The Romance of Elaine by Arthur B. Reeve
Chapter III. The Watching Eye
Not a clue was left by the kidnappers when they so mysteriously spirited Elaine away from the apartment of Wu Fang. She had disappeared as completely as if she had vanished into the thin air.
Kennedy was frantic. Wu and Long Sin themselves seemed to have vanished, too. Where they held her, what had happened to her was a sealed book. And yet, no move of ours was made, no matter how secret, that it did not seem to be known to them. It was as though a weird, uncanny eye glared at us, watching everything.
Craig neglected no possibility in his eager search. He even visited the little house in the country which Elaine had given to Aunt Tabby, and spent several hours examining the collapsed subterranean chamber in the vain hope that it might yield a clue. But it had not.
It was half filled with debris from above, where the pillar had given way that night when we had all so nearly lost our lives. Still, there was enough room in what remained of the cavern so that we could move about.
Kennedy had even dug away some of the earth and rock, in the hope of discovering some trace of the strange visitor whom we had surprised at work. But here, also, he had found nothing.
It was maddening. What might at any moment be happening to Elaine- -and he powerless to help her?
Unescapably, he was forced to the conclusion that not only Elaine's amazing disappearance, but the tragic succession of events which had preceded it, had been caused, in some way, by the curiously engraved ring which Aunt Josephine had taken from Elaine.
Craig had taken possession of the mystic ring himself, and now, forced back on this sole clue, it had occurred to him that if the ring were so valuable, other attempts would, without doubt, be made to get possession of it.
I came into the laboratory, one afternoon, to find Kennedy surrounded by jeweler's tools, hard at work making an exact copy of the ring.
"What do you think of it, Walter?" he asked, holding up the replica.
"Perfect," I replied, admiringly. "What are you going to do with it?"
"I can't say--yet," answered Kennedy, forlornly, "but if I understand these Chinese criminals at all, I know that the only way we can ever track them is through some trick. Perhaps the replica will suggest something to us later."
He placed the copy in a velvet-lined box closely resembling that in which the real ring lay, and dropped both into his pocket.
"Let's see if Aunt Josephine has received any word," he remarked abruptly, putting on his hat and coat, and nodding to me to follow.
Kennedy and I were not the only visitors to the subterranean chamber where it had seemed that the clue to the Clutching Hand's millions might be found.
It was as though that hidden, watching eye followed us. The night after our own unsuccessful search, Wu Fang, accompanied by Long Sin, made his way into the cavern.
As they flashed their electric bull's-eyes about the place, they could see readily that we had already been digging there.
Wu examined the safe which had been broken into, while Long Sin repeated his experiences there.
"And you say there was nothing else in it?" demanded Wu.
"Nothing but the ring which they got from me," replied Long Sin, ruefully.
"Strange--very strange," ruminated Wu, still regarding the empty strong box.
Long Sin was now going over the walls of the cavern minutely, his close-set, beady black eyes examining every square inch of it.
A sudden low guttural exclamation caused Wu to turn to him quickly. Long Sin had discovered, back of the debris, a small oblong slot, cut into the rock. Above it were some peculiar marks.
Wu hurried over to his henchman, and together they tried to decipher what had been scratched on the rock.
As Long Sin's slender and sinister forefinger traced over the inscription, Wu suddenly caught him by the elbow.
"The ring!" he cried, as at last he interpreted the meaning of the cryptic characters.
But what about the ring? For a moment Wu looked at the slot in deep thought. Then he reached down and withdrew a ring from his own finger and dropped it through the slot.
They listened a moment. They could hear the ring tinkle as though it were running down some sort of track-like declivity inside the rock. Then, faintly, they could hear it drop. It had fallen into a little cup of a compartment below at their feet.
Nothing happened. Wu recovered his ring. But he had hit at last upon the Clutching Hand's secret!
Bennett had devised a ring-lock which would open, the treasure vault. No other ring except the one which he had so carefully hidden was of the size or weight that would move the lever which would set the machinery working to open the treasure house.
Again Wu tried another of his own rings, and a third time Long Sin dropped in a ring from his finger. Still there was no result.
"The ring which we lost is the key to the puzzle--the only key," exclaimed Wu Fang finally. "We must recover it at all hazard."
