Chapter XXVI. The Ivory Hand
 

For close upon an hour Robert Cairn sat at his writing-table, endeavouring to puzzle out a solution to the mystery of Ferrara's motive. His reflections served only to confuse his mind.

A tangible clue lay upon the table before him--the silken cord. But it was a clue of such a nature that, whatever deductions an expert detective might have based upon it, Robert Cairn could base none. Dusk was not far off, and he knew that his nerves were not what they had been before those events which had led to his Egyptian journey. He was back in his own chamber--scene of one gruesome outrage in Ferrara's unholy campaign; for darkness is the ally of crime, and it had always been in the darkness that Ferrara's activities had most fearfully manifested themselves.

What was that?

Cairn ran to the window, and, leaning out, looked down into the court below. He could have sworn that a voice--a voice possessing a strange music, a husky music, wholly hateful--had called him by name. But at the moment the court was deserted, for it was already past the hour at which members of the legal fraternity desert their business premises to hasten homewards. Shadows were creeping under the quaint old archways; shadows were draping the ancient walls. And there was something in the aspect of the place which reminded him of a quadrangle at Oxford, across which, upon a certain fateful evening, he and another had watched the red light rising and falling in Antony Ferrara's rooms.

Clearly his imagination was playing him tricks; and against this he knew full well that he must guard himself. The light in his rooms was growing dim, but instinctively his gaze sought out and found the mysterious silken cord amid the litter on the table. He contemplated the telephone, but since he had left a message for his father, he knew that the latter would ring him up directly he returned.

Work, he thought, should be the likeliest antidote to the poisonous thoughts which oppressed his mind, and again he seated himself at the table and opened his notes before him. The silken rope lay close to his left hand, but he did not touch it. He was about to switch on the reading lamp, for it was now too dark to write, when his mind wandered off along another channel of reflection. He found himself picturing Myra as she had looked the last time that he had seen her.

She was seated in Mr. Saunderson's garden, still pale from her dreadful illness, but beautiful--more beautiful in the eyes of Robert Cairn than any other woman in the world. The breeze was blowing her rebellious curls across her eyes--eyes bright with a happiness which he loved to see.

Her cheeks were paler than they were wont to be, and the sweet lips had lost something of their firmness. She wore a short cloak, and a wide-brimmed hat, unfashionable, but becoming. No one but Myra could successfully have worn that hat, he thought.

Wrapt in such lover-like memories, he forgot that he had sat down to write--forgot that he held a pen in his hand--and that this same hand had been outstretched to ignite the lamp.

When he ultimately awoke again to the hard facts of his lonely environment, he also awoke to a singular circumstance; he made the acquaintance of a strange phenomenon.

He had been writing unconsciously!

And this was what he had written:

"Robert Cairn--renounce your pursuit of me, and renounce Myra; or to-night--" The sentence was unfinished.

Momentarily, he stared at the words, endeavouring to persuade himself that he had written them consciously, in idle mood. But some voice within gave him the lie; so that with a suppressed groan he muttered aloud:

"It has begun!"

Almost as he spoke there came a sound, from the passage outside, that led him to slide his hand across the table--and to seize his revolver.

The visible presence of the little weapon reassured him; and, as a further sedative, he resorted to tobacco, filled and lighted his pipe, and leant back in the chair, blowing smoke rings towards the closed door.

He listened intently--and heard the sound again.

It was a soft hiss!

And now, he thought he could detect another noise--as of some creature dragging its body along the floor.

"A lizard!" he thought; and a memory of the basilisk eyes of Antony Ferrara came to him.

Both the sounds seemed to come slowly nearer and nearer--the dragging thing being evidently responsible for the hissing; until Cairn decided that the creature must be immediately outside the door.

Revolver in hand, he leapt across the room, and threw the door open.

The red carpet, to right and left, was innocent of reptiles!

Perhaps the creaking of the revolving chair, as he had prepared to quit it, had frightened the thing. With the idea before him, he systematically searched all the rooms into which it might have gone.

His search was unavailing; the mysterious reptile was not to be found.

Returning again to the study he seated himself behind the table, facing the door--which he left ajar.

Ten minutes passed in silence--only broken by the dim murmur of the distant traffic.

He had almost persuaded himself that his imagination--quickened by the atmosphere of mystery and horror wherein he had recently moved--was responsible for the hiss, when a new sound came to confute his reasoning.

The people occupying the chambers below were moving about so that their footsteps were faintly audible; but, above these dim footsteps, a rustling--vague, indefinite, demonstrated itself. As in the case of the hiss, it proceeded from the passage.

A light burnt inside the outer door, and this, as Cairn knew, must cast a shadow before any thing--or person--approaching the room.

Sssf! ssf!--came, like the rustle of light draperies.

The nervous suspense was almost unbearable. He waited.

What was creeping, slowly, cautiously, towards the open door?

Cairn toyed with the trigger of his revolver.

"The arts of the West shall try conclusions with those of the East," he said.

A shadow!...

Inch upon inch it grew--creeping across the door, until it covered all the threshold visible.

Someone was about to appear.

He raised the revolver.

The shadow moved along.

Cairn saw the tail of it creep past the door, until no shadow was there!

The shadow had come--and gone ... but there was no substance!

"I am going mad!"

The words forced themselves to his lips. He rested his chin upon his hands and clenched his teeth grimly. Did the horrors of insanity stare him in the face!

