The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu
THERE may be some who could have lain, chained to that noisome cell, and felt no fear—no dread of what the blackness might hold. I confess that I am not one of these. I knew that Nayland Smith and I stood in the path of the most stupendous genius who in the world's history had devoted his intellect to crime. I knew that the enormous wealth of the political group backing Dr. Fu-Manchu rendered him a menace to Europe and to America greater than that of the plague. He was a scientist trained at a great university—an explorer of nature's secrets, who had gone farther into the unknown, I suppose, than any living man. His mission was to remove all obstacles—human obstacles—from the path of that secret movement which was progressing in the Far East. Smith and I were two such obstacles; and of all the horrible devices at his command, I wondered, and my tortured brain refused to leave the subject, by which of them were we doomed to be dispatched?
Even at that very moment some venomous centipede might be wriggling towards me over the slime of the stones, some poisonous spider be preparing to drop from the roof! Fu-Manchu might have released a serpent in the cellar, or the air be alive with microbes of a loathsome disease!
"Smith," I said, scarcely recognizing my own voice, "I can't bear this suspense. He intends to kill us, that is certain, but—"
"Don't worry," came the reply; "he intends to learn our plans first."
"You heard him speak of his files and of his wire jacket?"
"Oh, my God!" I groaned; "can this be England?"
Smith laughed dryly, and I heard him fumbling with the steel collar about his neck.
"I have one great hope," he said, "since you share my captivity, but we must neglect no minor chance. Try with your pocket-knife if you can force the lock. I am trying to break this one."
Truth to tell, the idea had not entered my half-dazed mind, but I immediately acted upon my friend's suggestion, setting to work with the small blade of my knife. I was so engaged, and, having snapped one blade, was about to open another, when a sound arrested me. It came from beneath my feet.
"Smith," I whispered, "listen!"
The scraping and clicking which told of Smith's efforts ceased. Motionless, we sat in that humid darkness and listened.
Something was moving beneath the stones of the cellar. I held my breath; every nerve in my body was strung up.
A line of light showed a few feet from where we lay. It widened—became an oblong. A trap was lifted, and within a yard of me, there rose a dimly seen head. Horror I had expected—and death, or worse. Instead, I saw a lovely face, crowned with a disordered mass of curling hair; I saw a white arm upholding the stone slab, a shapely arm clasped about the elbow by a broad gold bangle.
The girl climbed into the cellar and placed the lantern on the stone floor. In the dim light she was unreal—a figure from an opium vision, with her clinging silk draperies and garish jewelry, with her feet encased in little red slippers. In short, this was the houri of my vision, materialized. It was difficult to believe that we were in modern, up-to-date England; easy to dream that we were the captives of a caliph, in a dungeon in old Bagdad.
"My prayers are answered," said Smith softly. "She has come to save YOU."
"S-sh!" warned the girl, and her wonderful eyes opened widely, fearfully. "A sound and he will kill us all."
She bent over me; a key jarred in the lock which had broken my penknife—and the collar was off. As I rose to my feet the girl turned and released Smith. She raised the lantern above the trap, and signed to us to descend the wooden steps which its light revealed.
"Your knife," she whispered to me. "Leave it on the floor. He will think you forced the locks. Down! Quickly!"
Nayland Smith, stepping gingerly, disappeared into the darkness. I rapidly followed. Last of all came our mysterious friend, a gold band about one of her ankles gleaming in the rays of the lantern which she carried. We stood in a low-arched passage.
"Tie your handkerchiefs over your eyes and do exactly as I tell you," she ordered.
Neither of us hesitated to obey her. Blind-folded, I allowed her to lead me, and Smith rested his hand upon my shoulder. In that order we proceeded, and came to stone steps, which we ascended.
"Keep to the wall on the left," came a whisper. "There is danger on the right."