To his subtle mind a plan of action seemed to unfold almost instantly. "There is no good remaining here," he added. "And we have gained nothing by the capture of the girl, unless we can use her to recover the ring."
Long Sin followed his master with a sort of intuition. "If we have to steal it," he suggested deferentially, "it can be accomplished best by making use of Chong Wah Tong."
The Tong was the criminal band which they had offended, which had in fact stolen the ring from Long Sin and sold it to Elaine. Yet in a game such as this enmity could not last when it was mutually disadvantageous. Wu took the suggestion. He decided instantly to make peace with his enemies--and use them.
Later that night, in his car, Wu stopped near the little curio shop kept by the new Tong leader.
Long Sin alighted and entered the shop, while the Tong man eyed him suspiciously.
"My master has come to make peace," he began, saluting the Tong leader behind the counter.
Nothing, in reality, could have pleased the Tong men more, for in their hearts they feared the master-like subtlety of Wu Fang. The conference was short and Long Sin with a bow left quickly to rejoin Wu, while the Tong leader disappeared into a back room of the shop where several of the inner circle sat.
"All is well, master," reported Long Sin when he had made his way back to the car around the corner in which Wu was waiting.
Wu smiled and a moment later followed by his slave in crime entered the curio shop and passed through with great dignity into the room in the rear.
As the two entered, the Tong men bowed with great respect.
"Let us be enemies no more," began Wu briefly. "Let us rather help each other as brothers."
He extended his right hand, palm down, as he spoke. For a moment the Tong leader parleyed with the others, then stepped forward and laid his own hand, palm down, over that of Wu. One by one the others did the same, including Long Sin, the aggrieved.
Peace was restored.
Wu had risen to go, and the Tong men were bowing a respectful farewell. He turned and saw a large vase. For a moment he paused before it. It was an enormous affair and was apparently composed of a mosaic of rare Chinese enamels, cunningly put together by the deft and patient fingers of the oriental craftsmen. Extending from the widely curving bowl below was an extremely long, narrow, tapering neck.
Wu looked at it intently; then an idea seemed to strike him. He called the Tong leader and the others about him.
Quickly he outlined the details of a plan.
. . . . . . .
"Have you received any word yet?" asked Aunt Josephine anxiously, when Jennings had ushered us into the Dodge library.
Kennedy shook his head sadly. There was no need to repeat the question to Aunt Josephine. The tears in her eyes told only too plainly that she herself had heard nothing, either.
Craig bent over and placed his hand on her shoulder. For the moment, none of us could control our emotions.
A few minutes later, Jennings entered the room softly again. "The expressmen are outside, ma'am, with a large package," he said.
"A package?" inquired Aunt Josephine, looking up, surprised. "For me--are you sure?"
Jennings bowed and repeated his remark. Aunt Josephine followed him out into the hall.
There, already, the delivery men had set down a huge oriental vase with a remarkably long and narrow neck. It was, as befitted such a really beautiful object of art, most carefully crated. But to Aunt Josephine it came as a complete surprise. "I can't imagine who could have sent it," she temporized. "Are you quite sure it is for me?"
The expressman, with a book, looked up from the list of names down which he was running his finger. "This is Mrs. Dodge, isn't it?" he asked, pointing with his pencil to the entry with the address following it. There seemed to be no name of a shipper.
"Yes," she replied dubiously, "but I don't understand it. Wait just a moment"
She went to the library door. "Mr. Kennedy," she said, "may I trouble you and Mr. Jameson a moment?"
We followed her into the hall and there stood gazing at the mysterious gift while she related its recent history.
"Why not set it up in the library?" I suggested, seeing that the expressmen were getting restive at the delay. "If there is any mistake, they will send for it soon. No one ever gets anything for nothing."
Aunt Josephine turned to the expressmen and nodded. With the aid of Jennings they carried the vase into the library and there it was uncrated, while Kennedy continued to question the man with the book, without eliciting any further information than that he thought it had been reconsigned from another express company. He knew nothing more than that it had been placed on his wagon, properly marked and prepaid.
When Kennedy rejoined us, the vase had been completely uncrated, Aunt Josephine signed for it, and, grumbling a bit, the expressmen left. There we stood, nonplussed by the curious gift.
