The Brood of the Witch-Queen by Sax Rohmer
Chapter XX. The Incense
To Robert Cairn it seemed that the boat-train would never reach Charing Cross. His restlessness was appalling. He perpetually glanced from his father, with whom he shared the compartment, to the flying landscape with its vistas of hop-poles; and Dr. Cairn, although he exhibited less anxiety, was, nevertheless, strung to highest tension.
That dash from Cairo homeward had been something of a fevered dream to both men. To learn, whilst one is searching for a malign and implacable enemy in Egypt, that that enemy, having secretly returned to London, is weaving his evil spells around "some we loved, the loveliest and the best," is to know the meaning of ordeal.
In pursuit of Antony Ferrara--the incarnation of an awful evil--Dr. Cairn had deserted his practice, had left England for Egypt. Now he was hurrying back again; for whilst he had sought in strange and dark places of that land of mystery for Antony Ferrara, the latter had been darkly active in London!
Again and again Robert Cairn read the letter which, surely as a royal command, had recalled them. It was from Myra Duquesne. One line in it had fallen upon them like a bomb, had altered all their plans, had shattered the one fragment of peace remaining to them.
In the eyes of Robert Cairn, the whole universe centred around Myra Duquesne; she was the one being in the world of whom he could not bear to think in conjunction with Antony Ferrara. Now he knew that Antony Ferrara was beside her, was, doubtless at this very moment, directing those Black Arts of which he was master, to the destruction of her mind and body--perhaps of her very soul.
Again he drew the worn envelope from his pocket and read that ominous sentence, which, when his eyes had first fallen upon it, had blotted out the sunlight of Egypt.
"... And you will be surprised to hear that Antony is back in London ... and is a frequent visitor here. It is quite like old times...."
Raising his haggard eyes, Robert Cairn saw that his father was watching him.
"Keep calm, my boy," urged the doctor; "it can profit us nothing, it can profit Myra nothing, for you to shatter your nerves at a time when real trials are before you. You are inviting another breakdown. Oh! I know it is hard; but for everybody's sake try to keep yourself in hand."
"I am trying, sir," replied Robert hollowly.
Dr. Cairn nodded, drumming his fingers upon his knee.
"We must be diplomatic," he continued. "That James Saunderson proposed to return to London, I had no idea. I thought that Myra would be far outside the Black maelstroem in Scotland. Had I suspected that Saunderson would come to London, I should have made other arrangements."
"Of course, sir, I know that. But even so we could never have foreseen this."
Dr. Cairn shook his head.
"To think that whilst we have been scouring Egypt from Port Said to Assouan--he has been laughing at us in London!" he said. "Directly after the affair at Meydum he must have left the country--how, Heaven only knows. That letter is three weeks old, now?"
Robert Cairn nodded. "What may have happened since--what may have happened!"
"You take too gloomy a view. James Saunderson is a Roman guardian. Even Antony Ferrara could make little headway there."
"But Myra says that--Ferrara is--a frequent visitor."
"And Saunderson," replied Dr. Cairn with a grim smile, "is a Scotchman! Rely upon his diplomacy, Rob. Myra will be safe enough."
"God grant that she is!"
At that, silence fell between them, until punctually to time, the train slowed into Charing Cross. Inspired by a common anxiety, Dr. Cairn and his son were first among the passengers to pass the barrier. The car was waiting for them; and within five minutes of the arrival of the train they were whirling through London's traffic to the house of James Saunderson.
It lay in that quaint backwater, remote from motor-bus high-ways--Dulwich Common, and was a rambling red-tiled building which at some time had been a farmhouse. As the big car pulled up at the gate, Saunderson, a large-boned Scotchman, tawny-eyed, and with his grey hair worn long and untidily, came out to meet them. Myra Duquesne stood beside him. A quick blush coloured her face momentarily; then left it pale again.
Indeed, her pallor was alarming. As Robert Cairn, leaping from the car, seized both her hands and looked into her eyes, it seemed to him that the girl had almost an ethereal appearance. Something clutched at his heart, iced his blood; for Myra Duquesne seemed a creature scarcely belonging to the world of humanity--seemed already half a spirit. The light in her sweet eyes was good to see; but her fragility, and a certain transparency of complexion, horrified him.
Yet, he knew that he must hide these fears from her; and turning to Mr. Saunderson, he shook him warmly by the hand, and the party of four passed by the low porch into the house.
In the hall-way Miss Saunderson, a typical Scottish housekeeper, stood beaming welcome; but in the very instant of greeting her, Robert Cairn stopped suddenly as if transfixed.
Dr. Cairn also pulled up just within the door, his nostrils quivering and his clear grey eyes turning right and left--searching the shadows.
Miss Saunderson detected this sudden restraint.
"Is anything the matter?" she asked anxiously.
Myra, standing beside Mr. Saunderson, began to look frightened. But Dr. Cairn, shaking off the incubus which had descended upon him, forced a laugh, and clapping his hand upon Robert's shoulder cried:
"Wake up, my boy! I know it is good to be back in England again, but keep your day-dreaming for after lunch!"
Robert Cairn forced a ghostly smile in return, and the odd incident promised soon to be forgotten.
"How good of you," said Myra as the party entered the dining-room, "to come right from the station to see us. And you must be expected in Half-Moon Street, Dr. Cairn?"
"Of course we came to see you first," replied Robert Cairn significantly.
Myra lowered her face and pursued that subject no further.
No mention was made of Antony Ferrara, and neither Dr. Cairn nor his son cared to broach the subject. The lunch passed off, then, without any reference to the very matter which had brought them there that day.
It was not until nearly an hour later that Dr. Cairn and his son found themselves alone for a moment. Then, with a furtive glance about him, the doctor spoke of that which had occupied his mind, to the exclusion of all else, since first they had entered the house of James Saunderson.
"You noticed it, Rob?" he whispered.
"My God! it nearly choked me!"
Dr. Cairn nodded grimly.
"It is all over the house," he continued, "in every room that I have entered. They are used to it, and evidently do not notice it, but coming in from the clean air, it is--"
"We know it," continued Dr. Cairn softly--"that smell of unholiness; we have good reason to know it. It heralded the death of Sir Michael Ferrara. It heralded the death of--another."
"With a just God in heaven, can such things be?"
"It is the secret incense of Ancient Egypt," whispered Dr. Cairn, glancing towards the open door; "it is the odour of that Black Magic which, by all natural law, should be buried and lost for ever in the tombs of the ancient wizards. Only two living men within my knowledge know the use and the hidden meaning of that perfume; only one living man has ever dared to make it--to use it...."
"We knew he was here, boy; now we know that he is using his powers here. Something tells me that we come to the end of the fight. May victory be with the just."