Chapter VI. The Beetles
 

Sixteen hours had elapsed and London's clocks were booming eleven that night, when the uncanny drama entered upon its final stage. Once more Dr. Cairn sat alone with Sir Michael's manuscript, but at frequent intervals his glance would stray to the telephone at his elbow. He had given orders to the effect that he was on no account to be disturbed and that his car should be ready at the door from ten o'clock onward.

As the sound of the final strokes was dying away the expected summons came. Dr. Cairn's jaw squared and his mouth was very grim, when he recognised his son's voice over the wires.

"Well, boy?"

"They're here, sir--now, while I'm speaking! I have been fighting--fighting hard--for half an hour. The place smells like a charnel-house and the--shapes are taking definite, horrible form! They have ... eyes!" His voice sounded harsh. "Quite black the eyes are, and they shine like beads! It's gradually wearing me down, although I have myself in hand, so far. I mean I might crack up--at any moment. Bah!--"

His voice ceased.

"Hullo!" cried Dr. Cairn. "Hullo, Rob!"

"It's all right, sir," came, all but inaudibly. "The--things are all around the edge of the light patch; they make a sort of rustling noise. It is a tremendous, conscious effort to keep them at bay. While I was speaking, I somehow lost my grip of the situation. One--crawled ... it fastened on my hand ... a hairy, many-limbed horror.... Oh, my God! another is touching...."

"Rob! Rob! Keep your nerve, boy! Do you hear?"

"Yes--yes--" faintly.

"Pray, my boy--pray for strength, and it will come to you! You must hold out for another ten minutes. Ten minutes--do you understand?"

"Yes! yes!--Merciful God!--if you can help me, do it, sir, or--"

"Hold out, boy! In ten minutes you'll have won."

Dr. Cairn hung up the receiver, raced from the library, and grabbing a cap from the rack in the hall, ran down the steps and bounded into the waiting car, shouting an address to the man.

Piccadilly was gay with supper-bound theatre crowds when he leapt out and ran into the hall-way which had been the scene of Robert's meeting with Myra Duquesne. Dr. Cairn ran past the lift doors and went up the stairs three steps at a time. He pressed his finger to the bell-push beside Antony Ferrara's door and held it there until the door opened and a dusky face appeared in the opening.

The visitor thrust his way in, past the white-clad man holding out his arms to detain him.

"Not at home, effendim--"

Dr. Cairn shot out a sinewy hand, grabbed the man--he was a tall fellahin--by the shoulder, and sent him spinning across the mosaic floor of the mandarah. The air was heavy with the perfume of ambergris.

Wasting no word upon the reeling man, Dr. Cairn stepped to the doorway. He jerked the drapery aside and found himself in a dark corridor. From his son's description of the chambers he had no difficulty in recognising the door of the study.

He turned the handle--the door proved to be unlocked--and entered the darkened room.

In the grate a huge fire glowed redly; the temperature of the place was almost unbearable. On the table the light from the silver lamp shed a patch of radiance, but the rest of the study was veiled in shadow.

A black-robed figure was seated in a high-backed, carved chair; one corner of the cowl-like garment was thrown across the table. Half rising, the figure turned--and, an evil apparition in the glow from the fire, Antony Ferrara faced the intruder.

Dr. Cairn walked forward, until he stood over the other.

"Uncover what you have on the table," he said succinctly.

Ferrara's strange eyes were uplifted to the speaker's with an expression in their depths which, in the Middle Ages, alone would have sent a man to the stake.

"Dr. Cairn--"

The husky voice had lost something of its suavity.

"You heard my order!"

"Your order! Surely, doctor, since I am in my own--"

"Uncover what you have on the table. Or must I do so for you!"

Antony Ferrara placed his hand upon the end of the black robe which lay across the table.

"Be careful, Dr. Cairn," he said evenly. "You--are taking risks."