Craig walked around the vase, looking at it critically. I had a feeling of being watched, one of those sensations which psychologists tell us are utterly baseless and unfounded. I was glad I had not said anything about it when he tapped the vase with his cane, then stuck it down the long narrow neck, working it around as well as he could. The neck was so long and narrow, however, that his stick could not fully explore the inside of the vase, but it seemed to me to be quite empty.
"Well, there's nothing in it, anyhow," I ventured.
I had spoken too soon. Kennedy withdrew his cane and on the ferrule, adhering as though by some sticky substance, was a note. Kennedy pulled it off and unfolded it, while we gathered about him.
"Maybe it's from Elaine," cried Aunt Josephine, grasping at a straw.
DEAR AUNT JOSEPHINE,
This is a token that I am unharmed. Have Mr. Kennedy give the ring to the man at the corner of Williams and Brownlee Avenues at midnight to-night, and they will surrender me to him.--ELAINE.
P. S. Have him come alone or my life will be in danger.
We looked at each other in amazement.
"I thought something like this would happen," remarked Craig at length.
"Oh," cried Aunt Josephine, "it's too good to be true."
"We'll do it," exclaimed Kennedy quickly, "only this is the ring that we'll give them."
He drew from his pocket the replica of the ring which he had made and showed it to Aunt Josephine. Then he drew from another pocket the real ring, replacing the replica.
"Here's the real one," he said in a low tone. "Guard it as you would guard your life."
She took the ring, almost fearfully. It seemed as if nothing but misfortune had followed it. Still, she realized that it was necessary that she should take care of it, if the plan was to work.
"And, oh, Mr. Kennedy," she implored, as we rose to go, "please get back my little girl for me."
Craig clasped her hand. "I'll try my best," he replied fervently, patting her shoulder to cheer her up, as she sank into a chair.
Aunt Josephine was worn out with the sleepless nights of worry since Elaine's disappearance. After we had gone, she tried to eat dinner, but found that she had no appetite.
All the evening she sat in the library, with a book at which she stared, though she scarcely read a page. However, as the hours lengthened, she found herself nodding through sheer exhaustion.
It was getting late and her thoughts were still on Elaine, At the desk in the library, she was examining the curious ring, which she had taken from her jewel case, thinking of the terrible train of events that had followed it.
Although she had intended to sit up until she received some word from Kennedy that night, the long strain had told on her and in spite of her worry about Elaine, she decided, at length, to retire. She replaced the ring in the case, locked the case, and turned out the lights.
"Good night, Jennings," she said, as she passed the faithful old butler in the hall.
"Good night, ma'am," he replied, pausing on his rounds to see that the doors and windows were locked.
Aunt Josephine, clasping the jewel case tightly, mounted the stairs and entered her room. She locked the door carefully and put the jewelry case under her pillow. Then she switched off the light.
The moment Jennings's footsteps ceased down-stairs in the library, a small piece of the vase seemed to break away from the rest of the mosaic, as though it were knocked out from the inside. Then a large piece fell out, and another.
At last from the strange hiding-place a lithe figure, as shiny as though bathed in oil, naked except for a loin-cloth, seemed to squirm forth like a serpent. It was Wu Fang--the watchful eye which, literally as well as figuratively, had been leveled at us in one form or another ever since the kidnapping of Elaine.
Silently he tiptoed to the doorway and listened. There was not a sound. Just as noiselessly then he went back to the library table and muffling the telephone bell, took down the receiver. He whispered a number, waited, then whispered some directions.
A moment later he wormed his way out of the library and into the drawing-room. On he went cautiously, snake-like, up the stairs until he came to the door of Aunt Josephine's room.
He bent down and listened. There was no sound except Aunt Josephine's breathing. Silently he drew from a fold in the loin- cloth a screwdriver and removed the screws from the hinges of the door. Quietly he pushed the bedroom door open, pivoting it on the lock, just far enough open so that he could slip through.
Creeping along the floor, like a reptile whose sign he had assumed, he came nearer and nearer Aunt Josephine's bed. As he paused for a moment his quick eye seemed to catch sight of the bulging lump under her pillow. His long thin hand reached out for it.
