The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer
With the first coming of light, Eltham, Smith and I tested the electrical contrivances from every point. They were in perfect order. It became more and more incomprehensible how anyone could have entered and quitted Redmoat during the night. The barbed-wire fencing was intact, and bore no signs of having been tampered with.
Smith and I undertook an exhaustive examination of the shrubbery.
At the spot where we had found the dog, some five paces to the west of the copper beech, the grass and weeds were trampled and the surrounding laurels and rhododendrons bore evidence of a struggle, but no human footprint could be found.
"The ground is dry," said Smith. "We cannot expect much."
"In my opinion," I said, "someone tried to get at Caesar; his presence is dangerous. And in his rage he broke loose."
"I think so, too," agreed Smith. "But why did this person make for here? And how, having mastered the dog, get out of Redmoat? I am open to admit the possibility of someone's getting in during the day whilst the gates are open, and hiding until dusk. But how in the name of all that's wonderful does he get out? He must possess the attributes of a bird."
I thought of Greba Eltham's statements, reminding my friend of her description of the thing which she had seen passing into this strangely haunted shrubbery.
"That line of speculation soon takes us out of our depth, Petrie," he said. "Let us stick to what we can understand, and that may help us to a clearer idea of what, at present, is incomprehensible. My view of the case to date stands thus:
"(1) Eltham, having rashly decided to return to the interior of China, is warned by an official whose friendship he has won in some way to stay in England.
"(2) I know this official for one of the Yellow group represented in England by Dr. Fu-Manchu.
"(3) Several attempts, of which we know but little, to get at Eltham are frustrated, presumably by his curious `defenses.' An attempt in a train fails owing to Miss Eltham's distaste for refreshment-room coffee. An attempt here fails owing to her insomnia.
"(4) During Eltham's absence from Redmoat certain preparations are made for his return. These lead to:
"(a) The death of Denby's collie;
"(b) The things heard and seen by Miss Eltham;
"(c) The things heard and seen by us all last night.
"So that the clearing up of my fourth point--id est, the discovery of the nature of these preparations--becomes our immediate concern. The prime object of these preparations, Petrie, was to enable someone to gain access to Eltham's room. The other events are incidental. The dogs had to be got rid of, for instance; and there is no doubt that Miss Eltham's wakefulness saved her father a second time."
"But from what? For Heaven's sake, from what?"
Smith glanced about into the light-patched shadows.
"From a visit by someone--perhaps by Fu-Manchu himself," he said in a hushed voice. "The object of that visit I hope we may never learn; for that would mean that it had been achieved."
"Smith," I said, "I do not altogether understand you; but do you think he has some incredible creature hidden here somewhere? It would be like him."
"I begin to suspect the most formidable creature in the known world to be hidden here. I believe Fu-Manchu is somewhere inside Redmoat!"
Our conversation was interrupted at this point by Denby, who came to report that he had examined the moat, the roadside, and the bank of the stream, but found no footprints or clew of any kind.
"No one left the grounds of Redmoat last night, I think," he said. And his voice had awe in it.
That day dragged slowly on. A party of us scoured the neighborhood for traces of strangers, examining every foot of the Roman ruin hard by; but vainly.
"May not your presence here induce Fu-Manchu to abandon his plans?" I asked Smith.
"I think not," he replied. "You see, unless we can prevail upon him, Eltham sails in a fortnight. So the Doctor has no time to waste. Furthermore, I have an idea that his arrangements are of such a character that they must go forward. He might turn aside, of course, to assassinate me, if opportunity arose! But we know, from experience, that he permits nothing to interfere with his schemes."
There are few states, I suppose, which exact so severe a toll from one's nervous system as the anticipation of calamity.
All anticipation is keener, be it of joy or pain, than the reality whereof it is a mental forecast; but that inactive waiting at Redmoat, for the blow which we knew full well to be pending exceeded in its nerve taxation, anything, I hitherto had experienced.
I felt as one bound upon an Aztec altar, with the priest's obsidian knife raised above my breast!
Secret and malign forces throbbed about us; forces against which we had no armor. Dreadful as it was, I count it a mercy that the climax was reached so quickly. And it came suddenly enough; for there in that quiet Norfolk home we found ourselves at hand grips with one of the mysterious horrors which characterized the operations of Dr. Fu-Manchu. It was upon us before we realized it. There is no incidental music to the dramas of real life.
