The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer
The train was late, and as our cab turned out of Waterloo Station and began to ascend to the bridge, from a hundred steeples rang out the gongs of midnight, the bell of St. Paul's raised above them all to vie with the deep voice of Big Ben.
I looked out from the cab window across the river to where, towering above the Embankment, that place of a thousand tragedies, the light of some of London's greatest caravanserais formed a sort of minor constellation. From the subdued blaze that showed the public supper-rooms I looked up to the hundreds of starry points marking the private apartments of those giant inns.
I thought how each twinkling window denoted the presence of some bird of passage, some wanderer temporarily abiding in our midst. There, floor piled upon floor above the chattering throngs, were these less gregarious units, each something of a mystery to his fellow-guests, each in his separate cell; and each as remote from real human companionship as if that cell were fashioned, not in the bricks of London, but in the rocks of Hindustan!
In one of those rooms Graham Guthrie might at that moment be sleeping, all unaware that he would awake to the Call of Siva, to the summons of death. As we neared the Strand, Smith stopped the cab, discharging the man outside Sotheby's auction-rooms.
"One of the doctor's watch-dogs may be in the foyer," he said thoughtfully, "and it might spoil everything if we were seen to go to Guthrie's rooms. There must be a back entrance to the kitchens, and so on?"
"There is," I replied quickly. "I have seen the vans delivering there. But have we time?"
"Yes. Lead on."
We walked up the Strand and hurried westward. Into that narrow court, with its iron posts and descending steps, upon which opens a well-known wine-cellar, we turned. Then, going parallel with the Strand, but on the Embankment level, we ran round the back of the great hotel, and came to double doors which were open. An arc lamp illuminated the interior and a number of men were at work among the casks, crates and packages stacked about the place. We entered.
"Hallo!" cried a man in a white overall, "where d'you think you're going?"
Smith grasped him by the arm.
"I want to get to the public part of the hotel without being seen from the entrance hall," he said. "Will you please lead the way?
"Here--" began the other, staring.
"Don't waste time!" snapped my friend, in that tone of authority which he knew so well how to assume. "It's a matter of life and death. Lead the way, I say!"
"Police, sir?" asked the man civilly.
"Yes," said Smith; "hurry!"
Off went our guide without further demur. Skirting sculleries, kitchens, laundries and engine-rooms, he led us through those mysterious labyrinths which have no existence for the guest above, but which contain the machinery that renders these modern khans the Aladdin's palaces they are. On a second-floor landing we met a man in a tweed suit, to whom our cicerone presented us.
"Glad I met you, sir. Two gentlemen from the police."
The man regarded us haughtily with a suspicious smile.
"Who are you?" he asked. "You're not from Scotland Yard, at any rate!"
Smith pulled out a card and thrust it into the speaker's hand.
"If you are the hotel detective," he said, "take us without delay to Mr. Graham Guthrie."
A marked change took place in the other's demeanor on glancing at the card in his hand.
"Excuse me, sir," he said deferentially, "but, of course, I didn't know who I was speaking to. We all have instructions to give you every assistance."
"Is Mr. Guthrie in his room?"
"He's been in his room for some time, sir. You will want to get there without being seen? This way. We can join the lift on the third floor."
Off we went again, with our new guide. In the lift:
"Have you noticed anything suspicious about the place to-night?" asked Smith.
"I have!" was the startling reply. "That accounts for your finding me where you did. My usual post is in the lobby. But about eleven o'clock, when the theater people began to come in I had a hazy sort of impression that someone or something slipped past in the crowd--something that had no business in the hotel."
We got out of the lift.
"I don't quite follow you," said Smith. "If you thought you saw something entering, you must have formed a more or less definite impression regarding it."
"That's the funny part of the business," answered the man doggedly. "I didn't! But as I stood at the top of the stairs I could have sworn that there was something crawling up behind a party-- two ladies and two gentlemen."
"A dog, for instance?"
"It didn't strike me as being a dog, sir. Anyway, when the party passed me, there was nothing there. Mind you, whatever it was, it hadn't come in by the front. I have made inquiries everywhere, but without result." He stopped abruptly. "No. 189--Mr. Guthrie's door, sir."
"Hallo!" came a muffled voice; "what do you want?"
"Open the door! Don't delay; it is important."
He turned to the hotel detective.