Aunt Josephine moved restlessly in her sleep. Instantly he seized a murderous-looking Chinese dirk fastened to his side and raised it above her head ready to strike on the slightest outcry. She moved slightly, and relapsed into sound sleep again.
Holding the knife above her, Wu slowly and quietly removed the jewel-case from under her pillow.
. . . . . . .
In a country road-house Long Sin was waiting patiently. The telephone rang and the proprietor answered. Long Sin was at his side almost before he could hand over the receiver. It was Long Sin's master, Wu.
"Beware," came the whispered message over the wire. "Kennedy has made a false ring. I'll get the real one. By the great Devil of Gobi, you must cut him off."
"It is done," returned Long Sin, hanging up the receiver in great excitement.
He hurried out of the room and left the road-house. Down the road in an automobile, bound between two Chinamen, one at her head and the other at her feet, was Elaine, wrapped around in blankets, not even her face visible. The guards looked up startled as Long Sin streaked out of the shadow to the car.
"Quick!" he ordered. "The master will get the ring himself. I will take care of Kennedy."
An instant and they were gone, while Long Sin slunk back into the shadows from which he had come.
Through the underbrush the wily Chinaman made his way to an old barn, which stood back some distance from the road, and entered the front door. There was another door in the rear, and one quite large window.
In the dim light of a lantern hanging from a rafter could be seen several large barrels in a corner. Without a moment's hesitation, Long Sin seized a bucket and placed it under the spiggot of one of the barrels. The liquid poured forth into the bucket and he emptied the contents on the floor, filling the bucket again and again and swinging it right and left in every direction until the barrel had finally run dry.
Then he moved over to the window, which he examined carefully. Satisfied with what he had done, he drew a slip of paper from his pocket and hastily wrote a note, resting the paper on an old box. When he had finished writing, he folded up the note and thrust it into a little hollow carved Chinese figure which he took also from his pocket.
These were, apparently, his emergency preparations which he was ready to execute in case he received such a message from his master as he had actually received.
With a final hasty glance about he extinguished the lantern, letting the moonlight stream fitfully through the single window. Then he left the barn, with both front and rear doors open.
Taking advantage of every bit of shelter, he made his way across the field in the direction of the crossroads, finally dropping down behind a huge rock some yards from the finger post that pointed each way to Williams and Brownlee Avenues.
. . . . . . .
Late that night, Kennedy left his apartment prepared to follow the instructions in the note which had been so strangely delivered in the vase.
As he climbed into a roadster, he tucked the robe most carefully into a corner under the leather seat.
"For heaven's sake, Craig," I gasped from under the robe, "let me have a little air."
I had taken my place under the robe before the car was driven up before the apartment, lest some emissary of Wu Fang might be watching to see that there was no such trick.
"You'll get air enough when we get started, Walter," he laughed back under his breath, apparently addressing the engine.
Kennedy was a hard driver when he wanted to be and enough was at stake to-night to make him drive hard. He whizzed along in the roadster, and I was indeed glad enough to huddle up under the robe.
We had reached a point in the suburbs which was deserted and I did not recognize a thing when he pulled up by the side of the road with a jerk. I peered through a crease in the corner of the robe, and saw him slide out from under the wheel and stand by the side of the car, looking up and down. Ahead of us the road curved sharply and I had no idea what was there, though Kennedy seemed to know the place.
A moment later he pulled the robe partly off me, and bent down as though examining the batteries on the side of the car.
"Get out on the other side in the shadow of the car, Walter," he whispered hoarsely. "Go down the road a bit--only cut in and keep under cover. This is Williams Avenue. You'll see a big rock. Hide behind it. Ahead you'll see Brownlee Avenue. Be prepared for anything. I shall have to trust the rest to you. I don't know myself what's going to happen."
I slid out and went along the edge of the road, as Craig had directed, and finally crouched behind a huge rock, feeling on as much tension as if I had been a boy playing at Wild West. Only this might at any moment develop into the reality of a Wild Far East.
After a moment to give me a chance, Craig himself left the car pulled up close by the side of the road and went ahead on foot. At last he came to the cross-roads just around the bend, where in the moonlight he could read the sign: "Williams Avenue" and "Brownlee Avenue." He stood there a moment, then glanced at his watch which registered both hands approaching the hour of twelve. He gazed about at the deserted country. Had the appointment been a hoax, after all, a scheme to get him away from the city for some purpose?
