured her, “yours is but a superficial view. For myself, I must confess that the days upon which I learn something new in life are days of happiness for me. To-day is an example; I have learnt something new about seagulls, and I am hungry.”
“Well, you’ll have to stay hungry a long time at this table, then,” Mrs. Foston Rowe snapped. “Seems to me that the service is going to be abominable.”
The steward, who had just arrived, presented a cup of bouillon to Quest. The others had all been served. Quest stirred it thoughtfully.
“And as to the custom,” Mrs. Foston Rowe continued, “of serving gentlemen before ladies, it is, I suppose, peculiar to this steamer.”
Quest hastily laid down his spoon, raised the cup of bouillon and presented it with a little bow to his neighbour.
“Pray allow me, madam,” he begged. “The steward was to blame.”
Mrs. Foston Rowe did not hesitate for a moment. She broke up some toast in the bouillon and commenced to sip it.
“Your politeness will at least teach them a lesson,” she said. “I am used to travel by the P. & O. and from what I have seen of this steamer—”
The spoon suddenly went clattering from her fingers. She caught at the sides of the table, there was a strange look in her face. With scarcely a murmur she fell back in her seat. Quest leaned hurriedly forward.
“Captain!” he exclaimed. “Steward! Mrs. Foston Rowe is ill.”
There was a slight commotion. The Doctor came hurrying up from the other side of the salon. He bent over her and his face grew grave.
“What is it?” the Captain demanded.
The Doctor glanced at him meaningly.
“She had better be carried out,” he whispered.
It was all done in a moment. There was nothing but Mrs. Foston Rowe’s empty place at the table and the cup of bouillon, to remind them of what had happened.
“Was it a faint?” Lenora asked.
“We shall know directly,” the Captain replied. “Better keep our places, I think. Steward, serve the dinner as usual.”
The man held out his hand to withdraw the cup of bouillon, but Quest drew it towards him.
“Let it wait for a moment,” he ordered.
He glanced at the Captain, who nodded back. In a few moments the Doctor reappeared. He leaned down and whispered to the Captain.
The Captain gave no sign.
“Better call it heart failure,” the Doctor continued. “I’ll let the people know quietly. I don’t in the least understand the symptoms, though.”
Quest turned around.
“Doctor,” he said, “I happen to have my chemical chest with me, and some special testing tubes. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to examine this cup of bouillon. You might come round, too, if you will.”
The Captain nodded.
“I’d better stay here for a time,” he decided. “I’ll follow you presently.”
The service of dinner was resumed. Laura, however, sent plate after plate away. The Captain watched her anxiously.
“I can’t help it,” she explained. “I don’t know whether you’ve had any talk with Mr. Quest, but we’ve been through some queer times lately. I guess this death business is getting on my nerves.”
The Captain was startled.
“You don’t for a moment connect Mrs. Foston Rowe’s death with the criminal you are in search of?” he exclaimed.
Laura sat quite still for a moment.
“The bouillon was offered first to Mr. Quest,” she murmured.
The Captain called his steward.
“Where did you get the bouillon you served—that last cup especially?” he asked.
“From the pantry just as usual, sir,” the man answered. “It was all served out from the same cauldron.”
“Any chance of any one getting at it?”
“Quite impossible, sir!”
Laura rose to her feet.
“Sorry,” she apologized, “I can’t eat anything. I’m off on deck.”
The Captain rose promptly.
“I’ll escort you, if I may,” he suggested.
Harris, too, rose from his place, after a final and regretful glance at the menu, and joined the others. The Captain, however, drew Laura’s arm through his as they reached the stairs, and Harris, with a little shrug of the shoulders, made his way to Quest’s stateroom. The Doctor, the Professor, Quest and Lenora were all gathered around two little tubes, which the criminologist was examining with an electric torch.
“No reaction at all,” the latter muttered. “This isn’t an ordinary poison, any way.”
The Professor, who had been standing on one side, suddenly gave vent to a soft exclamation.
“Wait!” he whispered. “Wait! I have an idea.”
He hurried off to his stateroom. The Doctor was poring over a volume of tabulated poisons. Quest was still watching his tubes. Lenora sat upon the couch. Suddenly the Professor reappeared. He was carrying a small notebook in his hand; his manner betrayed some excitement. He closed the door carefully behind him.
