The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer
Although we avoided all unnecessary delay, it was close upon midnight when our cab swung round into a darkly shadowed avenue, at the farther end of which, as seen through a tunnel, the moonlight glittered upon the windows of Rowan House, Sir Lionel Barton's home.
Stepping out before the porch of the long, squat building, I saw that it was banked in, as Smith had said, by trees and shrubs. The facade showed mantled in the strange exotic creeper which he had mentioned, and the air was pungent with an odor of decaying vegetation, with which mingled the heavy perfume of the little nocturnal red flowers which bloomed luxuriantly upon the creeper.
The place looked a veritable wilderness, and when we were admitted to the hall by Inspector Weymouth I saw that the interior was in keeping with the exterior, for the hall was constructed from the model of some apartment in an Assyrian temple, and the squat columns, the low seats, the hangings, all were eloquent of neglect, being thickly dust-coated. The musty smell, too, was almost as pronounced here as outside, beneath the trees.
To a library, whose contents overflowed in many literary torrents upon the floor, the detective conducted us.
"Good heavens!" I cried, "what's that?"
Something leaped from the top of the bookcase, ambled silently across the littered carpet, and passed from the library like a golden streak. I stood looking after it with startled eyes. Inspector Weymouth laughed dryly.
"It's a young puma, or a civet-cat, or something, Doctor," he said. "This house is full of surprises--and mysteries."
His voice was not quite steady, I thought, and he carefully closed the door ere proceeding further.
"Where is he?" asked Nayland Smith harshly. "How was it done?"
Weymouth sat down and lighted a cigar which I offered him.
"I thought you would like to hear what led up to it--so far as we know-- before seeing him?"
"Well," continued the Inspector, "the man you arranged to send down from the Yard got here all right and took up a post in the road outside, where he could command a good view of the gates. He saw and heard nothing, until going on for half-past ten, when a young lady turned up and went in."
"A young lady?"
"Miss Edmonds, Sir Lionel's shorthand typist. She had found, after getting home, that her bag, with her purse in, was missing, and she came back to see if she had left it here. She gave the alarm. My man heard the row from the road and came in. Then he ran out and rang us up. I immediately wired for you."
"He heard the row, you say. What row?"
"Miss Edmonds went into violent hysterics!"
Smith was pacing the room now in tense excitement.
"Describe what he saw when he came in."
"He saw a negro footman--there isn't an Englishman in the house-- trying to pacify the girl out in the hall yonder, and a Malay and another colored man beating their foreheads and howling. There was no sense to be got out of any of them, so he started to investigate for himself. He had taken the bearings of the place earlier in the evening, and from the light in a window on the ground floor had located the study; so he set out to look for the door. When he found it, it was locked from the inside."
"He went out and round to the window. There's no blind, and from the shrubbery you can see into the lumber-room known as the study. He looked in, as apparently Miss Edmonds had done before him. What he saw accounted for her hysterics."
Both Smith and I were hanging upon his words.
"All amongst the rubbish on the floor a big Egyptian mummy case was lying on its side, and face downwards, with his arms thrown across it, lay Sir Lionel Barton."
"My God! Yes. Go on."
"There was only a shaded reading-lamp alight, and it stood on a chair, shining right down on him; it made a patch of light on the floor, you understand." The Inspector indicated its extent with his bands. "Well, as the man smashed the glass and got the window open, and was just climbing in, he saw something else, so he says."
"What did he see?" demanded Smith shortly.
"A sort of green mist, sir. He says it seemed to be alive. It moved over the floor, about a foot from the ground, going away from him and towards a curtain at the other end of the study."
Nayland Smith fixed his eyes upon the speaker.
"Where did he first see this green mist?"
"He says, Mr. Smith, that he thinks it came from the mummy case."
"Yes; go on."