Suddenly, at his feet in the dust of the road something heavy seemed to drop. He looked about quickly. No one was in sight.
He reached down and picked up a little Chinese figure. Tapping it with his knuckle, he examined it curiously. It was hollow.
From the inside he drew out a piece of paper. He strained his eyes in the moonlight and managed to make out:
The Serpent is all-wise, and his fang is fatal. You have signed the white girl's death warrant.
Beneath this sinister warning was stamped the serpent sign of Wu Fang.
It was not a hoax, and Kennedy stood there a moment gazing about in tense anxiety. Had that uncanny watching eye observed his every action? Was it staring at him now in the blackness?
. . . . . . .
Meanwhile, I had made my way stealthily, peering into the bushes and careful not even to step on anything that would make a noise and was now, as I have said, crouched behind the big rock to which Craig had directed me. I heard him go along the road and looked about cautiously, but could hear and see nothing else.
I had begun to wonder whether Kennedy might not have made a mistake when, suddenly, from behind the shadow of another rock, ahead of me, but toward Brownlee Avenue, I saw a tall, gaunt figure of a man rise in the moonlight, almost as if it had sprung from the very earth.
My heart gave a leap, as he quickly raised his right arm and hurled something as far as he could in the direction that Kennedy had taken. If it had been a bomb, followed by an explosion, I would not have been surprised. But no sound followed as the figure dropped back as if it had been a wraith.
I stole out from my own hiding-place in the shadow of my rock and darted quickly to the shelter of a bush, nearer the figure.
The figure was no wraith. It turned to steal away. I remembered Kennedy's parting words. If the man ever gained the darkness of a clump of woods, just beyond us, he was as good as safe. This was the time to act.
I leaped at him and we went down, rolling over and over in the underbrush and stubble. We fought fiercely, but I could not seem to get a glimpse of his face which was muffled.
He was powerful and stronger than I and after a tough tussle he broke loose. But I had succeeded, nevertheless. I had delayed him just long enough. Kennedy heard the sound of the struggle and was now crashing through the hedge at the cross-roads in our direction.
I managed to pick myself up, just as Kennedy reached my side and, together, we followed the retreating figure, as it made its way among the shadows. Across the open space before us we followed him and at last saw him dive into an old barn.
A moment later we followed hot-foot into the barn. As we entered, we could hear a peculiar grating noise, as though a door was swung on its rusty hinges. The front door was open. Evidently the man had gone through and closed the back door.
We threw ourselves against the back door. But it did not yield. There was no time to waste and we turned to rush out again by the way we had come, just as the front door was slammed shut.
The man had trapped us. He had left both doors open, had run through, braced the back door, then had rushed around outside just in time to brace the front door also.
We could hear his feet crunching the dry leaves and twigs as he went around the side of the barn again. Together we threw ourselves against the front door, but, although it yielded a little he had barred it so that it would resist our united strength for some time.
Again and again we threw ourselves against it. It was horribly dark in there, except for an oblong spot where the moonlight streamed in through a window. Suddenly the pale silver of the moonlight on the floor reddened.
The man had struck a match and thrown it into a mass of oil-soaked straw and gunpowder which protruded through one of the weather- beaten boards, near the floor.
It was only a matter of a second or so now when the fire swept into the barn itself. There was no beating it out. Some one had literally soaked the straw and the floor with oil. It seemed as though the whole place burst into a sudden blaze of tinder. Outside, we could hear footsteps rapidly retreating toward the shelter of the clump of woods.
For a second I looked dismayed at the rapidly-mounting flames.
"A very pretty situation," I forced with a laugh. "But I hope he doesn't think we'll stay here and burn, with a perfectly good window in full view."
I took a step toward the window, but before I could take another, Kennedy yanked me back.
"Don't think for a moment that he overlooked that," he shouted.
Craig looked around hastily. In a corner, just back of us was a long pole. He snatched it up and moved cautiously toward the window, keeping the pole as level as possible as he endeavored to get a leverage on the sash. The flames were mounting faster and higher, licking up everything.
"Keep back, Walter," he muttered, "just as far as you can."