“I want you all,” he begged, “to listen very carefully to me. You will discover the application of what I am going to read, when I am finished. Now, if you please.”
They looked at him wonderingly. It was evident that the Professor was very much in earnest. He held the book a little way away from him and read slowly and distinctly.
“This,” he began, “is the diary of a tour made by Craig and myself in Northern Egypt some fourteen years ago. Here is the first entry of import:—
“Pleasant sort of people,” Quest muttered.
“We escaped with our lives,” the Professor explained earnestly, “from these people, only on account of an incident which you will find in this next paragraph:—”
The Professor closed his book. Quest promptly rang the bell.
“Some sugar,” he ordered, turning to the steward.
They waited in absolute silence. The suggestion which the Professor’s disclosure had brought to them was stupefying, even Quest’s fingers, as a moment or two later he rubbed two knobs of sugar together so that the particles should fall into the tubes of bouillon, shook. The result was magical. The bouillon turned to a strange shade of grey and began slowly to thicken.
“It is the Mongar poison!” the Professor cried, with breaking voice.
They all looked at one another.
“Craig must be here amongst us,” Quest muttered.
“And the bouillon,” Lenora cried, clasping Quest’s arm, “the bouillon was meant for you!”…
There seemed to be, somehow, amongst all of them, a curious indisposition to discuss this matter. Suddenly Lenora, who was sitting on the lounge underneath the porthole, put out her hand and picked up a card which was lying by her side. She glanced at it, at first curiously. Then she shrieked.
“A message!” she cried. “A message from the Hands! Look!”
They crowded around her. In that same familiar handwriting was scrawled across the face of the card these few words—
Underneath was the drawing of the clenched hands.
“There is no longer any doubt,” Lenora said calmly. “Craig is on board. He must have been on deck a few minutes ago. It was his hand which placed this card in the porthole…. Listen! What’s that?”
There was a scream from the deck. They all recognised Laura’s voice. Harris was out of the stateroom first but they were all on deck within ten seconds. Laura was standing with one hand clasping the rail, her hand fiercely outstretched towards the lower part of the promenade deck. Through the darkness they heard the sound of angry voices.
“What is it, Laura?” Lenora cried.
She swung round upon them.
“Craig!” she cried. “Craig! I saw his face as I sat in my chair there, talking to the Captain. I saw a man’s white face—nothing else. He must have been leaning over the rail. He heard me call out and he disappeared.”
The Captain came slowly out of the shadows, limping a little and followed by his steward, who was murmuring profuse apologies.
“Did you find him?” Laura demanded eagerly.
“I did not,” the Captain replied, a little tersely. “I ran into Brown here and we both had a shake-up.”
“But he was there—a second ago!” Laura cried out.
“I beg your pardon, miss,” Brown ventured, “but the deck’s closed at the end, as you can see, with sail-cloth, and I was leaning over the rail myself when you shrieked. There wasn’t any one else near me, and no one can possibly have passed round the deck, as you can see plainly for yourself.”
Laura stood quite still.
“What doors are there on the side?” she asked.
“The doors of my room only,” the Captain replied, a little shortly. “It was Brown you saw, of course. He was standing exactly where you thought you saw Craig.”
Laura walked to the end of the deck and back.
“Very well, then,” she said, “you people had better get a strait-waistcoat ready for me. If I didn’t see Craig there, I’m going off my head.”
Quest had disappeared some seconds ago. He came thoughtfully back, a little later.
“Captain,” he asked, “what shall you say if I tell you that I have proof that Craig is on board?”
The Captain glanced at Laura and restrained himself.
“I should probably say a great many things which I should regret afterwards,” he replied grimly.
“Sit down and we’ll tell you what has happened in my room,” Quest continued.
He told the story, calmly and without remark. The Captain held his head.
“Of course, I’m convinced that I am a sane man,” he said, “but this sounds more like a Munchausen story than anything I’ve ever heard. I suppose you people are all real? You are in earnest about this, aren’t you? It isn’t a gigantic joke?”
“We are in deadly earnest,” the Professor pronounced gravely.