"Stay right there where you can watch the stairs and the lift," he instructed; "and note everyone and everything that passes this door. But whatever you see or hear, do nothing without my orders."
The man moved off, and the door was opened. Smith whispered in my ear:
"Some creature of Dr. Fu-Manchu is in the hotel!"
Mr. Graham Guthrie, British resident in North Bhutan, was a big, thick-set man--gray-haired and florid, with widely opened eyes of the true fighting blue, a bristling mustache and prominent shaggy brows. Nayland Smith introduced himself tersely, proffering his card and an open letter.
"Those are my credentials, Mr. Guthrie," he said; "so no doubt you will realize that the business which brings me and my friend, Dr. Petrie, here at such an hour is of the first importance."
He switched off the light.
"There is no time for ceremony," he explained. "It is now twenty-five minutes past twelve. At half-past an attempt will be made upon your life!"
"Mr. Smith," said the other, who, arrayed in his pajamas, was seated on the edge of the bed, "you alarm me very greatly. I may mention that I was advised of your presence in England this morning."
"Do you know anything respecting the person called Fu-Manchu--Dr. Fu-Manchu?"
"Only what I was told to-day--that he is the agent of an advanced political group."
"It is opposed to his interests that you should return to Bhutan. A more gullible agent would be preferable. Therefore, unless you implicitly obey my instructions, you will never leave England!"
Graham Guthrie breathed quickly. I was growing more used to the gloom, and I could dimly discern him, his face turned towards Nayland Smith, whilst with his hand he clutched the bed-rail. Such a visit as ours, I think, must have shaken the nerve of any man.
"But, Mr. Smith," he said, "surely I am safe enough here! The place is full of American visitors at present, and I have had to be content with a room right at the top; so that the only danger I apprehend is that of fire."
"There is another danger," replied Smith. "The fact that you are at the top of the building enhances that danger. Do you recall anything of the mysterious epidemic which broke out in Rangoon in 1908--the deaths due to the Call of Siva?"
"I read of it in the Indian papers," said Guthrie uneasily. "Suicides, were they not?" "No!" snapped Smith. "Murders!"
There was a brief silence.
"From what I recall of the cases," said Guthrie, "that seems impossible. In several instances the victims threw themselves from the windows of locked rooms--and the windows were quite inaccessible."
"Exactly," replied Smith; and in the dim light his revolver gleamed dully, as he placed it on the small table beside the bed. "Except that your door is unlocked, the conditions to-night are identical. Silence, please, I hear a clock striking."
It was Big Ben. It struck the half-hour, leaving the stillness complete. In that room, high above the activity which yet prevailed below, high above the supping crowds in the hotel, high above the starving crowds on the Embankment, a curious chill of isolation swept about me. Again I realized how, in the very heart of the great metropolis, a man may be as far from aid as in the heart of a desert. I was glad that I was not alone in that room--marked with the death-mark of Fu-Manchu; and I am certain that Graham Guthrie welcomed his unexpected company.
I may have mentioned the fact before, but on this occasion it became so peculiarly evident to me that I am constrained to record it here-- I refer to the sense of impending danger which invariably preceded a visit from Fu-Manchu. Even had I not known that an attempt was to be made that night, I should have realized it, as, strung to high tension, I waited in the darkness. Some invisible herald went ahead of the dreadful Chinaman, proclaiming his coming to every nerve in one's body. It was like a breath of astral incense, announcing the presence of the priests of death.
A wail, low but singularly penetrating, falling in minor cadences to a new silence, came from somewhere close at hand.
"My God!" hissed Guthrie, "what was that?"
"The Call of Siva," whispered Smith.
"Don't stir, for your life!"
Guthrie was breathing hard.
I knew that we were three; that the hotel detective was within hail; that there was a telephone in the room; that the traffic of the Embankment moved almost beneath us; but I knew, and am not ashamed to confess, that King Fear had icy fingers about my heart. It was awful--that tense waiting--for--what?
Three taps sounded--very distinctly upon the window.
Graham Guthrie started so as to shake the bed.
"It's supernatural!" he muttered--all that was Celtic in his blood recoiling from the omen. "Nothing human can reach that window!" "S-sh!" from Smith. "Don't stir."
The tapping was repeated.
Smith softly crossed the room. My heart was beating painfully. He threw open the window. Further inaction was impossible. I joined him; and we looked out into the empty air.
