The Brood of the Witch-Queen by Sax Rohmer
Chapter III. The Ring of Thoth
Half-Moon Street was very still; midnight had sounded nearly half-an-hour; but still Robert Cairn paced up and down his father's library. He was very pale, and many times he glanced at a book which lay open upon the table. Finally he paused before it and read once again certain passages.
"In the year 1571," it recorded, "the notorious Trois Echelles was executed in the Place de Greve. He confessed before the king, Charles IX.... that he performed marvels.... Admiral de Coligny, who also was present, recollected ... the death of two gentlemen.... He added that they were found black and swollen."
He turned over the page, with a hand none too steady.
"The famous Marechal d'Ancre, Concini Concini," he read, "was killed by a pistol shot on the drawbridge of the Louvre by Vitry, Captain of the Bodyguard, on the 24th of April, 1617.... It was proved that the Marechal and his wife made use of wax images, which they kept in coffins...."
Cairn shut the book hastily and began to pace the room again.
"Oh, it is utterly, fantastically incredible!" he groaned. "Yet, with my own eyes I saw--"
He stepped to a bookshelf and began to look for a book which, so far as his slight knowledge of the subject bore him, would possibly throw light upon the darkness. But he failed to find it. Despite the heat of the weather, the library seemed to have grown chilly. He pressed the bell.
"Marston," he said to the man who presently came, "you must be very tired, but Dr. Cairn will be here within an hour. Tell him that I have gone to Sir Michael Ferrara's."
"But it's after twelve o'clock, sir!"
"I know it is; nevertheless I am going."
"Very good, sir. You will wait there for the Doctor?"
"Exactly, Marston. Good-night!"
Robert Cairn went out into Half-Moon Street. The night was perfect, and the cloudless sky lavishly gemmed with stars. He walked on heedlessly, scarce noting in which direction. An awful conviction was with him, growing stronger each moment, that some mysterious menace, some danger unclassifiable, threatened Myra Duquesne. What did he suspect? He could give it no name. How should he act? He had no idea.
Sir Elwin Groves, whom he had seen that evening, had hinted broadly at mental trouble as the solution of Sir Michael Ferrara's peculiar symptoms. Although Sir Michael had had certain transactions with his solicitor during the early morning, he had apparently forgotten all about the matter, according to the celebrated physician.
"Between ourselves, Cairn," Sir Elwin had confided, "I believe he altered his will."
The inquiry of a taxi driver interrupted Cairn's meditations. He entered the vehicle, giving Sir Michael Ferrara's address.
His thoughts persistently turned to Myra Duquesne, who at that moment would be lying listening for the slightest sound from the sick-room; who would be fighting down fear, that she might do her duty to her guardian--fear of the waving phantom hands. The cab sped through the almost empty streets, and at last, rounding a corner, rolled up the tree-lined avenue, past three or four houses lighted only by the glitter of the moon, and came to a stop before that of Sir Michael Ferrara.
Lights shone from the many windows. The front door was open, and light streamed out into the porch.
"My God!" cried Cairn, leaping from the cab. "My God! what has happened?"
A thousand fears, a thousand reproaches, flooded his brain with frenzy. He went racing up to the steps and almost threw himself upon the man who stood half-dressed in the doorway.
"Felton, Felton!" he whispered hoarsely. "What has happened? Who--"
"Sir Michael, sir," answered the man. "I thought"--his voice broke--"you were the doctor, sir?"
"She fainted away, sir. Mrs. Hume is with her in the library, now."
Cairn thrust past the servant and ran into the library. The housekeeper and a trembling maid were bending over Myra Duquesne, who lay fully dressed, white and still, upon a Chesterfield. Cairn unceremoniously grasped her wrist, dropped upon his knees and placed his ear to the still breast.
"Thank God!" he said. "It is only a swoon. Look after her, Mrs. Hume."
The housekeeper, with set face, lowered her head, but did not trust herself to speak. Cairn went out into the hall and tapped Felton on the shoulder. The man turned with a great start.