“I have been down to the pantry,” Quest went on. “The porthole has been open all day. It was just possible for a man to have reached the cups of bouillon as they were prepared. That isn’t the point, however. Craig is cunning and clever enough for any devilish scheme on earth, and that card proves that he is on board.”
“The ship shall be searched,” the Captain declared, “once more. We’ll look into every crack and every cupboard.”
Lenora turned away with a little shiver. It was one of her rare moments of weakness.
“You won’t find him! You won’t ever find him!” she murmured. “And I am afraid!”
Lenora grasped the rails of the steamer and glanced downwards at the great barge full of Arab sailors and merchandise. In the near background were the docks of Port Said. It was their first glimpse of Eastern atmosphere and colour.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” she declared to Quest, “to think that this voyage is over. Every night I have gone to bed terrified.”
He smiled grimly.
“Things have been quiet enough the last few days,” he said. “There’s Harris on this barge. Look at Laura waving to him!”
The Scotland Yard man only glanced up at them. He was occupied in leaning over towards Laura, who was on the deck below.
“If you said the word,” he called out, “I wouldn’t be going back, Miss Laura. I’d stick to the ship fast enough.”
She laughed at him gaily.
“Not you! You’re longing for your smoky old London already. You cut it out, my friend. You’re a good sort, and I hope we’ll meet again some day. But—”
She shook her head at him good-humouredly. He turned away, disappointed, and waved his hand to Lenora and Quest on the upper deck.
“Coming on shore, any of you?” he enquired.
“We may when the boat moves up,” Quest replied. “The Professor went off on the first barge. Here he is, coming back.”
A little boat had shot out from the docks, manned by a couple of Arabs. They could see the Professor seated in the stern. He was poring over a small document which he held in his hand. He waved to them excitedly.
“He’s got news!” Quest muttered.
With much shouting the boat was brought to the side of the barge. The Professor was hauled up. He stumbled blindly across towards the gangway and came up the steps with amazing speed. He came straight to Quest and Lenora and gripped the former by the arm.
“Look!” he cried. “Look!”
He held out a card. Quest read it aloud:—
“Where did you get it?” Quest demanded.
“That’s the point—the whole point!” the Professor exclaimed excitedly. “He’s done us! He’s landed! That paper was pushed into my hand by a tall Arab, who mumbled something and hurried off across the docks. On the landing-stage, mind!”
The Captain came and put his head out of the door.
“Mr. Quest,” he said, “can you spare me a moment? You can all come, if you like.”
They moved up towards him. The Captain closed the door of his cabin. He pointed to a carpet-sweeper which lay against the wall.
“Look at that,” he invited.
They lifted the top. Inside were several sandwiches and a small can of tea.
“What on earth is this?” Quest demanded.
The Captain, without a word, led them into his inner room. A huge lounge stood in one corner. He lifted the valance. Underneath were some crumbs.
“You see,” he pointed out, “there’s room there for a man to have hidden, especially if he could crawl out on deck at night. I couldn’t make out why the dickens Brown was always sweeping out my room, and I took up this thing a little time ago and looked at it. This is what I found.”
“Where’s Brown?” Quest asked quickly.
“I rang down for the chief steward,” the Captain continued, “and ordered Brown to be sent up at once. The chief steward came himself instead. It seems Brown went off without his wages but with a huge parcel of bedding, on the first barge this morning, before any one was about.”
Quest groaned as he turned away.
“Captain,” he declared, “I am ashamed. He has been here all the time and we’ve let him slip through our fingers. Girls,” he went on briskly, turning towards Laura, who had just come up, “India’s off. We’ll catch this barge, if there’s time. Our luggage can be put on shore when the boat docks.”
The Captain walked gloomily with them to the gangway.
“I shall miss you all,” he told Laura.
She laughed in his face.
“If you ask me, I think you’ll be glad to be rid of us.”
“Not of you, Miss Laura,” he insisted.
She made a little grimace.
“You’re as bad as Mr. Harris,” she declared. “We’ll come for another trip with you some day.”
They left him leaning disconsolately over the rails. The Professor and Quest sat side by side on one of the trunks which was piled up on the barge.
“Professor,” Quest asked, “how long would it take us to get to this Mongar village you spoke about?”