"It is to his credit that he climbed into the room after seeing a thing like that. He did. He turned the body over, and Sir Lionel looked horrible. He was quite dead. Then Croxted--that's the man's name--went over to this curtain. There was a glass door--shut. He opened it, and it gave on a conservatory--a place stacked from the tiled floor to the glass roof with more rubbish. It was dark inside, but enough light came from the study--it's really a drawing-room, by the way-- as he'd turned all the lamps on, to give him another glimpse of this green, crawling mist. There are three steps to go down. On the steps lay a dead Chinaman."
"A dead Chinaman!"
"A dead chinaman."
"Doctor seen them?" rapped Smith.
"Yes; a local man. He was out of his depth, I could see. Contradicted himself three times. But there's no need for another opinion--until we get the coroner's."
"Croxted was taken ill, Mr. Smith, and had to be sent home in a cab."
"What ails him?"
Detective-Inspector Weymouth raised his eyebrows and carefully knocked the ash from his cigar.
"He held out until I came, gave me the story, and then fainted right away. He said that something in the conservatory seemed to get him by the throat."
"Did he mean that literally?"
"I couldn't say. We had to send the girl home, too, of course."
Nayland Smith was pulling thoughtfully at the lobe of his left ear.
"Got any theory?" he jerked.
Weymouth shrugged his shoulders.
"Not one that includes the green mist," he said. "Shall we go in now?"
We crossed the Assyrian hall, where the members of that strange household were gathered in a panic-stricken group. They numbered four. Two of them were negroes, and two Easterns of some kind. I missed the Chinaman, Kwee, of whom Smith had spoken, and the Italian secretary; and from the way in which my friend peered about the shadows of the hall I divined that he, too, wondered at their absence. We entered Sir Lionel's study--an apartment which I despair of describing.
Nayland Smith's words, "an earthquake at Sotheby's auction-rooms," leaped to my mind at once; for the place was simply stacked with curious litter--loot of Africa, Mexico and Persia. In a clearing by the hearth a gas stove stood upon a packing-case, and about it lay a number of utensils for camp cookery. The odor of rotting vegetation, mingled with the insistent perfume of the strange night-blooming flowers, was borne in through the open window.
In the center of the floor, beside an overturned sarcophagus, lay a figure in a neutral-colored dressing-gown, face downwards, and arms thrust forward and over the side of the ancient Egyptian mummy case.
My friend advanced and knelt beside the dead man.
Smith sprang upright and turned with an extraordinary expression to Inspector Weymouth.
"You do not know Sir Lionel Barton by sight?" he rapped.
"No," began Weymouth, "but--"
"This is not Sir Lionel. This is Strozza, the secretary."
"What!" shouted Weymouth.
"Where is the other--the Chinaman--quick!" cried Smith.
"I have had him left where he was found--on the conservatory steps," said the Inspector.
Smith ran across the room to where, beyond the open door, a glimpse might be obtained of stacked-up curiosities. Holding back the curtain to allow more light to penetrate, he bent forward over a crumpled-up figure which lay upon the steps below.
"It is!" he cried aloud. "It is Sir Lionel's servant, Kwee."
Weymouth and I looked at one another across the body of the Italian; then our eyes turned together to where my friend, grim-faced, stood over the dead Chinaman. A breeze whispered through the leaves; a great wave of exotic perfume swept from the open window towards the curtained doorway.
It was a breath of the East--that stretched out a yellow hand to the West. It was symbolic of the subtle, intangible power manifested in Dr. Fu-Manchu, as Nayland Smith--lean, agile, bronzed with the suns of Burma, was symbolic of the clean British efficiency which sought to combat the insidious enemy.
"One thing is evident," said Smith: "no one in the house, Strozza excepted, knew that Sir Lionel was absent."
"How do you arrive at that?" asked Weymouth.
"The servants, in the hall, are bewailing him as dead. If they had seen him go out they would know that it must be someone else who lies here."
"What about the Chinaman?"
"Since there is no other means of entrance to the conservatory save through the study, Kwee must have hidden himself there at some time when his master was absent from the room."
