The Golden Scorpion by Sax Rohmer
Part I. The Cowled Man
Chapter II. The Pibroch of the M'Gregors
Dr. Stuart awoke in the morning and tried to recall what had occurred during the night. He consulted his watch and found the hour to be six a. m. No one was stirring in the house, and he rose and put on a bath robe. He felt perfectly well and could detect no symptoms of nervous disorder. Bright sunlight was streaming into the room, and he went out on to the landing, fastening the cord of his gown as he descended the stairs.
His study door was locked, with the key outside. He remembered having locked it. Opening it, he entered and looked about him. He was vaguely disappointed. Save for the untidy litter of papers upon the table, the study was as he had left it on retiring. If he could believe the evidence of his senses, nothing had been disturbed.
Not content with a casual inspection, he particularly examined those papers which, in his dream adventure, he had believed to have been submitted to mysterious inspection. They showed no signs of having been touched. The casement curtains were drawn across the recess formed by the French windows, and sunlight streamed in where, silhouetted against the pallid illumination of the moon, he had seen the man in the cowl. Drawing back the curtains, he examined the window fastenings. They were secure. If the window had really been open in the night, he must have left it so himself.
"Well," muttered Stuart--"of all the amazing nightmares!"
He determined, immediately he had bathed and completed his toilet, to write an account of the dream for the Psychical Research Society, in whose work he was interested. Half an hour later, as the movements of an awakened household began to proclaim themselves, he sat down at his writing-table and commenced to write.
Keppel Stuart was a dark, good-looking man of about thirty-two, an easy-going bachelor who, whilst not over ambitious, was nevertheless a brilliant physician. He had worked for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and had spent several years in India studying snake poisons. His purchase of this humdrum suburban practice had been dictated by a desire to make a home for a girl who at the eleventh hour had declined to share it. Two years had elapsed since then, but the shadow still lay upon Stuart's life, its influence being revealed in a certain apathy, almost indifference, which characterised his professional conduct.
His account of the dream completed, he put the paper into a pigeon-hole and forgot all about the matter. That day seemed to be more than usually dull and the hours to drag wearily on. He was conscious of a sort of suspense. He was waiting for something, or for someone. He did not choose to analyse this mental condition. Had he done so, the explanation was simple--and one that he dared not face.
At about ten o'clock that night, having been called out to a case, he returned to his house, walking straight into the study as was his custom and casting a light Burberry with a soft hat upon the sofa beside his stick and bag. The lamps were lighted, and the book-lined room, indicative of a studious and not over-wealthy bachelor, looked cheerful enough with the firelight dancing on the furniture.
Mrs. M'Gregor, a grey-haired Scotch lady, attired with scrupulous neatness, was tending the fire at the moment, and hearing Stuart come in she turned and glanced at him.
"A fire is rather superfluous to-night, Mrs. M'Gregor," he said. "I found it unpleasantly warm walking."
"May is a fearsome treacherous month, Mr. Keppel," replied the old housekeeper, who from long association with the struggling practitioner had come to regard him as a son. "An' a wheen o' dry logs is worth a barrel o' pheesic. To which I would add that if ye're hintin' it's time ye shed ye're woolsies for ye're summer wear, all I have to reply is that I hope sincerely ye're patients are more prudent than yoursel'."
She placed his slippers in the fender and took up the hat, stick and coat from the sofa. Stuart laughed.
"Most of the neighbors exhibit their wisdom by refraining from becoming patients of mine, Mrs. M'Gregor."
"That's no weesdom; it's just preejudice." "Prejudice!" cried Stuart, dropping down upon the sofa.
"Aye," replied Mrs. M'Gregor firmly--"preejudice! They're no' that daft but they're well aware o' who's the cleverest physeecian in the deestrict, an' they come to nane other than Dr. Keppel Stuart when they're sair sick and think they're dying; but ye'll never establish the practice you desairve, Mr. Keppel--never--until--"
"Until when, Mrs. M'Gregor?"
"Until ye take heed of an auld wife's advice and find a new housekeeper."
"Mrs. M'Gregor!" exclaimed Stuart with concern. "You don't mean that you want to desert me? After--let me see--how many years is it, Mrs. M'Gregor?"
"Thirty years come last Shrove Tuesday; I dandled ye on my knee, and eh! but ye were bonny! God forbid, but I'd like to see ye thriving as ye desairve, and that ye'll never do whilst ye're a bachelor."
"Oh!" cried Stuart, laughing again--"oh, that's it, is it? So you would like me to find some poor inoffensive girl to share my struggles?"
Mrs. M'Gregor nodded wisely. "She'd have nane so many to share. I know ye think I'm old-fashioned, Mr. Keppel and it may be I am; but I do assure you I would be sair harassed, if stricken to my bed--which, please God, I won't be--to receive the veesits of a pairsonable young bachelor--"
"Er--Mrs. M'Gregor!" interrupted Stuart, coughing in mock rebuke--"quite so! I fancy we have discussed this point before, and as you say your ideas are a wee bit, just a wee bit, behind the times. On this particular point I mean. But I am very grateful to you, very sincerely grateful, for your disinterested kindness; and if ever I should follow your advice----"
Mrs. M'Gregor interrupted him, pointing to his boots. "Ye're no' that daft as to sit in wet boots?"