“Two or three days, if we can get camels,” the other replied. “I see you agree with me, then, as to Craig’s probable destination?”
“What sort of fellows are they, any way?” he asked. “Will it be safe for us to push on alone?”
“With me,” the Professor assured him, “you will be safe anywhere. I speak a little of their language. I have lived with them. They are far more civilized than some of the interior tribes.”
“We’ll find a comfortable hotel where we can leave the girls—” Quest began.
“You can cut that out,” Laura interrupted. “I don’t know about the kid here, but if you think I’m going to miss a camel ride across the desert, you’re dead wrong, so that’s all there is to it.”
Quest glanced towards Lenora. She leaned over and took his arm.
“I simply couldn’t be left behind,” she pleaded. “I’ve had quite enough of that.”
“The journey will not be an unpleasant one,” the Professor declared amiably, “and the riding of a camel is an accomplishment easily acquired. So far as I am aware, too, the district which we shall have to traverse is entirely peaceable.”
They disembarked and were driven to the hotel, still discussing their project. Afterwards they all wandered into the bazaars, along the narrow streets, where dusky children pulled at their clothes and ran by their side, where every now and then a brown-skinned Arab, on a slow-moving camel, made his way through the throngs of veiled Turkish women, Syrians, Arabs, and Egyptians. Laura and Lenora, at any rate, attracted by the curious novelty of the scene, forgot the heat, the street smells, and the filthy clothes of the mendicants and loafers who pressed against them. They bought strange jewellery, shawls, beads and perfumes. The Professor had disappeared for some time but rejoined them later.
“It is all arranged,” he announced. “I found a dragoman whom I know. We shall have four of the best camels and a small escort ready to start to-morrow morning. Furthermore, I have news. An Englishman whose description precisely tallies with Craig’s, started off, only an hour ago, in the same direction. This time, at any rate, Craig cannot escape us.”
“He might go on past the Mongar camp,” Quest suggested.
The Professor shook his head.
“The Mongar village,” he explained, “is placed practically at a cul-de-sac so far as regards further progress southwards without making a detour. It is flanked by a strip of jungle and desert on either side, in which there are no wells for many miles. We shall find Craig with the Mongars.”
They made their way back to the hotel, dined in a cool, bare room, and sauntered out again into the streets. The Professor led the way to a little building, outside which a man was volubly inviting all to enter.
“You shall see one of the sights of Port Said,” he promised. “This is a real Egyptian dancing girl.”
They took their seats in the front row of a dimly-lit, bare-looking room. The stage was dark and empty. From some unseen place came the monotonous rhythm of a single instrument. They waited for some time in vain. At last one or two lights in front were lit, the music grew more insistent. A girl who seemed to be dressed in little more than a winding veil, glided on to the stage, swaying and moving slowly to the rhythm of the monotonous music. She danced a measure which none of them except the Professor had ever seen before, coming now and then so close that they could almost feel her hot breath, and Lenora felt somehow vaguely disturbed by the glitter of her eyes. An odd perfume was shaken into the air around them from her one flowing garment, through which her limbs continually flashed. Lenora looked away.
“I don’t like it,” she said to Quest simply.
Suddenly Laura leaned forward.
“Look at the Professor,” she whispered.
They all turned their heads. A queer change seemed to have come into the Professor’s face. His teeth were gleaming between his parted lips, his head was a little thrust forward, his eyes were filled with a strange, hard light. He was a transformed being, unrecognisable, perturbing. Even while they watched, the girl floated close to where he sat and leaned towards him with a queer, mocking smile. His hand suddenly descended upon her foot. She laughed still more. There was a little exclamation from Lenora. The Professor’s whole frame quivered, he snatched the anklet from the girl’s ankle and bent over it. She leaned towards him, a torrent of words streaming from her lips. The Professor answered her in her own language. She listened to him in amazement. The anger passed. She held out both her hands. The Professor still argued. She shook her head. Finally he placed some gold in her palms. She patted him on the cheek, laughed into his eyes, pointed behind and resumed her dancing. The anklet remained in the Professor’s hand.
“Say, we’ll get out of this,” Quest said. “The girls have had enough.”