"Croxted found the communicating door closed. What killed the Chinaman?"
"Both Miss Edmonds and Croxted found the study door locked from the inside. What killed Strozza?" retorted Smith.
"You will have noted," continued the Inspector, "that the secretary is wearing Sir Lionel's dressing-gown. It was seeing him in that, as she looked in at the window, which led Miss Edmonds to mistake him for her employer-- and consequently to put us on the wrong scent."
"He wore it in order that anybody looking in at the window would be sure to make that mistake," rapped Smith.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because he came here for a felonious purpose. See." Smith stooped and took up several tools from the litter on the floor. "There lies the lid. He came to open the sarcophagus. It contained the mummy of some notable person who flourished under Meneptah II; and Sir Lionel told me that a number of valuable ornaments and jewels probably were secreted amongst the wrappings. He proposed to open the thing and to submit the entire contents to examination to-night. He evidently changed his mind-- fortunately for himself."
I ran my fingers through my hair in perplexity.
"Then what has become of the mummy?"
Nayland Smith laughed dryly.
"It has vanished in the form of a green vapor apparently," he said. "Look at Strozza's face."
He turned the body over, and, used as I was to such spectacles, the contorted features of the Italian filled me with horror, so-- suggestive were they of a death more than ordinarily violent. I pulled aside the dressing-gown and searched the body for marks, but failed to find any. Nayland Smith crossed the room, and, assisted by the detective, carried Kwee, the Chinaman, into the study and laid him fully in the light. His puckered yellow face presented a sight even more awful than the other, and his blue lips were drawn back, exposing both upper and lower teeth. There were no marks of violence, but his limbs, like Strozza's, had been tortured during his mortal struggles into unnatural postures.
The breeze was growing higher, and pungent odor-waves from the damp shrubbery, bearing, too, the oppressive sweetness of the creeping, plant, swept constantly through the open window. Inspector Weymouth carefully relighted his cigar.
"I'm with you this far, Mr. Smith," he said. "Strozza, knowing Sir Lionel to be absent, locked himself in here to rifle the mummy case, for Croxted, entering by way of the window, found the key on the inside. Strozza didn't know that the Chinaman was hidden in the conservatory--"
"And Kwee did not dare to show himself, because he too was there for some mysterious reason of his own," interrupted Smith.
"Having got the lid off, something,--somebody--"
"Suppose we say the mummy?"
Weymouth laughed uneasily.
"Well, sir, something that vanished from a locked room without opening the door or the window killed Strozza."
"And something which, having killed Strozza, next killed the Chinaman, apparently without troubling to open the door behind which he lay concealed," Smith continued. "For once in a way, Inspector, Dr. Fu-Manchu has employed an ally which even his giant will was incapable entirely to subjugate. What blind force--what terrific agent of death--had he confined in that sarcophagus!"
"You think this is the work of Fu-Manchu?" I said. "If you are correct, his power indeed is more than human."
Something in my voice, I suppose, brought Smith right about. He surveyed me curiously.
"Can you doubt it? The presence of a concealed Chinaman surely is sufficient. Kwee, I feel assured, was one of the murder group, though probably he had only recently entered that mysterious service. He is unarmed, or I should feel disposed to think that his part was to assassinate Sir Lionel whilst, unsuspecting the presence of a hidden enemy, he was at work here. Strozza's opening the sarcophagus clearly spoiled the scheme."
"And led to the death--"
"Of a servant of Fu-Manchu. Yes. I am at a loss to account for that."
"Do you think that the sarcophagus entered into the scheme, Smith?"
My friend looked at me in evident perplexity.
"You mean that its arrival at the time when a creature of the Doctor-- Kwee--was concealed here, may have been a coincidence?"
I nodded; and Smith bent over the sarcophagus, curiously examining the garish paintings with which it was decorated inside and out. It lay sideways upon the floor, and seizing it by its edge, he turned it over.
