The Golden Scorpion by Sax Rohmer
Part III. At the House of Ah-Fang-Fu
Chapter IV. Miska's Story (concluded)
"Of course, I did not know that this was his name at the time; I only knew that a tall Chinaman had entered the room--and that his face was entirely covered by a green veil."
Stuart started, but did not interrupt Miska's story.
"This veil gave him in some way a frightfully malign and repellent appearance. As he stood in the doorway looking down I seemed to feel his gaze passing over me like a flame, although of course I could not see his eyes. For a moment he stood there looking at me; and much as his presence had affected me, its affect upon the slave-dealer and my purchaser was extraordinary. They seemed to be stricken dumb. Suddenly the Chinaman spoke, in perfect Arabic. 'Her price?' he said.
"Mohammed Abd-el-Bali, standing trembling before him, replied:
"'Miska is already sold, lord, but----"
"'Her price?' repeated the Chinaman, in the same hard metallic voice and without the slightest change of intonation.
"The harem agent who had bought me now said, his voice shaking so that the words were barely audible:
"'I give her up, Mohammed--I give her up. Who am I to dispute with the Mandarin Fo-Hi;' and performing an abject obeisance he backed out of the room.
"At the same moment, Mohammed, whose knees were trembling so that they seemed no longer capable of supporting him, addressed the Chinaman.
"'Accept the maiden as an unworthy gift,' he began--
"'Her price?' repeated Fo-Hi.
"Mohammed, whose teeth had begun to chatter, asked him twice as much as he had agreed to accept from the other, Fo-Hi clapped his hands, and a fierce-eyed Hindu entered the room.
"Fo-Hi addressed him in a language which I did not understand, although I have since learned that it was Hindustani, and the Indian from a purse which he carried counted out the amount demanded by the dealer and placed the money upon a little inlaid table which stood in the room. Fo-Hi gave him some brief order, turned and walked out of the room. I did not see him again for four years--that is until my nineteenth birthday.
"I know that you are wondering about many things and I will try to make some of them clear to you. You are wondering, no doubt, how such a trade as I have described is carried on in the East to-day almost under the eyes of European Governments. Now I shall surprise you. When I was taken from the house of the slave-dealer, in charge of Chunda Lal--for this was the name of the Hindu--do you know where I was carried to? I will tell you: to Cairo!"
"Cairo!" cried Stuart--then, perceiving that he had attracted attention by speaking so loudly, he lowered his voice. "Do you mean to tell me that you were taken as a slave to Cairo?"
Miska smiled--and her smile was the taunting smile of the East, which is at once a caress and an invitation.
"You think, no doubt, that there are no slaves in Cairo!" she said. "So do most people, and so did I--once. I learned better. There are palaces in Cairo, I assure you, in which there are many slaves. I myself lived in such a palace for four years, and I was not the only slave there. What do British residents and French residents know of the inner domestic life of their Oriental neighbours? Are they ever admitted to the harem? And the slaves--are they ever admitted outside the walls of the palace? Sometimes, yes, but never alone!
"By slow stages, following the ancient caravan routes, and accompanied by an extensive retinue of servants in charge of Chunda Lal, we came to Cairo; and one night, approaching the city from the north-east and entering by the Bab en-Nasr, I was taken to the old palace which was to be my prison for four years. How I passed those four years has no bearing upon the matters which I have to tell you, but I lived the useless, luxurious life of some Arabian princess, my lightest wish anticipated and gratified; nothing was denied me, except freedom.
"Then, one day--it was actually my nineteenth birthday--Chunda Lal presented himself and told me that I was to have an interview with Fo-Hi. Hearing these words, I nearly swooned, for a hundred times during the years of my strange luxurious captivity I had awakened trembling in the night, thinking that the figure of the awful veiled Chinaman had entered the room.
"You must understand that having spent my childhood in a harem, the mode of life which I was compelled to follow in Cairo was not so insufferable as it must have been for a European woman. Neither was my captivity made unduly irksome. I often drove through the European quarters, always accompanied by Chunda Lal, and closely veiled, and I regularly went shopping in the bazaars--but never alone. The death of my mother--and later that of my father, of which Chunda Lal had told me--were griefs that time had dulled. But the horror of Fo-Hi was one which lived with me, day and night.