"What happened?" he demanded. "Is Sir Michael--?"
"Five minutes before you came, sir." His voice was hoarse with emotion. "Miss Myra came out of her room. She thought someone called her. She rapped on Mrs. Hume's door, and Mrs. Hume, who was just retiring, opened it. She also thought she had heard someone calling Miss Myra out on the stairhead."
"There was no one there, sir. Everyone was in bed; I was just undressing, myself. But there was a sort of faint perfume--something like a church, only disgusting, sir--"
"How--disgusting! Did you smell it?"
"No, sir, never. Mrs. Hume and Miss Myra have noticed it in the house on other nights, and one of the maids, too. It was very strong, I'm told, last night. Well, sir, as they stood by the door they heard a horrid kind of choking scream. They both rushed to Sir Michael's room, and--"
"He was lying half out of bed, sir--"
"Seemed like he'd been strangled, they told me, and--"
"Who is with him now?"
The man grew even paler.
"No one, Mr. Cairn, sir. Miss Myra screamed out that there were two hands just unfastening from his throat as she and Mrs. Hume got to the door, and there was no living soul in the room, sir. I might as well out with it! We're all afraid to go in!"
Cairn turned and ran up the stairs. The upper landing was in darkness and the door of the room which he knew to be Sir Michael's stood wide open. As he entered, a faint scent came to his nostrils. It brought him up short at the threshold, with a chill of supernatural dread.
The bed was placed between the windows, and one curtain had been pulled aside, admitting a flood, of moonlight. Cairn remembered that Myra had mentioned this circumstance in connection with the disturbance of the previous night.
"Who, in God's name, opened that curtain!" he muttered.
Fully in the cold white light lay Sir Michael Ferrara, his silver hair gleaming and his strong, angular face upturned to the intruding rays. His glazed eyes were starting from their sockets; his face was nearly black; and his fingers were clutching the sheets in a death grip. Cairn had need of all his courage to touch him.
He was quite dead.
Someone was running up the stairs. Cairn turned, half dazed, anticipating the entrance of a local medical man. Into the room ran his father, switching on the light as he did so. A greyish tinge showed through his ruddy complexion. He scarcely noticed his son.
"Ferrara!" he cried, coming up to the bed. "Ferrara!"
He dropped on his knees beside the dead man.
"Ferrara, old fellow--"
His cry ended in something like a sob. Robert Cairn turned, choking, and went downstairs.
In the hall stood Felton and some other servants.
"She has recovered, sir. Mrs. Hume has taken her to another bedroom."
Cairn hesitated, then walked into the deserted library, where a light was burning. He began to pace up and down, clenching and unclenching his fists. Presently Felton knocked and entered. Clearly the man was glad of the chance to talk to someone.
"Mr. Antony has been 'phoned at Oxford, sir. I thought you might like to know. He is motoring down, sir, and will be here at four o'clock."
"Thank you," said Cairn shortly.
Ten minutes later his father joined him. He was a slim, well-preserved man, alert-eyed and active, yet he had aged five years in his son's eyes. His face was unusually pale, but he exhibited no other signs of emotion.
"Well, Rob," he said, tersely. "I can see you have something to tell me. I am listening."
Robert Cairn leant back against a bookshelf.
"I have something to tell you, sir, and something to ask you."
"Tell your story, first; then ask your question."
"My story begins in a Thames backwater--"
Dr. Cairn stared, squaring his jaw, but his son proceeded to relate, with some detail, the circumstances attendant upon the death of the king-swan. He went on to recount what took place in Antony Ferrara's rooms, and at the point where something had been taken from the table and thrown in the fire--
"Stop!" said Dr. Cairn. "What did he throw in the fire?"
The doctor's nostrils quivered, and his eyes were ablaze with some hardly repressed emotion.
"I cannot swear to it, sir--"
"Never mind. What do you think he threw in the fire?"
"A little image, of wax or something similar--an image of--a swan."
At that, despite his self-control, Dr. Cairn became so pale that his son leapt forward.