"Really they are perfectly dry. Except for a light shower this evening, there has been no rain for several days. However, I may as well, since I shall not be going out again."
He began to unlace his boots as Mrs. M'Gregor pulled the white casement curtains across the windows and then prepared to retire. Her hand upon the door knob, she turned again to Stuart.
"The foreign lady called half an hour since, Mr. Keppel."
Stuart desisted from unlacing his boots and looked up with lively interest. "Mlle. Dorian! Did she leave any message?"
"She obsairved that she might repeat her veesit later," replied Mrs. M'Gregor, and, after a moment's hesitation; "she awaited ye're return with exemplary patience."
"Really, I am sorry I was detained," declared Stuart, replacing his boot. "How long has she been gone, then?"
"Just the now. No more than two or three minutes. I trust she is no worse."
"The lass seemed o'er anxious to see you."
"Well, you know, Mrs. M'Gregor, she comes a considerable distance."
"So I am given to understand, Mr. Keppel," replied the old lady; "and in a grand luxurious car."
Stuart assumed an expression of perplexity to hide his embarrassment. "Mrs. M'Gregor," he said rather ruefully, "you watch over me as tenderly as my own mother would have done. I have observed a certain restraint in your manner whenever you have had occasion to refer to Mlle. Dorian. In what way does she differ from my other lady patients?" And even as he spoke the words he knew in his heart that she differed from every other woman in the world.
Mrs. M'Gregor sniffed. "Do your other lady patients wear furs that your airnings for six months could never pay for, Mr. Keppel?" she inquired.
"No, unfortunately they pin their faith, for the most part, to gaily coloured shawls. All the more reason why I should bless the accident which led Mlle. Dorian to my door."
Mrs. M'Gregor, betraying, in her interest, real suspicion, murmured sotto voce: "Then she is a patient?"
"What's that?" asked Stuart, regarding her surprisedly. "A patient? Certainly. She suffers from insomnia."
"I'm no' surprised to hear it."
"What do you mean, Mrs. M'Gregor?"
"Now, Mr. Keppel, laddie, ye're angry with me, and like enough I am a meddlesome auld woman. But I know what a man will do for shining een and a winsome face--nane better to my sorrow--and twa times have I heard the Warning."
Stuart stood up in real perplexity. "Pardon my density, Mrs. M'Gregor, but--er--the Warning? To what 'warning' do you refer?"
Seating herself in the chair before the writing-table, Mrs. M'Gregor shook her head pensively. "What would it be," she said softly, "but the Pibroch o' the M'Gregors?"
Stuart came across and leaned upon a corner of the table. "The Pibroch of the M'Gregors?" he repeated.
"Nane other. 'Tis said to be Rob Roy's ain piper that gives warning when danger threatens ane o' the M'Gregors or any they love."
Stuart restrained a smile, and, "A well-meaning but melancholy retainer!" he commented.
"As well as I hear you now, laddie, I heard the pibroch on the day a certain woman first crossed my threshold, nigh thirty years ago, in Inverary. And as plainly as I heard it wailing then, I heard it the first evening that Miss Dorian came to this house!"
Torn between good-humoured amusement and real interest, "If I remember rightly," said Stuart, "Mlle. Dorian first called here just a week ago, and immediately before I returned from an Infirmary case?"
"Your memory is guid, Mr. Keppel."
"And when, exactly, did you hear this Warning?"
"Twa minutes before you entered the house; and I heard it again the now."
"What! you heard it to-night?"
"I heard it again just the now and I lookit out the window."
"Did you obtain a glimpse of Rob Roy's piper?"
"Ye're laughing at an old wife, laddie. No, but I saw Miss Dorian away in her car and twa minutes later I saw yourself coming round the corner."
"If she had only waited another two minutes," murmured Stuart. "No matter; she may return. And are these the only occasions upon which you have heard this mysterious sound, Mrs. M'Gregor?"
"No, Master Keppel, they are not. I assure ye something threatens. It wakened me up in the wee sma' hours last night--the piping--an' I lay awake shaking for long eno'."
"How extraordinary. Are you sure your imagination is not playing you tricks?"
"Ah, you're no' takin' me seriously, laddie."
"Mrs. M'Gregor"--he leaned across the table and rested his hands upon her shoulders--"you are a second mother to me, your care makes me feel like a boy again; and in these grey days it's good to feel like a boy again. You think I am laughing at you, but I'm not. The strange tradition of your family is associated with a tragedy in your life; therefore I respect it. But have no fear with regard to Mlle. Dorian. In the first place she is a patient; in the second--I am merely a penniless suburban practitioner. Good-night, Mrs. M'Gregor. Don't think of waiting up. Tell Mary to show Mademoiselle in here directly she arrives--that is if she really returns."
Mrs. M'Gregor stood up and walked slowly to the door. "I'll show Mademoiselle in mysel', Mr. Keppel," she said,--"and show her out."
She closed the door very quietly.