From that recent illness in London--when his nervous system had collapsed, utterly--despite his stay in Egypt he had never fully recovered. "A month will see you fit again," his father had said; but?--perhaps he had been wrong--perchance the affection had been deeper than he had suspected; and now this endless carnival of supernatural happenings had strained the weakened cells, so that he was become as a man in a delirium!

Where did reality end and phantasy begin? Was it all merely subjective?

He had read of such aberrations.

And now he sat wondering if he were the victim of a like affliction--and while he wondered he stared at the rope of silk. That was real.

Logic came to his rescue. If he had seen and heard strange things, so, too, had Sime in Egypt--so had his father, both in Egypt and in London! Inexplicable things were happening around him; and all could not be mad!

"I'm getting morbid again," he told himself; "the tricks of our damnable Ferrara are getting on my nerves. Just what he desires and intends!"

This latter reflection spurred him to new activity; and, pocketing the revolver, he switched off the light in the study and looked out of the window.

Glancing across the court, he thought that he saw a man standing below, peering upward. With his hands resting upon the window ledge, Cairn looked long and steadily.

There certainly was someone standing in the shadow of the tall plane tree--but whether man or woman he could not determine.

The unknown remaining in the same position, apparently watching, Cairn ran downstairs, and, passing out into the Court, walked rapidly across to the tree. There he paused in some surprise; there was no one visible by the tree and the whole court was quite deserted.

"Must have slipped off through the archway," he concluded; and, walking back, he remounted the stair and entered his chambers again.

Feeling a renewed curiosity regarding the silken rope which had so strangely come into his possession, he sat down at the table, and mastering his distaste for the thing, took it in his hands and examined it closely by the light of the lamp.

He was seated with his back to the windows, facing the door, so that no one could possibly have entered the room unseen by him. It was as he bent down to scrutinise the curious plaiting, that he felt a sensation stealing over him, as though someone were standing very close to his chair.

Grimly determined to resist any hypnotic tricks that might be practised against him, and well assured that there could be no person actually present in the chambers, he sat back, resting his revolver on his knee. Prompted by he knew not what, he slipped the silk cord into the table drawer and turned the key upon it.

As he did so a hand crept over his shoulder--followed by a bare arm of the hue of old ivory--a woman's arm!

Transfixed he sat, his eyes fastened upon the ring of dull metal, bearing a green stone inscribed with a complex figure vaguely resembling a spider, which adorned the index finger.

A faint perfume stole to his nostrils--that of the secret incense; and the ring was the ring of the Witch-Queen!

In this incredible moment he relaxed that iron control of his mind, which, alone, had saved him before. Even as he realised it, and strove to recover himself, he knew that it was too late; he knew that he was lost!

       *       *       *       *       *

Gloom ... blackness, unrelieved by any speck of light; murmuring, subdued, all around; the murmuring of a concourse of people. The darkness was odorous with a heavy perfume.

A voice came--followed by complete silence.

Again the voice sounded, chanting sweetly.

A response followed in deep male voices.

The response was taken up all around--what time a tiny speck grew, in the gloom--and grew, until it took form; and out of the darkness, the shape of a white-robed woman appeared--high up--far away.

Wherever the ray that illumined her figure emanated from, it did not perceptibly dispel the Stygian gloom all about her. She was bathed in dazzling light, but framed in impenetrable darkness.

Her dull gold hair was encircled by a band of white metal--like silver, bearing in front a round, burnished disk, that shone like a minor sun. Above the disk projected an ornament having the shape of a spider.

The intense light picked out every detail vividly. Neck and shoulders were bare--and the gleaming ivory arms were uplifted--the long slender fingers held aloft a golden casket covered with dim figures, almost undiscernible at that distance.

A glittering zone of the same white metal confined the snowy draperies. Her bare feet peeped out from beneath the flowing robe.

Above, below, and around her was--Memphian darkness!

Silence--the perfume was stifling.... A voice, seeming to come from a great distance, cried:--"On your knees to the Book of Thoth! on your knees to the Wisdom Queen, who is deathless, being unborn, who is dead though living, whose beauty is for all men--that all men may die...."

The whole invisible concourse took up the chant, and the light faded, until only the speck on the disk below the spider was visible.

Then that, too, vanished.

       *       *       *       *       *

A bell was ringing furiously. Its din grew louder and louder; it became insupportable. Cairn threw out his arms and staggered up like a man intoxicated. He grasped at the table-lamp only just in time to prevent it overturning.

The ringing was that of his telephone bell. He had been unconscious, then--under some spell!

He unhooked the receiver--and heard his father's voice.

"That you, Rob?" asked the doctor anxiously.

"Yes, sir," replied Cairn, eagerly, and he opened the drawer and slid his hand in for the silken cord.

"There is something you have to tell me?"

Cairn, without preamble, plunged excitedly into an account of his meeting with Ferrara. "The silk cord," he concluded, "I have in my hand at the present moment, and--"

"Hold on a moment!" came Dr. Cairn's voice, rather grimly.

Followed a short interval; then--

"Hullo, Rob! Listen to this, from to-night's paper: 'A curious discovery was made by an attendant in one of the rooms, of the Indian Section of the British Museum late this evening. A case had been opened in some way, and, although it contained more valuable objects, the only item which the thief had abstracted was a Thug's strangling-cord from Kundelee (district of Nursingpore).'"

"But, I don't understand--"

"Ferrara meant you to find that cord, boy! Remember, he is unacquainted with your chambers and he requires a focus for his damnable forces! He knows well that you will have the thing somewhere near to you, and probably he knows something of its awful history! You are in danger! Keep a fast hold upon yourself. I shall be with you in less than half-an-hour!"