"All right, Rob," his father waved him away, and turning, walked slowly down the room.
"Go on," he said, rather huskily.
Robert Cairn continued his story up to the time that he visited the hospital where the dead girl lay.
"You can swear that she was the original of the photograph in Antony's rooms and the same who was waiting at the foot of the stair?"
"I can, sir."
Again the younger man resumed his story, relating what he had learnt from Myra Duquesne; what she had told him about the phantom hands; what Felton had told him about the strange perfume perceptible in the house.
"The ring," interrupted Dr. Cairn--"she would recognise it again?"
"She says so."
"Only that if some of your books are to be believed, sir, Trois Echelle, D'Ancre and others have gone to the stake for such things in a less enlightened age!"
"Less enlightened, boy!" Dr. Cairn turned his blazing eyes upon him. "More enlightened where the powers of hell were concerned!"
"Then you think--"
"Think! Have I spent half my life in such studies in vain? Did I labour with poor Michael Ferrara in Egypt and learn nothing? Just God! what an end to his labour! What a reward for mine!"
He buried his face in quivering hands.
"I cannot tell exactly what you mean by that, sir," said Robert Cairn; "but it brings me to my question."
Dr. Cairn did not speak, did not move.
"Who is Antony Ferrara?"
The doctor looked up at that; and it was a haggard face he raised from his hands.
"You have tried to ask me that before."
"I ask now, sir, with better prospect of receiving an answer."
"Yet I can give you none, Rob."
"Why, sir? Are you bound to secrecy?"
"In a degree, yes. But the real reason is this--I don't know."
"You don't know!"
"I have said so."
"Good God, sir, you amaze me! I have always felt certain that he was really no Ferrara, but an adopted son; yet it had never entered my mind that you were ignorant of his origin."
"You have not studied the subjects which I have studied; nor do I wish that you should; therefore it is impossible, at any rate now, to pursue that matter further. But I may perhaps supplement your researches into the history of Trois Echelles and Concini Concini. I believe you told me that you were looking in my library for some work which you failed to find?"
"I was looking for M. Chabas' translation of the Papyrus Harris."
"What do you know of it?"
"I once saw a copy in Antony Ferrara's rooms."
Dr. Cairn started slightly.
"Indeed. It happens that my copy is here; I lent it quite recently to--Sir Michael. It is probably somewhere on the shelves."
He turned on more lights and began to scan the rows of books. Presently--
"Here it is," he said, and took down and opened the book on the table. "This passage may interest you." He laid his finger upon it.
His son bent over the book and read the following:--
"Hai, the evil man, was a shepherd. He had said: 'O, that I might have a book of spells that would give me resistless power!' He obtained a book of the Formulas.... By the divine powers of these he enchanted men. He obtained a deep vault furnished with implements. He made waxen images of men, and love-charms. And then he perpetrated all the horrors that his heart conceived."
"Flinders Petrie," said Dr. Cairn, "mentions the Book of Thoth as another magical work conferring similar powers."
"But surely, sir--after all, it's the twentieth century--this is mere superstition!"
"I thought so--once!" replied Dr. Cairn. "But I have lived to know that Egyptian magic was a real and a potent force. A great part of it was no more than a kind of hypnotism, but there were other branches. Our most learned modern works are as children's nursery rhymes beside such a writing as the Egyptian Ritual of the Dead! God forgive me! What have I done!"
"You cannot reproach yourself in any way, sir!"
"Can I not?" said Dr. Cairn hoarsely. "Ah, Rob, you don't know!"
There came a rap on the door, and a local practitioner entered.
"This is a singular case, Dr. Cairn," he began diffidently. "An autopsy--"
"Nonsense!" cried Dr. Cairn. "Sir Elwin Groves had foreseen it--so had I!"
"But there are distinct marks of pressure on either side of the windpipe--"
"Certainly. These marks are not uncommon in such cases. Sir Michael had resided in the East and had contracted a form of plague. Virtually he died from it. The thing is highly contagious, and it is almost impossible to rid the system of it. A girl died in one of the hospitals this week, having identical marks on the throat." He turned to his son. "You saw her, Rob?"