"Don't come too near, Petrie!" he warned over his shoulder.
One on either side of the open window, we stood and looked down at the moving Embankment lights, at the glitter of the Thames, at the silhouetted buildings on the farther bank, with the Shot Tower starting above them all.
Three taps sounded on the panes above us.
In all my dealings with Dr. Fu-Manchu I had had to face nothing so uncanny as this. What Burmese ghoul had he loosed? Was it outside, in the air? Was it actually in the room?
"Don't let me go, Petrie!" whispered Smith suddenly. "Get a tight hold on me!"
That was the last straw; for I thought that some dreadful fascination was impelling my friend to hurl himself out! Wildly I threw my arms about him, and Guthrie leaped forward to help.
Smith leaned from the window and looked up.
One choking cry he gave--smothered, inarticulate--and I found him slipping from my grip--being drawn out of the window--drawn to his death!
"Hold him, Guthrie!" I gasped hoarsely. "My God, he's going! Hold him!"
My friend writhed in our grasp, and I saw him stretch his arm upward. The crack of his revolver came, and he collapsed on to the floor, carrying me with him.
But as I fell I heard a scream above. Smith's revolver went hurtling through the air, and, hard upon it, went a black shape-- flashing past the open window into the gulf of the night.
"The light! The light!" I cried.
Guthrie ran and turned on the light. Nayland Smith, his eyes starting from his head, his face swollen, lay plucking at a silken cord which showed tight about his throat.
"It was a Thug!" screamed Guthrie. "Get the rope off! He's choking!"
My hands a-twitch, I seized the strangling-cord.
"A knife! Quick!" I cried. "I have lost mine!"
Guthrie ran to the dressing-table and passed me an open penknife. I somehow forced the blade between the rope and Smith's swollen neck, and severed the deadly silken thing.
Smith made a choking noise, and fell back, swooning in my arms.
When, later, we stood looking down upon the mutilated thing which had been brought in from where it fell, Smith showed me a mark on the brow-- close beside the wound where his bullet had entered.
"The mark of Kali," he said. "The man was a phansigar-- a religious strangler. Since Fu-Manchu has dacoits in his service I might have expected that he would have Thugs. A group of these fiends would seem to have fled into Burma; so that the mysterious epidemic in Rangoon was really an outbreak of thuggee--on slightly improved lines! I had suspected something of the kind but, naturally, I had not looked for Thugs near Rangoon. My unexpected resistance led the strangler to bungle the rope. You have seen how it was fastened about my throat? That was unscientific. The true method, as practiced by the group operating in Burma, was to throw the line about the victim's neck and jerk him from the window. A man leaning from an open window is very nicely poised: it requires only a slight jerk to pitch him forward. No loop was used, but a running line, which, as the victim fell, remained in the hand of the murderer. No clew! Therefore we see at once what commended the system to Fu-Manchu."
Graham Guthrie, very pale, stood looking down at the dead strangler.
"I owe you my life, Mr. Smith," he said. "If you had come five minutes later--"
He grasped Smith's hand.
"You see," Guthrie continued, "no one thought of looking for a Thug in Burma! And no one thought of the roof! These fellows are as active as monkeys, and where an ordinary man would infallibly break his neck, they are entirely at home. I might have chosen my room especially for the business!"
"He slipped in late this evening," said Smith. "The hotel detective saw him, but these stranglers are as elusive as shadows, otherwise, despite their having changed the scene of their operations, not one could have survived."
"Didn't you mention a case of this kind on the Irrawaddy?" I asked.
"Yes," was the reply; "and I know of what you are thinking. The steamers of the Irrawaddy flotilla have a corrugated-iron roof over the top deck. The Thug must have been lying up there as the Colassie passed on the deck below."
"But, Smith, what is the motive of the Call?" I continued.
"Partly religious," he explained, "and partly to wake the victims! You are perhaps going to ask me how Dr. Fu-Manchu has obtained power over such people as phansigars? I can only reply that Dr. Fu-Manchu has secret knowledge of which, so far, we know absolutely nothing; but, despite all, at last I begin to score."
"You do," I agreed; "but your victory took you near to death."
"I owe my life to you, Petrie," he said. "Once to your strength of arm, and once to--"
"Don't speak of her, Smith," I interrupted. "Dr. Fu-Manchu may have discovered the part she played! In which event--"
"God help her!"