Dr. Cairn suddenly leapt, seized the shielding hand in a sure grip and twisted Ferrara's arm behind him. Then, with a second rapid movement, he snatched away the robe. A faint smell--a smell of corruption, of ancient rottenness--arose on the superheated air.

A square of faded linen lay on the table, figured with all but indecipherable Egyptian characters, and upon it, in rows which formed a definite geometrical design, were arranged a great number of little, black insects.

Dr. Cairn released the hand which he held, and Ferrara sat quite still, looking straight before him.

"Dermestes beetles! from the skull of a mummy! You filthy, obscene beast!"

Ferrara spoke, with a calm suddenly regained:

"Is there anything obscene in the study of beetles?"

"My son saw these things here yesterday; and last night, and again to-night, you cast magnified doubles--glamours--of the horrible creatures into his rooms! By means which you know of, but which I know of, too, you sought to bring your thought-things down to the material plane."

"Dr. Cairn, my respect for you is great; but I fear that much study has made you mad."

Ferrara reached out his hand towards an ebony box; he was smiling.

"Don't dare to touch that box!"

He paused, glancing up.

"More orders, doctor?"

"Exactly."

Dr. Cairn grabbed the faded linen, scooping up the beetles within it, and, striding across the room, threw the whole unsavoury bundle into the heart of the fire. A great flame leapt up; there came a series of squeaky explosions, so that, almost, one might have imagined those age-old insects to have had life. Then the doctor turned again.

Ferrara leapt to his feet with a cry that had in it something inhuman, and began rapidly to babble in a tongue that was not European. He was facing Dr. Cairn, a tall, sinister figure, but one hand was groping behind him for the box.

"Stop that!" rapped the doctor imperatively--"and for the last time do not dare to touch that box!"

The flood of strange words was dammed. Ferrara stood quivering, but silent.

"The laws by which such as you were burnt--the wise laws of long ago--are no more," said Dr. Cairn. "English law cannot touch you, but God has provided for your kind!"

"Perhaps," whispered Ferrara, "you would like also to burn this box to which you object so strongly?"

"No power on earth would prevail upon me to touch it! But you--you have touched it--and you know the penalty! You raise forces of evil that have lain dormant for ages and dare to wield them. Beware! I know of some whom you have murdered; I cannot know how many you have sent to the madhouse. But I swear that in future your victims shall be few. There is a way to deal with you!"

He turned and walked to the door.

"Beware also, dear Dr. Cairn," came softly. "As you say, I raise forces of evil--"

Dr. Cairn spun about. In three strides he was standing over Antony Ferrara, fists clenched and his sinewy body tense in every fibre. His face was pale, as was apparent even in that vague light, and his eyes gleamed like steel.

"You raise other forces," he said--and his voice, though steady was very low; "evil forces, also."

Antony Ferrara, invoker of nameless horrors, shrank before him--before the primitive Celtic man whom unwittingly he had invoked. Dr. Cairn was spare and lean, but in perfect physical condition. Now he was strong, with the strength of a just cause. Moreover, he was dangerous, and Ferrara knew it well.

"I fear--" began the latter huskily.

"Dare to bandy words with me," said Dr. Cairn, with icy coolness, "answer me back but once again, and before God I'll strike you dead!"

Ferrara sat silent, clutching at the arms of his chair, and not daring to raise his eyes. For ten magnetic seconds they stayed so, then again Dr. Cairn turned, and this time walked out.

The clocks had been chiming the quarter after eleven as he had entered Antony Ferrara's chambers, and some had not finished their chimes when his son, choking, calling wildly upon Heaven to aid him, had fallen in the midst of crowding, obscene things, and, in the instant of his fall, had found the room clear of the waving antennae, the beady eyes, and the beetle shapes. The whole horrible phantasmagoria--together with the odour of ancient rottenness--faded like a fevered dream, at the moment that Dr. Cairn had burst in upon the creator of it.

Robert Cairn stood up, weakly, trembling; then dropped upon his knees and sobbed out prayers of thankfulness that came from his frightened soul.