"Heavy," he muttered; "but Strozza must have capsized it as he fell. He would not have laid it on its side to remove the lid. Hallo!"
He bent farther forward, catching at a piece of twine, and out of the mummy case pulled a rubber stopper or "cork."
"This was stuck in a hole level with the floor of the thing," he said. "Ugh! it has a disgusting smell."
I took it from his hands, and was about to examine it, when a loud voice sounded outside in the hall. The door was thrown open, and a big man, who, despite the warmth of the weather, wore a fur-lined overcoat, rushed impetuously into the room.
"Sir Lionel!" cried Smith eagerly. "I warned you! And see, you have had a very narrow escape."
Sir Lionel Barton glanced at what lay upon the floor, then from Smith to myself, and from me to Inspector Weymouth. He dropped into one of the few chairs unstacked with books.
"Mr. Smith," he said, with emotion, "what does this mean? Tell me--quickly."
In brief terms Smith detailed the happenings of the night-- or so much as he knew of them. Sir Lionel Barton listened, sitting quite still the while--an unusual repose in a man of such evidently tremendous nervous activity.
"He came for the jewels," he said slowly, when Smith was finished; and his eyes turned to the body of the dead Italian. "I was wrong to submit him to the temptation. God knows what Kwee was doing in hiding. Perhaps he had come to murder me, as you surmise, Mr. Smith, though I find it hard to believe. But--I don't think this is the handiwork of your Chinese doctor." He fixed his gaze upon the sarcophagus.
Smith stared at him in surprise. "What do you mean, Sir Lionel?"
The famous traveler continued to look towards the sarcophagus with something in his blue eyes that might have been dread.
"I received a wire from Professor Rembold to-night," he continued. "You were correct in supposing that no one but Strozza knew of my absence. I dressed hurriedly and met the professor at the Traveler's. He knew that I was to read a paper next week upon"-- again he looked toward the mummy case--"the tomb of Mekara; and he knew that the sarcophagus had been brought, untouched, to England. He begged me not to open it."
Nayland Smith was studying the speaker's face.
"What reason did he give for so extraordinary a request?" he asked.
Sir Lionel Barton hesitated.
"One," he replied at last, "which amused me--at the time. I must inform you that Mekara--whose tomb my agent had discovered during my absence in Tibet, and to enter which I broke my return journey to Alexandria-- was a high priest and first prophet of Amen--under the Pharaoh of the Exodus; in short, one of the magicians who contested in magic arts with Moses. I thought the discovery unique, until Professor Rembold furnished me with some curious particulars respecting the death of M. Page le Roi, the French Egyptologist--particulars new to me."
We listened in growing surprise, scarcely knowing to what this tended.
"M. le Roi," continued Barton, "discovered, but kept secret, the tomb of Amenti--another of this particular brotherhood. It appears that he opened the mummy case on the spot-- these priests were of royal line, and are buried in the valley of Biban-le-Moluk. His Fellah and Arab servants deserted him for some reason--on seeing the mummy case--and he was found dead, apparently strangled, beside it. The matter was hushed up by the Egyptian Government. Rembold could not explain why. But he begged of me not to open the sarcophagus of Mekara."
A silence fell.
The strange facts regarding the sudden death of Page le Roi, which I now heard for the first time, had impressed me unpleasantly, coming from a man of Sir Lionel Barton's experience and reputation.
"How long had it lain in the docks?" jerked Smith.
"For two days, I believe. I am not a superstitious man, Mr. Smith, but neither is Professor Rembold, and now that I know the facts respecting Page le Roi, I can find it in my heart to thank God that I did not see. . .whatever came out of that sarcophagus."
Nayland Smith stared him hard in the face. "I am glad you did not, Sir Lionel," he said; "for whatever the priest Mekara has to do with the matter, by means of his sarcophagus, Dr. Fu-Manchu has made his first attempt upon your life. He has failed, but I hope you will accompany me from here to a hotel. He will not fail twice."