The Brood of the Witch-Queen by Sax Rohmer
Chapter XVI. Lair of the Spiders
"We must find that house, find the sarcophagus--for I no longer doubt that it exists--drag it out, and destroy it."
"Should you know it again, sir?"
"Beyond any possibility of doubt. It is the sarcophagus of a queen."
"A queen whose tomb the late Sir Michael Ferrara and I sought for many months, but failed to find."
"Is this queen well known in Egyptian history?"
Dr. Cairn stared at him with an odd expression in his eyes.
"Some histories ignore her existence entirely," he said; and, with an evident desire to change the subject, added, "I shall return to my room to dress now. Do you dress also. We cannot afford to sleep whilst the situation of that house remains unknown to us."
Robert Cairn nodded, and his father stood up, and went out of the room.
Dawn saw the two of them peering from the balcony upon the streets of Port Said, already dotted with moving figures, for the Egyptian is an early riser.
"Have you any clue," asked the younger man, "to the direction in which this place lies?"
"Absolutely none, for the reason that I do not know where my dreaming left off, and reality commenced. Did someone really come to my window, and lead me out through another room, downstairs, and into the street, or did I wander out of my own accord and merely imagine the existence of the guide? In either event, I must have been guided in some way to a back entrance; for had I attempted to leave by the front door of the hotel in that trance-like condition, I should certainly have been detained by the bowwab. Suppose we commence, then, by inquiring if there is such another entrance?"
The hotel staff was already afoot, and their inquiries led to the discovery of an entrance communicating with the native servants' quarters. This could not be reached from the main hall, but there was a narrow staircase to the left of the lift-shaft by which it might be gained. The two stood looking out across the stone-paved courtyard upon which the door opened.
"Beyond doubt," said Dr. Cairn, "I might have come down that staircase and out by this door without arousing a soul, either by passing through my own room, or through any other on that floor."
They crossed the yard, where members of the kitchen staff were busily polishing various cooking utensils, and opened the gate. Dr. Cairn turned to one of the men near by.
"Is this gate bolted at night?" he asked, in Arabic.
The man shook his head, and seemed to be much amused by the question, revealing his white teeth as he assured him that it was not.
A narrow lane ran along behind the hotel, communicating with a maze of streets almost exclusively peopled by natives.
"Rob," said Dr. Cairn slowly, "it begins to dawn upon me that this is the way I came."
He stood looking to right and left, and seemed to be undecided. Then:
"We will try right," he determined.
They set off along the narrow way. Once clear of the hotel wall, high buildings rose upon either side, so that at no time during the day could the sun have penetrated to the winding lane. Suddenly Robert Cairn stopped.
"Look!" he said, and pointed. "The mosque! You spoke of a mosque near to the house?"
Dr. Cairn nodded; his eyes were gleaming, now that he felt himself to be upon the track of this great evil which had shattered his peace.
They advanced until they stood before the door of the mosque--and there in the shadow of a low archway was just such an ancient, iron-studded door as Dr. Cairn remembered! Latticed windows overhung the street above, but no living creature was in sight.
He very gently pressed upon the door, but as he had anticipated it was fastened from within. In the vague light, his face seemed strangely haggard as he turned to his son, raising his eyebrows interrogatively.
"It is just possible that I may be mistaken," he said; "so that I scarcely know what to do."
He stood looking about him in some perplexity.
Adjoining the mosque, was a ruinous house, which clearly had had no occupants for many years. As Robert Cairn's gaze lighted upon its gaping window-frames and doorless porch, he seized his father by the arm.
"We might hide up there," he suggested, "and watch for anyone entering or leaving the place opposite."
"I have little doubt that this was the scene of my experience," replied Dr. Cairn; "therefore I think we will adopt your plan. Perhaps there is some means of egress at the back. It will be useful if we have to remain on the watch for any considerable time."
They entered the ruined building and, by means of a rickety staircase, gained the floor above. It moved beneath them unsafely, but from the divan which occupied one end of the apartment an uninterrupted view of the door below was obtainable.
"Stay here," said Dr. Cairn, "and watch, whilst I reconnoitre."
He descended the stairs again, to return in a minute or so and announce that another street could be reached through the back of the house. There and then they settled the plan of campaign. One at a time they would go to the hotel for their meals, so that the door would never be unwatched throughout the day. Dr. Cairn determined to make no inquiries respecting the house, as this might put the enemy upon his guard.
"We are in his own country, Rob," he said. "Here, we can trust no one."