As we sat on the little terrace in the creeping twilight, I remember thinking how the peace of the scene gave the lie to my fears that we bordered upon tragic things. Then Caesar, who had been a docile patient all day, began howling again; and I saw Greba Eltham shudder.
I caught Smith's eye, and was about to propose our retirement indoors, when the party was broken up in more turbulent fashion. I suppose it was the presence of the girl which prompted Denby to the rash act, a desire personally to distinguish himself. But, as I recalled afterwards, his gaze had rarely left the shrubbery since dusk, save to seek her face, and now he leaped wildly to his feet, overturning his chair, and dashed across the grass to the trees.
"Did you see it?" he yelled. "Did you see it?"
He evidently carried a revolver. For from the edge of the shrubbery a shot sounded, and in the flash we saw Denby with the weapon raised.
"Greba, go in and fasten the windows," cried Eltham. "Mr. Smith, will you enter the bushes from the west. Dr. Petrie, east. Edwards, Edwards--" And he was off across the lawn with the nervous activity of a cat.
As I made off in an opposite direction I heard the gardener's voice from the lower gate, and I saw Eltham's plan. It was to surround the shrubbery.
Two more shots and two flashes from the dense heart of greenwood. Then a loud cry--I thought, from Denby--and a second, muffled one.
Following--silence, only broken by the howling of the mastiff.
I sprinted through the rose garden, leaped heedlessly over a bed of geranium and heliotrope, and plunged in among the bushes and under the elms. Away on the left I heard Edwards shouting, and Eltham's answering voice.
"Denby!" I cried, and yet louder: "Denby!"
But the silence fell again.
Dusk was upon Redmoat now, but from sitting in the twilight my eyes had grown accustomed to gloom, and I could see fairly well what lay before me. Not daring to think what might lurk above, below, around me, I pressed on into the midst of the thicket.
"Vernon!" came Eltham's voice from one side.
"Bear more to the right, Edwards," I heard Nayland Smith cry directly ahead of me.
With an eerie and indescribable sensation of impending disaster upon me, I thrust my way through to a gray patch which marked a break in the elmen roof. At the foot of the copper beech I almost fell over Eltham. Then Smith plunged into view. Lastly, Edwards the gardener rounded a big rhododendron and completed the party.
We stood quite still for a moment.
A faint breeze whispered through the beech leaves.
"Where is he?"
I cannot remember who put it into words; I was too dazed with amazement to notice. Then Eltham began shouting:
"Vernon! Vernon! Vernon!"
His voice pitched higher upon each repetition. There was something horrible about that vain calling, under the whispering beech, with shrubs banked about us cloaking God alone could know what.
From the back of the house came Caesar's faint reply.
"Quick! Lights!" rapped Smith. "Every lamp you have!"
Off we went, dodging laurels and privets, and poured out on to the lawn, a disordered company. Eltham's face was deathly pale, and his jaw set hard. He met my eye.
"God forgive me!" he said. "I could do murder to-night!"
He was a man composed of strange perplexities.
It seemed an age before the lights were found. But at last we returned to the bushes, really after a very brief delay; and ten minutes sufficed us to explore the entire shrubbery, for it was not extensive. We found his revolver, but there was no one there--nothing.
When we all stood again on the lawn, I thought that I had never seen Smith so haggard.
"What in Heaven's name can we do?" he muttered. "What does it mean?"
He expected no answer; for there was none to offer one.
"Search! Everywhere," said Eltham hoarsely.
He ran off into the rose garden, and began beating about among the flowers like a madman, muttering: "Vernon! Vernon!" For close upon an hour we all searched. We searched every square yard, I think, within the wire fencing, and found no trace. Miss Eltham slipped out in the confusion, and joined with the rest of us in that frantic hunt. Some of the servants assisted too.
It was a group terrified and awestricken which came together again on the terrace. One and then another would give up, until only Eltham and Smith were missing. Then they came back together from examining the steps to the lower gate.
Eltham dropped on to a rustic seat, and sank his head in his hands.
Nayland Smith paced up and down like a newly caged animal, snapping his teeth together and tugging at his ear.
Possessed by some sudden idea, or pressed to action by his tumultuous thoughts, he snatched up a lantern and strode silently off across the grass and to the shrubbery once more. I followed him. I think his idea was that he might surprise anyone who lurked there. He surprised himself, and all of us.
For right at the margin he tripped and fell flat. I ran to him.
He had fallen over the body of Denby, which lay there!