He had scarcely raised the window a fraction of an inch when an old rusty, heavy anvil and a bent worn plowshare crashed down to the floor directly over the spot where I should have been if he had not dragged me away. I started back, aghast. Nothing had been overlooked to finish us off.
"I think you may try it safely now, all right," smiled Kennedy coolly.
We climbed out of the window, not an instant too soon from the raging inferno about us.
Having gained the clump of woods, the gaunt figure had paused long enough to gloat over his clever scheme. Instead, he saw us making good our escape. With a gesture of intense fury he turned. There was nothing more for him to do but to zigzag his way to safety across country.
The barn was now burning fiercely and it was almost as light as day about us. Kennedy paused only long enough to look down at the ground where the fire had been started.
"See, Walter," he exclaimed pointing to a square indention in the soft soil. "No white man ever made a footprint like that."
I bent over. The prints had the squareness of those paper-layered soles of a Chinaman.
"Long Sin," came the name involuntarily to my lips, for I knew that Wu would delegate just such a job to his faithful slave.
Kennedy did not pause an instant longer, but in the light of the burning barn, as best he could, started to follow the trail in a desperate endeavor either to overtake Long Sin, or at least to find the final direction in which he would go.
. . . . . . .
At the entrance of the passageway which led to the little underground chamber in which we had sought the treasure hidden by the Clutching Hand, Wu Fang was seated on a rock waiting impatiently, though now and then indulging in a sinister smile at the subtle trick by which he had recovered the ring.
The sound of approaching footsteps disturbed him. He was far too clever to leave anything to chance and, like a serpent, he wriggled behind another rock and waited. It was only a glance, however, that he needed to allay his suspicions. It was Long Sin, breathless.
Wu stepped out beside him so quietly that even the acute Long Sin did not hear. "Well?" he said in a guttural tone.
Long Sin drew back in fear. "I have failed, oh master," he replied in an imploring tone. "Even now they follow my tracks."
It was bad enough to confess defeat without the fear of capture.
Wu frowned. "We must work quickly, then," he muttered.
He picked up a dark lantern near-by, indicating another to Long Sin. They entered the cave, flashing the lights ahead of them.
"Be careful," ordered Wu, proceeding gingerly from one stepping- stone to another. "We shall be followed no further than this."
He paused a moment and pointed his finger at the earth. Everywhere, except here and there where a stone projected, was a sticky, slimy substance. It was an old trick of primitive races.
"Bird lime," hissed Wu, pointing at the viscid substance made of the juice of the holly bark, extracted by boiling, and mixed with a third part of nut oil and grease.
They passed on from stone to stone until they came to the subterranean chamber itself. Without a moment's hesitation, Wu made his way toward the rock in which they had found the slot with its cryptic inscription.
Long Sin watched his master in silent admiration as, at last, he drew forth the mystic ring for which they had dared all.
Without a word, Wu dropped it in the slot. It tinkled down the runway, a protuberance hit a trigger and pushed it a hair's breadth.
A noise behind them caused the two to turn startled. Even Wu had not expected it.
On the other side of the chamber, a great rock in the ground slowly turned, as though on a pivot. They watched, fascinated. Even then Wu did not forget the precious ring, but as the rock turned, reached down quickly and recovered it from the cup at the floor.
Inch by inch the pivoted rock moved on its axis. They flashed their lanterns full on it and, as it moved, they could see disclosed huge piles of gold and silver in coins and bars and ornaments, a chest literally filled with brilliants, set and unset, rubies, emeralds, precious stones of every conceivable variety, a cave that would have staggered even Aladdin--the rich reward of the countless marauding operations of Bennett's other personality.
For a moment they could merely stand in avaricious exultation.
. . . . . . .
Painfully and slowly, we managed to trail Long Sin's footprints, until we came to a road where they were lost in the hard macadam. There was no time to stop. We must follow the road on the chance that he had taken it. But which way?
Kennedy chose the most likely direction, for the trail had been at an angle to the road and Long Sin was not likely to double back. We had not gone many rods before Kennedy paused a minute and looked about in the moonlight.
"It's right, Walter," he cried. "Do you recognize it?"
I looked about. Then it flashed over me. This was the back road that led past the entrance to the treasure vault at Aunt Tabby's.