Thereupon they commenced their singular and self-imposed task. In turn they went back to the hotel for breakfast, and watched fruitlessly throughout the morning. They lunched in the same way, and throughout the great midday heat sat hidden in the ruined building, mounting guard over that iron-studded door. It was a dreary and monotonous day, long to be remembered by both of them, and when the hour of sunset drew nigh, and their vigil remained unrewarded, they began to doubt the wisdom of their tactics. The street was but little frequented; there was not the slightest chance of their presence being discovered.
It was very quiet, too, so that no one could have approached unheard. At the hotel they had learnt the cause of the explosion during the night; an accident in the engine-room of a tramp steamer, which had done considerable damage, but caused no bodily injury.
"We may hope to win yet," said Dr. Cairn, in speaking of the incident. "It was the hand of God."
Silence had prevailed between them for a long time, and he was about to propose that his son should go back to dinner, when the rare sound of a footstep below checked the words upon his lips. Both craned their necks to obtain a view of the pedestrian.
An old man stooping beneath the burden of years and resting much of his weight upon a staff, came tottering into sight. The watchers crouched back, breathless with excitement, as the newcomer paused before the iron-studded door, and from beneath his cloak took out a big key.
Inserting it into the lock, he swung open the door; it creaked upon ancient hinges as it opened inward, revealing a glimpse of a stone floor. As the old man entered, Dr. Cairn grasped his son by the wrist.
"Down!" he whispered. "Now is our chance!"
They ran down the rickety stairs, crossed the narrow street, and Robert Cairn cautiously looked in around the door which had been left ajar.
Black against the dim light of another door at the further end of the large and barn-like apartment, showed the stooping figure. Tap, tap, tap! went the stick; and the old man had disappeared around a corner.
"Where can we hide?" whispered Dr. Cairn. "He is evidently making a tour of inspection."
The sound of footsteps mounting to the upper apartments came to their ears. They looked about them right and left, and presently the younger man detected a large wooden cupboard set in one wall. Opening it, he saw that it contained but one shelf only, near the top.
"When he returns," he said, "we can hide in here until he has gone out."
Dr. Cairn nodded; he was peering about the room intently.
"This is the place I came to, Rob!" he said softly; "but there was a stone stair leading down to some room underneath. We must find it."
The old man could be heard passing from room to room above; then his uneven footsteps sounded on the stair again, and glancing at one another the two stepped into the cupboard, and pulled the door gently inward. A few moments later, the old caretaker--since such appeared to be his office--passed out, slamming the door behind him. At that, they emerged from their hiding-place and began to examine the apartment carefully. It was growing very dark now; indeed with the door shut, it was difficult to detect the outlines of the room. Suddenly a loud cry broke the perfect stillness, seeming to come from somewhere above. Robert Cairn started violently, grasping his father's arm, but the older man smiled.
"You forget that there is a mosque almost opposite," he said. "That is the mueddin!"
His son laughed shortly.
"My nerves are not yet all that they might be," he explained, and bending low began to examine the pavement.
"There must be a trap-door in the floor?" he continued. "Don't you think so?"
His father nodded silently, and upon hands and knees also began to inspect the cracks and crannies between the various stones. In the right-hand corner furthest from the entrance, their quest was rewarded. A stone some three feet square moved slightly when pressure was applied to it, and gave up a sound of hollowness beneath the tread. Dust and litter covered the entire floor, but having cleared the top of this particular stone, a ring was discovered, lying flat in a circular groove cut to receive it. The blade of a penknife served to raise it from its resting place, and Dr. Cairn, standing astride across the trap, tugged at the ring, and, without great difficulty, raised the stone block from its place.
A square hole was revealed. There were irregular stone steps leading down into the blackness. A piece of candle, stuck in a crude wooden holder, lay upon the topmost. Dr. Cairn, taking a box of matches from his pocket, very quickly lighted the candle, and with it held in his left hand began to descend. His head was not yet below the level of the upper apartment when he paused.
"You have your revolver?" he said.
Robert nodded grimly, and took his revolver from his pocket.
A singular and most disagreeable smell was arising from the trap which they had opened; but ignoring this they descended, and presently stood side by side in a low cellar. Here the odour was almost insupportable; it had in it something menacing, something definitely repellent; and at the foot of the steps they stood hesitating.
Dr. Cairn slowly moved the candle, throwing the light along the floor, where it picked out strips of wood and broken cases, straw packing and kindred litter--until it impinged upon a brightly painted slab. Further, he moved it, and higher, and the end of a sarcophagus came into view. He drew a quick, hissing breath, and bending forward, directed the light into the interior of the ancient coffin. Then, he had need of all his iron nerve to choke down the cry that rose to his lips.
"By God! Look!" whispered his son.
Swathed in white wrappings, Antony Ferrara lay motionless before them.
