Part Fourth. The Eye of Sin Sin Wa
Chapter XXXV. Beyond the Veil
 

Rita Irvin's awakening was no awakening in the usually accepted sense of the word; it did not even represent a lifting of the veil which cut her off from the world, but no more than a momentary perception of the existence of such a veil and of the existence of something behind it. Upon the veil, in grey smoke, the name "Kazmah" was written in moving characters. Beyond the veil, dimly divined, was life.

As of old the victims of the Inquisition, waking or dreaming, beheld ever before them the instrument of their torture, so before this woman's racked and half-numbed mind panoramically passed, an endless pageant, the incidents of the night which had cut her off from living men and women. She tottered on the border-line which divides sanity from madness. She was learning what Sir Lucien had meant when, once, long long ago, in some remote time when she was young and happy and had belonged to a living world, he had said "a day is sure to come." It had come, that "day." It had dawned when she had torn the veil before Kazmah--and that veil had enveloped her ever since. All that had preceded the fatal act was blotted out, blurred and indistinct; all that had succeeded it lived eternally, passing, an endless pageant, before her tortured mind.

The horror of the moment when she had touched the hands of the man seated in the big ebony chair was of such kind that no subsequent terrors had supplanted it. For those long, slim hands of the color of old ivory were cold, rigid, lifeless--the hands of a corpse! Thus the pageant began, and it continued as hereafter, memory and delusion taking the stage in turn.

* * * * *

Complete darkness came.

Rita uttered a wild cry of horror and loathing, shrinking back from the thing which sat in the ebony chair. She felt that consciousness was slipping from her; felt herself falling, and shrieked to know herself helpless and alone with Kazmah. She groped for support, but found none; and, moaning, she sank down, and was unconscious of her fall.

A voice awakened her. Someone knelt beside her in the darkness, supporting her; someone who spoke wildly, despairingly, but with a strange, emotional reverence curbing the passion in his voice.

"Rita--my Rita! What have they done to you? Speak to me. . . . Oh God! Spare her to me. . . . Let her hate me for ever, but spare her--spare her. Rita, speak to me! I tried, heaven hear me, to save you little girl. I only want you to be happy!"

She felt herself being lifted gently, tenderly. And as though the man's passionate entreaty had called her back from the dead, she reentered into life and strove to realize what had happened.

Sir Lucien was supporting her, and she found it hard to credit the fact that it was he, the hard, nonchalant man of the world she knew, who had spoken. She clutched his arm with both hands.

"Oh, Lucy!" she whispered. "I am so frightened--and so ill."

"Thank God," he said huskily, "she is alive. Lean against me and try to stand up. We must get away from here."

Rita managed to stand upright, clinging wildly to Sir Lucien. A square, vaguely luminous opening became visible to her. Against it, silhouetted, she could discern part of the outline of Kazmah's chair. She drew back, uttering a low, sobbing cry. Sir Lucien supported her, and:

"Don't be afraid, dear," he said reassuringly. "Nothing shall hurt you."

He pushed open a door, and through it shone the same vague light which she had seen in the opening behind the chair. Sir Lucien spoke rapidly in a language which sounded like Spanish. He was answered by a perfect torrent of words in the same tongue.

Fiercely he cried something back at the hidden speaker.

A shriek of rage, of frenzy, came out of the darkness. Rita felt that consciousness was about to leave her again. She swayed forward dizzily, and a figure which seemed to belong to delirium--a lithe shadow out of which gleamed a pair of wild eyes--leapt upon her. A knife glittered. . . .

In order to have repelled the attack, Sir Lucien would have had to release Rita, who was clinging to him, weak and terror-stricken. Instead he threw himself before her. . . . She saw the knife enter his shoulder. . . .

Through absolute darkness she sank down into a land of chaotic nightmare horrors. Great bells clanged maddeningly. Impish hands plucked at her garments, dragged her hair. She was hurried this way and that, bruised, torn, and tossed helpless upon a sea of liquid brass. Through vast avenues lined with yellow, immobile Chinese faces she was borne upon a bier. Oblique eyes looked into hers. Knives which glittered greenly in the light of lamps globular and suspended in immeasurable space, were hurled at her in showers. . . .

Sir Lucien stood before her, supporting her; and all the knives buried themselves in his body. She tried to cry out, but no sound could she utter. Darkness fell again. . . .

A Chinaman was bending over her. His hands were tucked in his loose sleeves. He smiled, and his smile was hideous but friendly. He was strangely like Sin Sin Wa, save that he did not lack an eye.

Rita found herself lying in an untidy bed in a room laden with opium fumes and dimly lighted. On a table beside her were the remains of a meal. She strove to recall having partaken of food, but was unsuccessful. . . .

There came a blank--then a sharp, stabbing pain in her right arm. She thought it was the knife, and shrieked wildly again and again. . . .

Years seemingly elapsed, years of agony spent amid oblique eyes which floated in space unattached to any visible body, amid reeking fumes and sounds of ceaseless conflict. Once she heard the cry of some bird, and thought it must be the parakeet which eternally sat on a branch of a lonely palm in the heart of the Great Sahara. . . . Then, one night, when she lay shrinking from the plucking yellow hands which reached out of the darkness:

"Tell me your dream," boomed a deep, mocking voice; "and I will read its portent!"

She opened her eyes. She lay in the untidy bed in the room which was laden with the fumes of opium. She stared upward at the low, dirty ceiling.

"Why do you come to me with your stories of desperation?" continued the mocking voice. "You have insisted upon seeing me. I am here."

Rita managed to move her head so that she could see more of the room.

On a divan at the other end of the place, propped up by a number of garish cushions, Rita beheld Mrs. Sin. The long bamboo pipe had fallen from her listless fingers. Her face wore an expression of mystic rapture, like that characterizing the features of some Chinese Buddhas. . . .

In the other corner of the divan, contemplating her from under heavy brows, sat Kazmah. . . .