Chapter II. The Phantom Hands
 

A week later Robert Cairn quitted Oxford to take up the newspaper appointment offered to him in London. It may have been due to some mysterious design of a hidden providence that Sime 'phoned him early in the week about an unusual case in one of the hospitals.

"Walton is junior house-surgeon there," he said, "and he can arrange for you to see the case. She (the patient) undoubtedly died from some rare nervous affection. I have a theory," etc.; the conversation became technical.

Cairn went to the hospital, and by courtesy of Walton, whom he had known at Oxford, was permitted to view the body.

"The symptoms which Sime has got to hear about," explained the surgeon, raising the sheet from the dead woman's face, "are--"

He broke off. Cairn had suddenly exhibited a ghastly pallor; he clutched at Walton for support.

"My God!"

Cairn, still holding on to the other, stooped over the discoloured face. It had been a pretty face when warm life had tinted its curves; now it was congested--awful; two heavy discolorations showed, one on either side of the region of the larynx.

"What on earth is wrong with you?" demanded Walton.

"I thought," gasped Cairn, "for a moment, that I knew--"

"Really! I wish you did! We can't find out anything about her. Have a good look."

"No," said Cairn, mastering himself with an effort--"a chance resemblance, that's all." He wiped the beads of perspiration from his forehead.

"You look jolly shaky," commented Walton. "Is she like someone you know very well?"

"No, not at all, now that I come to consider the features; but it was a shock at first. What on earth caused death?"

"Asphyxia," answered Walton shortly. "Can't you see?"

"Someone strangled her, and she was brought here too late?"

"Not at all, my dear chap; nobody strangled her. She was brought here in a critical state four or five days ago by one of the slum priests who keep us so busy. We diagnosed it as exhaustion from lack of food--with other complications. But the case was doing quite well up to last night; she was recovering strength. Then, at about one o'clock, she sprang up in bed, and fell back choking. By the time the nurse got to her it was all over."

"But the marks on her throat?"

Walton shrugged his shoulders.

"There they are! Our men are keenly interested. It's absolutely unique. Young Shaw, who has a mania for the nervous system, sent a long account up to Sime, who suffers from a similar form of aberration."

"Yes; Sime 'phoned me."

"It's nothing to do with nerves," said Walton contemptuously. "Don't ask me to explain it, but it's certainly no nerve case."

"One of the other patients--"

"My dear chap, the other patients were all fast asleep! The nurse was at her table in the corner, and in full view of the bed the whole time. I tell you no one touched her!"

"How long elapsed before the nurse got to her?"

"Possibly half a minute. But there is no means of learning when the paroxysm commenced. The leaping up in bed probably marked the end and not the beginning of the attack."

Cairn experienced a longing for the fresh air; it was as though some evil cloud hovered around and about the poor unknown. Strange ideas, horrible ideas, conjectures based upon imaginings all but insane, flooded his mind darkly.

Leaving the hospital, which harboured a grim secret, he stood at the gate for a moment, undecided what to do. His father, Dr. Cairn, was out of London, or he would certainly have sought him in this hour of sore perplexity.

"What in Heaven's name is behind it all!" he asked himself.

For he knew beyond doubt that the girl who lay in the hospital was the same that he had seen one night at Oxford, was the girl whose photograph he had found in Antony Ferrara's rooms!

He formed a sudden resolution. A taxi-cab was passing at that moment, and he hailed it, giving Sir Michael Ferrara's address. He could scarcely trust himself to think, but frightful possibilities presented themselves to him, repel them how he might. London seemed to grow dark, overshadowed, as once he had seen a Thames backwater grow. He shuddered, as though from a physical chill.

The house of the famous Egyptian scholar, dull white behind its rampart of trees, presented no unusual appearances to his anxious scrutiny. What he feared he scarcely knew; what he suspected he could not have defined.

Sir Michael, said the servant, was unwell and could see no one. That did not surprise Cairn; Sir Michael had not enjoyed good health since malaria had laid him low in Syria. But Miss Duquesne was at home.

Cairn was shown into the long, low-ceiled room which contained so many priceless relics of a past civilisation. Upon the bookcase stood the stately ranks of volumes which had carried the fame of Europe's foremost Egyptologist to every corner of the civilised world. This queerly furnished room held many memories for Robert Cairn, who had known it from childhood, but latterly it had always appeared to him in his daydreams as the setting for a dainty figure. It was here that he had first met Myra Duquesne, Sir Michael's niece, when, fresh from a Norman convent, she had come to shed light and gladness upon the somewhat, sombre household of the scholar. He often thought of that day; he could recall every detail of the meeting--

Myra Duquesne came in, pulling aside the heavy curtains that hung in the arched entrance. With a granite Osiris flanking her slim figure on one side and a gilded sarcophagus on the other, she burst upon the visitor, a radiant vision in white. The light gleamed through her soft, brown hair forming a halo for a face that Robert Cairn knew for the sweetest in the world.