"To a wing of the palace kept closely locked, and which I had never seen opened, I was conducted by Chunda Lal. There, in a room of a kind with which was part library and part mandarah, part museum and part laboratory, I found the veiled man seated at a great littered table. As I stood trembling before him he raised a long yellow hand and waved to Chunda Lal to depart. When he obeyed and I heard the door close I could scarcely repress a shriek of terror.
"For what seemed an interminable time he sat watching me. I dared not look at him, but again I felt his gaze passing over me like a flame. Then he began to speak, in French, which he spoke without a trace of accent.
"He told me briefly that my life of idleness had ended and that a new life of activity in many parts of the world was about to commence. His manner was quite unemotional, neither harsh nor kindly, his metallic voice conveyed no more than the bare meaning of the words which he uttered. When, finally, he ceased speaking, he struck a gong which hung from a corner of the huge table, and Chunda Lal entered.
"Fo-Hi addressed a brief order to him in Hindustani--and a few moments later a second Chinaman walked slowly into the room."
Miska paused, as if to collect her ideas, but continued almost immediately.
"He wore a plain yellow robe and had a little black cap on his head. His face, his wonderful evil face I can never forget, and his eyes--I fear you will think I exaggerate--but his eyes were green as emeralds! He fixed them upon me.
"'This,' said Fo-Hi, 'is Miska.'
"The other Chinaman continued to regard me with those dreadful eyes; then:
"'You have chosen well.' he said, turned and slowly went out again.
"I thank God that I have never seen him since, for his dreadful face haunted my dreams for long afterwards. But I have learned of him, and I know that next to Fo-Hi he is the most dangerous being in the known world. He has invented horrible things--poisons and instruments, which I cannot describe because I have never seen them; but I have seen ... some of their effects."
She paused, overcome with the horror of her memories.
"What is the name of this other man?" asked Stuart eagerly. Miska glanced at him rapidly.
"Oh, do not ask me questions, please!" she pleaded. "I will tell you all I can, all I dare; what I do not tell you I cannot tell you--and this is one of the things I dare not tell. He is a Chinese scientist and, I have heard, the greatest genius in the whole world, but I can say no more--yet."
"Is he still alive--this man?"
"I do not know that. If he is alive, he is in China--at some secret palace in the province of Ho-Nan, which is the headquarters of what is called the 'Sublime Order.' I have never been there, but there are Europeans there, as well as Orientals."
"What! in the company of these fiends!"
"It is useless to ask me--oh! indeed, I would tell you if I could, but I cannot! Let me go on from the time when I saw Fo-Hi in Cairo. He told me that I was a member of an organization dating back to remote antiquity which was destined to rule all the races of mankind--the Celestial age he called their coming triumph. Something which they had lacked in order to achieve success had been supplied by the dreadful man who had entered the room and expressed his approval of me.
"For many years they had been at work in Europe, secretly, as well as in the East. I understood that they had acquired a quantity of valuable information of some kind by means of a system of opium-houses situated in the principal capitals of the world and directed by Fo-Hi and a number of Chinese assistants. Fo-Hi had remained in China most of the time, but had paid occasional visits to Europe. The other man--the monster with the black skull cap--had been responsible for the conduct of the European enterprises."
"Throughout this interview," interrupted Stuart, forgetful of the fact that Miska had warned him of the futility of asking questions, "and during others which you must have had with Fo-Hi, did you never obtain a glimpse of his face?"
"Never! No one has ever seen his face! I know that his eyes are a brilliant and unnatural yellow colour, but otherwise I should not know him if I saw him unveiled, to-morrow. Except," she added, "by a sense of loathing which his presence inspires in me. But I must hurry. If you interrupt me, I shall not have time.
"From that day in Cairo--oh! how can I tell you! I began the life of an adventuress! I do not deny it. I came here to confess it to you. I went to New York, to London, to Paris, to Petrograd; I went all over the world. I had beautiful dresses, jewels, admiration--all that women live for! And in the midst of it all mine was the life of the cloister; no nun could be more secluded!