Denby had not been there a few moments before, and how he came to be there now we dared not conjecture. Mr. Eltham joined us, uttered one short, dry sob, and dropped upon his knees. Then we were carrying Denby back to the house, with the mastiff howling a marche funebre.
We laid him on the grass where it sloped down from the terrace. Nayland Smith's haggard face was terrible. But the stark horror of the thing inspired him to that, which conceived earlier, had saved Denby. Twisting suddenly to Eltham, he roared in a voice audible beyond the river:
"Heavens! we are fools! Loose the dog!"
"But the dog--" I began.
Smith clapped his hand over my mouth.
"I know he's crippled," he whispered. "But if anything human lurks there, the dog will lead us to it. If a man is there, he will fly! Why did we not think of it before. Fools, fools!" He raised his voice again. "Keep him on leash, Edwards. He will lead us."
The scheme succeeded.
Edwards barely had started on his errand when bells began ridging inside the house.
"Wait!" snapped Eltham, and rushed indoors.
A moment later he was out again, his eyes gleaming madly. "Above the moat," he panted. And we were off en masse round the edge of the trees.
It was dark above the moat; but not so dark as to prevent our seeing a narrow ladder of thin bamboo joints and silken cord hanging by two hooks from the top of the twelve-foot wire fence. There was no sound.
"He's out!" screamed Eltham. "Down the steps!"
We all ran our best and swiftest. But Eltham outran us. Like a fury he tore at bolts and bars, and like a fury sprang out into the road. Straight and white it showed to the acclivity by the Roman ruin. But no living thing moved upon it. The distant baying of the dog was borne to our ears.
"Curse it! he's crippled," hissed Smith. "Without him, as well pursue a shadow!"
A few hours later the shrubbery yielded up its secret, a simple one enough: A big cask sunk in a pit, with a laurel shrub cunningly affixed to its movable lid, which was further disguised with tufts of grass. A slender bamboo-jointed rod lay near the fence. It had a hook on the top, and was evidently used for attaching the ladder.
"It was the end of this ladder which Miss Eltham saw," said Smith, "as he trailed it behind him into the shrubbery when she interrupted him in her fathers room. He and whomever he had with him doubtless slipped in during the daytime--whilst Eltham was absent in London-- bringing the prepared cask and all necessary implements with them. They concealed themselves somewhere--probably in the shrubbery-- and during the night made the cache. The excavated earth would be disposed of on the flower-beds; the dummy bush they probably had ready. You see, the problem of getting in was never a big one. But owing to the `defenses' it was impossible (whilst Eltham was in residence at any rate) to get out after dark. For Fu-Manchu's purposes, then, a working-base inside Redmoat was essential. His servant--for he needed assistance-- must have been in hiding somewhere outside; Heaven knows where! During the day they could come or go by the gates, as we have already noted."
"You think it was the Doctor himself?"
"It seems possible. Whom else has eyes like the eyes Miss Eltham saw from the window last night?"
Then remains to tell the nature of the outrage whereby Fu-Manchu had planned to prevent Eltham's leaving England for China. This we learned from Denby. For Denby was not dead.
It was easy to divine that he had stumbled upon the fiendish visitor at the very entrance to his burrow; had been stunned (judging from the evidence, with a sand-bag), and dragged down into the cache--to which he must have lain in such dangerous proximity as to render detection of the dummy bush possible in removing him. The quickest expedient, then, had been to draw him beneath. When the search of the shrubbery was concluded, his body had been borne to the edge of the bushes and laid where we found it.
Why his life had been spared, I cannot conjecture, but provision had been made against his recovering consciousness and revealing the secret of the shrubbery. The ruse of releasing the mastiff alone had terminated the visit of the unbidden guest within Redmoat.
Denby made a very slow recovery; and, even when convalescent, consciously added not one fact to those we already had collated; his memory had completely deserted him!
This, in my opinion, as in those of the several specialists consulted, was due, not to the blow on the head, but to the presence, slightly below and to the right of the first cervical curve of the spine, of a minute puncture--undoubtedly caused by a hypodermic syringe. Then, unconsciously, poor Denby furnished the last link in the chain; for undoubtedly, by means of this operation, Fu-Manchu had designed to efface from Eltham's mind his plans of return to Ho-Nan.
The nature of the fluid which could produce such mental symptoms was a mystery--a mystery which defied Western science: one of the many strange secrets of Dr. Fu-Manchu.