"Why, Mr. Cairn," she said, and blushed entrancingly--"we thought you had forgotten us."

"That's not a little bit likely," he replied, taking her proffered hand, and there was that in his voice and in his look which made her lower her frank grey eyes. "I have only been in London a few days, and I find that Press work is more exacting than I had anticipated!"

"Did you want to see my uncle very particularly?" asked Myra.

"In a way, yes. I suppose he could not manage to see me--"

Myra shook her head. Now that the flush of excitement had left her face, Cairn was concerned to see how pale she was and what dark shadows lurked beneath her eyes.

"Sir Michael is not seriously ill?" he asked quickly. "Only one of the visual attacks--"

"Yes--at least it began with one."

She hesitated, and Cairn saw to his consternation that her eyes became filled with tears. The real loneliness of her position, now that her guardian was ill, the absence of a friend in whom she could confide her fears, suddenly grew apparent to the man who sat watching her.

"You are tired out," he said gently. "You have been nursing him?"

She nodded and tried to smile.

"Who is attending?"

"Sir Elwin Groves, but--"

"Shall I wire for my father?"

"We wired for him yesterday!"

"What! to Paris?"

"Yes, at my uncle's wish."

Cairn started.

"Then--he thinks he is seriously ill, himself?"

"I cannot say," answered the girl wearily. "His behaviour is--queer. He will allow no one in his room, and barely consents to see Sir Elwin. Then, twice recently, he has awakened in the night and made a singular request."

"What is that?"

"He has asked me to send for his solicitor in the morning, speaking harshly and almost as though--he hated me...."

"I don't understand. Have you complied?"

"Yes, and on each occasion he has refused to see the solicitor when he has arrived!"

"I gather that you have been acting as night-attendant?"

"I remain in an adjoining room; he is always worse at night. Perhaps it is telling on my nerves, but last night--"

Again she hesitated, as though doubting the wisdom of further speech; but a brief scrutiny of Cairn's face, with deep anxiety to be read in his eyes, determined her to proceed.

"I had been asleep, and I must have been dreaming, for I thought that a voice was chanting, quite near to me."

"Chanting?"

"Yes--it was horrible, in some way. Then a sensation of intense coldness came; it was as though some icily cold creature fanned me with its wings! I cannot describe it, but it was numbing; I think I must have felt as those poor travellers do who succumb to the temptation to sleep in the snow."

Cairn surveyed her anxiously, for in its essentials this might be a symptom of a dreadful ailment.

"I aroused myself, however," she continued, "but experienced an unaccountable dread of entering my uncle's room. I could hear him muttering strangely, and--I forced myself to enter! I saw--oh, how can I tell you! You will think me mad!"

She raised her hands to her face; she was trembling. Robert Cairn took them in his own, forcing her to look up.

"Tell me," he said quietly.

"The curtains were drawn back; I distinctly remembered having closed them, but they were drawn back; and the moonlight was shining on to the bed."

"Bad; he was dreaming."

"But was I dreaming? Mr. Cairn, two hands were stretched out over my uncle, two hands that swayed slowly up and down in the moonlight!"

Cairn leapt to his feet, passing his hand over his forehead.

"Go on," he said.

"I--I cried out, but not loudly--I think I was very near to swooning. The hands were withdrawn into the shadow, and my uncle awoke and sat up. He asked, in a low voice, if I were there, and I ran to him."

"Yes."

"He ordered me, very coldly, to 'phone for his solicitor at nine o'clock this morning, and then fell back, and was asleep again almost immediately. The solicitor came, and was with him for nearly an hour. He sent for one of his clerks, and they both went away at half-past ten. Uncle has been in a sort of dazed condition ever since; in fact he has only once aroused himself, to ask for Dr. Cairn. I had a telegram sent immediately."

"The governor will be here to-night," said Cairn confidently. "Tell me, the hands which you thought you saw: was there anything peculiar about them?"

"In the moonlight they seemed to be of a dull white colour. There was a ring on one finger--a green ring. Oh!" she shuddered. "I can see it now."

"You would know it again?"

"Anywhere!"

"Actually, there was no one in the room, of course?"

"No one. It was some awful illusion; but I can never forget it."