With my free hand I felt for and found the wall, and we pressed forward. The atmosphere of the place through which we were passing was steamy, and loaded with an odor like that of exotic plant life. But a faint animal scent crept to my nostrils, too, and there was a subdued stir about me, infinitely suggestive—mysterious.
Now my feet sank in a soft carpet, and a curtain brushed my shoulder. A gong sounded. We stopped.
The din of distant drumming came to my ears.
"Where in Heaven's name are we?" hissed Smith in my ear; "that is a tom-tom!"
The little hand grasping mine quivered nervously. We were near a door or a window, for a breath of perfume was wafted through the air; and it reminded me of my other meetings with the beautiful woman who was now leading us from the house of Fu-Manchu; who, with her own lips, had told me that she was his slave. Through the horrible phantasmagoria she flitted—a seductive vision, her piquant loveliness standing out richly in its black setting of murder and devilry. Not once, but a thousand times, I had tried to reason out the nature of the tie which bound her to the sinister Doctor.
"Quick! This way!"
Down a thickly carpeted stair we went. Our guide opened a door, and led us along a passage. Another door was opened; and we were in the open air. But the girl never tarried, pulling me along a graveled path, with a fresh breeze blowing in my face, and along until, unmistakably, I stood upon the river bank. Now, planking creaked to our tread; and looking downward beneath the handkerchief, I saw the gleam of water beneath my feet.
"Be careful!" I was warned, and found myself stepping into a narrow boat—a punt.
Nayland Smith followed, and the girl pushed the punt off and poled out into the stream.
"Don't speak!" she directed.
My brain was fevered; I scarce knew if I dreamed and was waking, or if the reality ended with my imprisonment in the clammy cellar and this silent escape, blindfolded, upon the river with a girl for our guide who might have stepped out of the pages of "The Arabian Nights" were fantasy—the mockery of sleep.
Indeed, I began seriously to doubt if this stream whereon we floated, whose waters plashed and tinkled about us, were the Thames, the Tigris, or the Styx.
The punt touched a bank.
"You will hear a clock strike in a few minutes," said the girl, with her soft, charming accent, "but I rely upon your honor not to remove the handkerchiefs until then. You owe me this."
"We do!" said Smith fervently.
I heard him scrambling to the bank, and a moment later a soft hand was placed in mine, and I, too, was guided on to terra firma. Arrived on the bank, I still held the girl's hand, drawing her towards me.
"You must not go back," I whispered. "We will take care of you. You must not return to that place."
"Let me go!" she said. "When, once, I asked you to take me from him, you spoke of police protection; that was your answer, police protection! You would let them lock me up—imprison me—and make me betray him! For what? For what?" She wrenched herself free. "How little you understand me. Never mind. Perhaps one day you will know! Until the clock strikes!"
She was gone. I heard the creak of the punt, the drip of the water from the pole. Fainter it grew, and fainter.
"What is her secret?" muttered Smith, beside me. "Why does she cling to that monster?"
The distant sound died away entirely. A clock began to strike; it struck the half-hour. In an instant my handkerchief was off, and so was Smith's. We stood upon a towing-path. Away to the left the moon shone upon the towers and battlements of an ancient fortress.
It was Windsor Castle.
"Half-past ten," cried Smith. "Two hours to save Graham Guthrie!"
We had exactly fourteen minutes in which to catch the last train to Waterloo; and we caught it. But I sank into a corner of the compartment in a state bordering upon collapse. Neither of us, I think, could have managed another twenty yards. With a lesser stake than a human life at issue, I doubt if we should have attempted that dash to Windsor station.
"Due at Waterloo at eleven-fifty-one," panted Smith. "That gives us thirty-nine minutes to get to the other side of the river and reach his hotel."
"Where in Heaven's name is that house situated? Did we come up or down stream?"
"I couldn't determine. But at any rate, it stands close to the riverside. It should be merely a question of time to identify it. I shall set Scotland Yard to work immediately; but I am hoping for nothing. Our escape will warn him."