The seconds passed one by one, until a whole minute was told, and still the two remained inert and the cold light shone fully upon that ivory face.
"Is he dead?"
Robert Cairn spoke huskily, grasping his father's shoulder.
"I think not," was the equally hoarse reply. "He is in the state of trance mentioned in--certain ancient writings; he is absorbing evil force from the sarcophagus of the Witch-Queen...."[A]
[Footnote A: Note.--"It seems exceedingly probable that ... the mummy-case (sarcophagus), with its painted presentment of the living person, was the material basis for the preservation of the ... Khu (magical powers) of a fully-equipped Adept."
Collectanea Hermetica. Vol. VIII.]
There was a faint rustling sound in the cellar, which seemed to grow louder and more insistent, but Dr. Cairn, apparently, did not notice it, for he turned to his son, and albeit the latter could see him but vaguely, he knew that his face was grimly set.
"It seems like butchery," he said evenly, "but, in the interests of the world, we must not hesitate. A shot might attract attention. Give me your knife."
For a moment, the other scarcely comprehended the full purport of the words. Mechanically he took out his knife, and opened the big blade.
"Good heavens, sir," he gasped breathlessly, "it is too awful!"
"Awful I grant you," replied Dr. Cairn, "but a duty--a duty, boy, and one that we must not shirk. I, alone among living men, know whom, and what, lies there, and my conscience directs me in what I do. His end shall be that which he had planned for you. Give me the knife."
He took the knife from his son's hand. With the light directed upon the still, ivory face, he stepped towards the sarcophagus. As he did so, something dropped from the roof, narrowly missed falling upon his outstretched hand, and with a soft, dull thud dropped upon the mud brick floor. Impelled by some intuition, he suddenly directed the light to the roof above.
Then with a shrill cry which he was wholly unable to repress, Robert Cairn seized his father's arm and began to pull him back towards the stair.
"Quick, sir!" he screamed shrilly, almost hysterically. "My God! my God! be quick!"
The appearance of the roof above had puzzled him for an instant as the light touched it, then in the next had filled his very soul with loathing and horror. For directly above them was moving a black patch, a foot or so in extent ... and it was composed of a dense moving mass of tarantula spiders! A line of the disgusting creatures was mounting the wall and crossing the ceiling, ever swelling the unclean group!
Dr. Cairn did not hesitate to leap for the stair, and as he did so the spiders began to drop. Indeed, they seemed to leap towards the intruders, until the floor all about them and the bottom steps of the stair presented a mass of black, moving insects.
A perfect panic fear seized upon them. At every step spiders crunched beneath their feet. They seem to come from nowhere, to be conjured up out of the darkness, until the whole cellar, the stairs, the very fetid air about them, became black and nauseous with spiders.
Half-way to the top Dr. Cairn turned, snatched out a revolver and began firing down into the cellar in the direction of the sarcophagus.
A hairy, clutching thing ran up his arm, and his son, uttering a groan of horror, struck at it and stained the tweed with its poisonous blood.
They staggered to the head of the steps, and there Dr. Cairn turned and hurled the candle at a monstrous spider that suddenly sprang into view. The candle, still attached to its wooden socket, went bounding down steps that now were literally carpeted with insects.
Tarantulas began to run out from the trap, as if pursuing the intruders, and a faint light showed from below. Then came a crackling sound, and a wisp of smoke floated up.
Dr. Cairn threw open the outer door, and the two panic-stricken men leapt out into the street and away from the spider army. White to the lips they stood leaning against the wall.
"Was it really--Ferrara?" whispered Robert.
"I hope so!" was the answer.
Dr. Cairn pointed to the closed door. A fan of smoke was creeping from beneath it.
* * * * *
The fire which ensued destroyed, not only the house in which it had broken out, but the two adjoining; and the neighbouring mosque was saved only with the utmost difficulty.
When, in the dawn of the new day, Dr. Cairn looked down into the smoking pit which once had been the home of the spiders, he shook his head and turned to his son.
"If our eyes did not deceive us, Rob," he said, "a just retribution at last has claimed him!"
Pressing a way through the surrounding crowd of natives, they returned to the hotel. The hall porter stopped them as they entered.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, "but which is Mr. Robert Cairn?"
Robert Cairn stepped forward.
"A young gentleman left this for you, sir, half an hour ago," said the man--"a very pale gentleman, with black eyes. He said you'd dropped it."
Robert Cairn unwrapped the little parcel. It contained a penknife, the ivory handle charred as if it had been in a furnace. It was his own--which he had handed to his father in that awful cellar at the moment when the first spider had dropped; and a card was enclosed, bearing the pencilled words, "With Antony Ferrara's Compliments."