The Professor made no objection. He led the way, holding the anklet all the time close to his eyes, and turning it round. They none of them spoke to him, yet they were all conscious of an immense sense of relief when, after they had passed into the street, he commenced to talk in his natural voice.
“Congratulate me,” he said. “I have been a collector of Assyrian gold ornaments all my life. This is the one anklet I needed to complete my collection. It has the double mark of the Pharaohs. I recognised it at once. There are a thousand like it, you would think, in the bazaars there. In reality there may be, perhaps, a dozen more in all Egypt which are genuine.”
They all looked at one another. Their relief had grown too poignant for words.
“Early start to-morrow,” Quest reminded them.
“Home and bed for me, this moment,” Laura declared.
“The camels,” the Professor assented, “will be round at daybreak.”
Lenora, a few nights later, looked down from the star-strewn sky which seemed suddenly to have dropped so much nearer to them, to the shadows thrown across the desert by the dancing flames of their fire.
“It is the same world, I suppose,” she murmured.
“A queer little place out of the same world,” Quest agreed. “Listen to those fellows, how they chatter!”
The camel drivers and guides were sitting together in a little group, some distance away. They had finished their supper and were chattering together now, swaying back and forth, two of them at least in a state of wild excitement.
“Whatever can they be talking about?” Laura asked. “They sound as though they were going to fight every second.”
The Professor smiled.
“The last one was talking about the beauty of his fat lady friend,” he remarked drily. “Just before, they were discussing whether they would be given any backsheesh in addition to their pay. We are quite off the ordinary routes here, and these fellows aren’t much used to Europeans.”
Laura rose to her feet.
“I’m going to get a drink,” she announced.
The dragoman, who had been hovering around, bowed gravely and pointed towards the waterbottles. Lenora also rose.
“I’m coming too,” she decided. “It seems a sin to think of going to sleep, though. The whole place is like a great silent sea. I suppose this isn’t a dream, is it, Laura?”
“There’s no dream about my thirst, any way,” Laura declared.
She took the horn cup from the dragoman.
“Have some yourself, if you want to, Hassan,” she invited.
Hassan bowed gravely, filled a cup and drank it off. He stood for a moment perfectly still, as though something were coming over him which he failed to understand. Then his lips parted, his eyes for a moment seemed to shoot from out of his dusky skin. He threw up his arms and fell over on his side. Laura, who had only sipped her cup, threw it from her. She, too, reeled for a moment. The Professor and Quest came running up, attracted by Lenora’s shriek.
“They’re poisoned!” she cried.
“The Veedemzoo!” Quest shouted. “My God! Pull yourself together, Laura. Hold up for a minute.”
He dashed back to their little encampment and reappeared almost immediately. He threw Laura’s head back and forced some liquid down her throat.
“It’s camphor,” he cried. “You’ll be all right, Laura. Hold on to yourself.”
He swung round to where the dragoman was lying, forced his mouth open, but it was too late—the man was dead. He returned to Laura. She stumbled to her feet. She was pale, and drops of perspiration were standing on her forehead. She was able to rise to her feet, however, without assistance.
“I am all right now,” she declared.
Quest felt her pulse and her forehead. They moved back to the fire.
“We are within a dozen miles or so of the Mongar village,” Quest said grimly. “Do you suppose that fellow could have been watching?”
They all talked together for a time in low voices. The Professor was inclined to scout the theory of Craig having approached them.
“You must remember,” he pointed out, “that the Mongars hate these fellows. It was part of my arrangement with Hassan that they should leave us when we got in sight of the Mongar Encampment. It may have been meant for Hassan. The Mongars hate the dragomen who bring tourists in this direction at all.”
They talked a little while longer and finally stole away to their tents to sleep. Outside, the camel drivers talked still, chattering away, walking now and then around Hassan’s body in solemn procession. Finally, one of them who seemed to have taken the lead, broke into an impassioned stream of words. The others listened. When he had finished, there was a low murmur of fierce approval. Silent-footed, as though shod in velvet, they ran to the tethered camels, stacked the provisions once more upon their backs, lashed the guns across their own shoulders. Soon they stole away—a long, ghostly procession—into the night.
“Those fellows seem to have left off their infernal chattering all of a sudden,” Quest remarked lazily from inside the tent.
The Professor made no answer. He was asleep.