We went on now more quickly, listening carefully to catch any sounds, but heard nothing. At last Kennedy stopped, then plunged among the rocks and bushes beside the road. We were at the cave.
"You go in this way, Walter," he directed. "I'll go around and down where it caved in."
I groped my way along through the darkness.
I had gone only a yard or two, when it seemed as though something had grasped my foot.
With a great wrench I managed to pull it loose. But the weight on my other foot had imbedded it deeper. I struggled to free this foot and got the other caught. My revolver, which I had drawn, was jarred from my hand and in the effort to recover it, I lost my balance. Unable to move a foot in time to catch myself, I fell forward. My hands were now covered by the slimy, sticky stuff, and the more I struggled, the worse I seemed to get entangled.
. . . . . . .
Wu and Long Sin paused only a minute in astonishment. Then they literally fell upon the wealth that lay before them, gloating over the gold, stuffing their hands into the jewels, lifting them up and letting the priceless gems run through their fingers.
Suddenly they paused. There was the slight tinkle of a Chinese bell.
Kennedy had reached Aunt Tabby's garden, outside the roof of the subterranean chamber where it had given way, had gone down carefully over the earth and rock, and in doing so had broken a string stretched across the passageway. The tinkle of a bell attached to it aroused his attention and he stopped short, a second, to look about. Wu Fang had arranged a primitive alarm.
Quickly, Wu and Long Sin blew out their lanterns while Wu gave the rock a push. Slowly, as it had opened, it now closed and they stood there listening.
I was still struggling in the bird lime, getting myself more and more covered with it, when the reverberation of revolver shots reached me.
Wu and Long Sin had opened fire on Kennedy, and Kennedy was replying in kind. In the cavern it sounded like a veritable bombardment. As they retreated, they came nearer and nearer to me and I could see the revolvers spitting fire in the darkness. So intent were they on Kennedy that they forgot me.
I watched them fearfully as they hopped deftly from one stone to another to avoid the lime--and were gone.
"Craig! Craig!" I managed to cry feebly. "Be careful. Keep to the stones."
He strained his eyes toward the ground in the darkness, at the sound of my voice. Then he struck a match and instantly took in the situation which, to me, under any other circumstances, would have been ludicrous.
Stepping from stone to stone, he followed the retreating Chinamen. But they had already reached the mouth of the cave and were making their way rapidly down the road to a bend, in the opposite direction from which we had come. There, Wu's automobile was waiting. They leaped into it and the driver, without a word, shot the car off into the darkness of early dawn.
A moment later, Kennedy appeared, but they had made their getaway. Baffled, he turned and retraced his steps to the cave.
I don't think that I ever welcomed him more sincerely than I did as, finally, I crawled slowly out from the bird lime, exhausted by the effort that I had made to free myself from the sticky mess.
"They got away, Walter," he said, lighting a lantern they had dropped. "By George," he added, I think a little vexed that I had not been able to stop them, "you are a sight!"
He was about to laugh, when I fainted. I can remember nothing until I woke up over by the wall of the chamber where he dragged me.
Kennedy had been working hard to revive me, and, as I opened my eyes, he straightened up. His eye suddenly caught something on the rock beside him. There was a little slot carved in it, and above the slot was a peculiar inscription.
For several minutes, Kennedy puzzled over it, as Wu had done. Then he discovered the little cup near the ground.
"The ring!" he suddenly cried out.
I was too muddled to appreciate at once what he meant, but I saw him reach into his fob pocket and draw forth the replica of the trinket which had caused so much disaster, as if it had been cursed by the Clutching Hand himself. He dropped it into the slot.
Struggling to my feet, I saw across from me the very rock itself moving. Was it an hallucination, born of my nervous condition?
"Look, Craig!" I cried involuntarily, pointing.
He turned. No, it was not a vision. It actually moved. Together we watched. Slowly the rock turned on a pivot. There were disclosed to our astonished eyes the hidden millions of the Clutching Hand.
I looked from the gold and jewels to Kennedy, in speechless amazement.
"We have beaten them, anyhow," I cried.
Slowly Craig shook his head sadly.
"Yes," he murmured, "we have found the Clutching Hand's millions, but we have lost Elaine."