I said no more for a time, sitting wiping the perspiration from my forehead and watching my friend load his cracked briar with the broadcut Latakia mixture.
"Smith," I said at last, "what was that horrible wailing we heard, and what did Fu-Manchu mean when he referred to Rangoon? I noticed how it affected you."
My friend nodded and lighted his pipe.
"There was a ghastly business there in 1908 or early in 1909," he replied: "an utterly mysterious epidemic. And this beastly wailing was associated with it."
"In what way? And what do you mean by an epidemic?"
"It began, I believe, at the Palace Mansions Hotel, in the cantonments. A young American, whose name I cannot recall, was staying there on business connected with some new iron buildings. One night he went to his room, locked the door, and jumped out of the window into the courtyard. Broke his neck, of course."
"Apparently. But there were singular features in the case. For instance, his revolver lay beside him, fully loaded!"
"In the courtyard?"
"In the courtyard!"
"Was it murder by any chance?"
Smith shrugged his shoulders.
"His door was found locked from the inside; had to be broken in."
"But the wailing business?"
"That began later, or was only noticed later. A French doctor, named Lafitte, died in exactly the same way."
"At the same place?"
"At the same hotel; but he occupied a different room. Here is the extraordinary part of the affair: a friend shared the room with him, and actually saw him go!"
"Saw him leap from the window?"
"Yes. The friend—an Englishman—was aroused by the uncanny wailing. I was in Rangoon at the time, so that I know more of the case of Lafitte than of that of the American. I spoke to the man about it personally. He was an electrical engineer, Edward Martin, and he told me that the cry seemed to come from above him."
"It seemed to come from above when we heard it at Fu-Manchu's house."
"Martin sat up in bed, it was a clear moonlight night—the sort of moonlight you get in Burma. Lafitte, for some reason, had just gone to the window. His friend saw him look out. The next moment with a dreadful scream, he threw himself forward—and crashed down into the courtyard!"
"Martin ran to the window and looked down. Lafitte's scream had aroused the place, of course. But there was absolutely nothing to account for the occurrence. There was no balcony, no ledge, by means of which anyone could reach the window."
"But how did you come to recognize the cry?"
"I stopped at the Palace Mansions for some time; and one night this uncanny howling aroused me. I heard it quite distinctly, and am never likely to forget it. It was followed by a hoarse yell. The man in the next room, an orchid hunter, had gone the same way as the others!"
"Did you change your quarters?"
"No. Fortunately for the reputation of the hotel—a first-class establishment—several similar cases occurred elsewhere, both in Rangoon, in Prome and in Moulmein. A story got about the native quarter, and was fostered by some mad fakir, that the god Siva was reborn and that the cry was his call for victims; a ghastly story, which led to an outbreak of dacoity and gave the District Superintendent no end of trouble."
"Was there anything unusual about the bodies?"
"They all developed marks after death, as though they had been strangled! The marks were said all to possess a peculiar form, though it was not appreciable to my eye; and this, again, was declared to be the five heads of Siva."
"Were the deaths confined to Europeans?"
"Oh, no. Several Burmans and others died in the same way. At first there was a theory that the victims had contracted leprosy and committed suicide as a result; but the medical evidence disproved that. The Call of Siva became a perfect nightmare throughout Burma."
"Did you ever hear it again, before this evening?"
"Yes. I heard it on the Upper Irrawaddy one clear, moonlight night, and a Colassie—a deck-hand—leaped from the top deck of the steamer aboard which I was traveling! My God! to think that the fiend Fu-Manchu has brought That to England!"
"But brought what, Smith?" I cried, in perplexity. "What has he brought? An evil spirit? A mental disease? What is it? What CAN it be?"
"A new agent of death, Petrie! Something born in a plague-spot of Burma—the home of much that is unclean and much that is inexplicable. Heaven grant that we be in time, and are able to save Guthrie."