Robert Cairn nodded, and finally the local man withdrew, highly mystified, but unable to contradict so celebrated a physician as Dr. Bruce Cairn.
The latter seated himself in an armchair, and rested his chin in the palm of his left hand. Robert Cairn paced restlessly about the library. Both were waiting, expectantly. At half-past two Felton brought in a tray of refreshments, but neither of the men attempted to avail themselves of the hospitality.
"Miss Duquesne?" asked the younger.
"She has just gone to sleep, sir."
"Good," muttered Dr. Cairn. "Blessed is youth."
Silence fell again, upon the man's departure, to be broken but rarely, despite the tumultuous thoughts of those two minds, until, at about a quarter to three, the faint sound of a throbbing motor brought Dr. Cairn sharply to his feet. He looked towards the window. Dawn was breaking. The car came roaring along the avenue and stopped outside the house.
Dr. Cairn and his son glanced at one another. A brief tumult and hurried exchange of words sounded in the hall; footsteps were heard ascending the stairs, then came silence. The two stood side by side in front of the empty hearth, a haggard pair, fitly set in that desolate room, with the yellowing rays of the lamps shrinking before the first spears of dawn.
Then, without warning, the door opened slowly and deliberately, and Antony Ferrara came in.
His face was expressionless, ivory; his red lips were firm, and he drooped his head. But the long black eyes glinted and gleamed as if they reflected the glow from a furnace. He wore a motor coat lined with leopard skin and he was pulling off his heavy gloves.
"It is good of you to have waited, Doctor," he said in his huskily musical voice--"you too, Cairn."
He advanced a few steps into the room. Cairn was conscious of a kind of fear, but uppermost came a desire to pick up some heavy implement and crush this evilly effeminate thing with the serpent eyes. Then he found himself speaking; the words seemed to be forced from his throat.
"Antony Ferrara," he said, "have you read the Harris Papyrus?"
Ferrara dropped his glove, stooped and recovered it, and smiled faintly.
"No," he replied. "Have you?" His eyes were nearly closed, mere luminous slits. "But surely," he continued, "this is no time, Cairn, to discuss books? As my poor father's heir, and therefore your host, I beg of you to partake--"
A faint sound made him turn. Just within the door, where the light from the reddening library windows touched her as if with sanctity, stood Myra Duquesne, in her night robe, her hair unbound and her little bare feet gleaming whitely upon the red carpet. Her eyes were wide open, vacant of expression, but set upon Antony Ferrara's ungloved left hand.
Ferrara turned slowly to face her, until his back was towards the two men in the library. She began to speak, in a toneless, unemotional voice, raising her finger and pointing at a ring which Ferrara wore.
"I know you now," she said; "I know you, son of an evil woman, for you wear her ring, the sacred ring of Thoth. You have stained that ring with blood, as she stained it--with the blood of those who loved and trusted you. I could name you, but my lips are sealed--I could name you, brood of a witch, murderer, for I know you now."
Dispassionately, mechanically, she delivered her strange indictment. Over her shoulder appeared the anxious face of Mrs. Hume, finger to lip.
"My God!" muttered Cairn. "My God! What--"
"S--sh!" his father grasped his arm. "She is asleep!"
Myra Duquesne turned and quitted the room, Mrs. Hume hovering anxiously about her. Antony Ferrara faced around; his mouth was oddly twisted.
"She is troubled with strange dreams," he said, very huskily.
"Clairvoyant dreams!" Dr. Cairn addressed him for the first time. "Do not glare at me in that way, for it may be that I know you, too! Come, Rob."
Dr. Cairn laid his hand upon his son's shoulder, fixing his eyes upon him steadily.
"Nothing in this house can injure Myra," he replied quietly; "for Good is higher than Evil. For the present we can only go."
Antony Ferrara stood aside, as the two walked out of the library.