"I see the question in your eyes--why did I do it? Why did I lure men into the clutches of Fo-Hi? For this is what I did; and when I have failed, I have been punished."
Stuart shrank from her.
"You confess," he said hoarsely, "that you knowing lured men to death?"
"Ah, no!" she whispered, looking about her fearfully--"never! never! I swear it--never!"
"Then"--he stared at her blankly--"I do not understand you!"
"I dare not make it clearer--now: I dare not--dare not! But believe me! Oh, please, please," she pleaded, her soft voice dropping to a whisper--"believe me! If you know what I risked to tell you so much, you would be more merciful. A horror which cannot be described"--again she shuddered--"will fall upon me if he ever suspects! You think me young and full of life, with all the world before me. You do not know. I am, literally, already dead! Oh! I have followed a strange career. I have danced in a Paris theatre and I have sold flowers in Rome; I have had my box at the Opera and I have filled opium pipes in a den at San Francisco! But never, never have I lured a man to his death. And through it all, from first to last, no man has so much as kissed my finger-tips!
"At a word, at a sign, I have been compelled to go from Monte Carlo to Buenos Ayres; at another sign from there to Tokio! Chunda Lal has guarded me as only the women of the East are guarded. Yet, in his fierce way, he has always tried to befriend me, he has always been faithful. But ah! I shrink from him many times, in horror, because I know what he is! But I may not tell you. Look! Chunda Lal has never been out of sound of this whistle"--she drew a little silver whistle from her dress--"for a moment since that day when he came into the house of the slave-dealer in Mecca, except----"
And now, suddenly, a wave of glorious colour flooded her beautiful face and swiftly she lowered her eyes, replacing the little whistle. Stuart's rebellious heart leapt madly, for whatever he might think of her almost incredible story, that sweet blush was no subterfuge, no product of acting.
"You almost drive me mad," he said in low voice, resembling the tones of repressed savagery. "You tell me so much, but withhold so much that I am more bewildered than ever. I can understand your helplessness in an Eastern household, but why should you obey the behests of this veiled monster in London, in New York, in Paris?"
She did not raise her eyes.
"I dare not tell you. But I dare not disobey him."
"Who is he!"
"No one knows, because no one has ever seen his face! Ah! you are laughing! But I swear before heaven I speak the truth! Indoors he wears a Chinese dress and a green veil. In passing from place to place, which he always does at night, he is attired in a kind of cowl which only exposes his eyes----"
"But how can such a fantastic being travel?"
"By road, on land, and in a steam yacht, at sea. Why should you doubt my honesty?" She suddenly raises her glance to Stuart's face and he saw that she had grown pale. "I have risked what I cannot tell you, and more than once--for you! I tried to call you on the telephone on the night that he set out from the house near Hampton Court to kill you, but I could get no reply, and----"
"Stop!" said Stuart, almost too exited to note at the time that she had betrayed a secret. "It was you who rang up that night?
"Yes. Why did you not answer?"
"Never mind. Your call saved my life. I shall not forget." He looked into her eyes. "But can you not tell me what it all means? What or whom is 'The Scorpion'?"
"The Scorpion is--a passport. See." From a little pocket in the coat of her costume she drew out a golden scorpion! "I have one." She replaced it hurriedly. "I dare not, dare not tell you more. But this much I had to tell you, because ... I shall never see you again!"
"A French detective, a very clever man, learned a lot about 'The Scorpion' and he followed one of the members to England. This man killed him. Oh, I know I belong to a horrible organization!" she cried bitterly. "But I tell you I am helpless and I have never aided in such a thing. You should know that! But all he found out he left with you--and I do not know if I succeeded in destroying it. I do not ask you. I do not care. But I leave England to-night. Good-bye."
She suddenly stood up. Stuart rose also. He was about to speak when Miska's expression changed. A look of terror crept over her face, and hastily lowering her veil she walked rapidly away from the table and out of the room!
Many curious glances followed the elegant figure to the door. Then those glances were directed upon Stuart.
Flushing with embarrassment, he quickly settled the bill and hurried out of the hotel. Gaining the street, he looked eagerly right and left.
But Miska had disappeared!