Part III. At the House of Ah-Fang-Fu
Chapter VI. The Man with the Scar
 

Stuart read through a paper, consisting of six closely written pages, then he pinned the sheets together, folded them and placed them in one of those long envelopes associated in his memory with the opening phase of "The Scorpion" mystery. Smiling grimly, he descended to his dispensary and returned with the Chinese coin attached to the cork. With this he sealed the envelope.

He had volunteered that night for onerous service, and his offer had been accepted. Gaston Max's knowledge of Eastern languages was slight, whilst Stuart's was sound and extensive, and the Frenchman had cordially welcomed the doctor's proposal that he should accompany him to the house of Ah-Fang-Fu. Reviewing the facts gleaned from Miska during the earlier part of the evening, Stuart perceived that, apart from the additional light which they shed upon her own relations with the group, they could be of slight assistance to the immediate success of the inquiry--unless the raid failed. Therefore he had determined upon the course which now he was adopting.

As he completed the sealing of the envelope and laid it down upon the table, he heard a cab drawn up in front of the house, and presently Mrs. M'Gregor knocked and entered the study.

"Inspector Dunbar to see you, Mr. Keppel," she said--"and he has with him an awful-looking body, all cuts and bandages. A patient, no doubt."

Stuart stood up, wondering what this could mean.

"Will you please show them up, Mrs. M'Gregor," he replied.

A few moments later Dunbar entered, accompanied by a bearded man whose head was bandaged so as to partly cover one eye and who had an evil-looking scar running from his cheekbone, apparently--or at any rate from the edge of the bandage--to the corner of his mouth, so that the lip was drawn up in a fierce and permanent snarl.

At this person Stuart stared blankly, until Dunbar began to laugh.

"It's a wonderful make-up, isn't it?" he said. "I used to say that disguises were out of date, but M. Max has taught me I was wrong."

"Max!" cried Stuart.

"At your service," replied the apparition, "but for this evening only I am 'Le Belafre.' Yes, pardieu! I am a real dead man!"

The airy indifference which he proclaimed himself to represent one whose awful body had but that day been removed from a mortuary, and one whom in his own words he had "had the misfortune to strangle," was rather ghastly and at the same time admirable. For "Le Balafre" had deliberately tried to murder him, and false sentiment should form no part of the complement of a criminal investigator.

"It is a daring idea," said Stuart, "and relies for its success upon the chance that 'The Scorpion' remains ignorant of the fate of his agent and continues to believe that the body found off Hanover Hole was yours."

"The admirable precautions of my clever colleague," replied Max, laying his hand upon Dunbar's shoulder, "in closing the mortuary and publishing particulars of the identification disk, made it perfectly safe. 'Le Balafre' has been in hiding. He emerges!"

Stuart had secret reasons for knowing that Max's logic was not at fault, and this brought him to the matter of the sealed paper. He took up the envelope.

"I have here," he said slowly, "a statement. Examine the seal."

He held it out, and Max and Dunbar looked at it. The latter laughed shortly.

"Oh, it is a real statement," continued Stuart, "the nature of which I am not at liberty to divulge. But as to-night we take risks, I propose to leave it in your charge, Inspector."

He handed the envelope to Dunbar, whose face was blank with astonishment.

"In the event of failure to-night," added Stuart, "or catastrophe, I authorise you to read this statement--and act upon it. If, however, I escape safely, I ask you to return it to me, unread."

"Eh bien," said Max, and fixed that eye the whole of which was visible upon Stuart. "Perhaps I understand, and certainly"--he removed his hand from Dunbar's shoulder and rested it upon that of Stuart-- "but certainly, my friend, I sympathise!"

Stuart started guiltily, but Max immediately turned aside and began to speak about their plans.

"In a bag which Inspector Dunbar has thoughtfully left in the cab," he said----

Dunbar hastily retired and Max laughed.

"In that bag," he continued, "is a suit of clothes such as habitues of 'The Pidgin House' rejoice to wear. I, who have studied disguise almost as deeply as the great Willy Clarkson, will transform you into a perfect ruffian. It is important, you understand, that someone should be inside the house of Ah-Fang-Fu, as otherwise by means of some secret exit the man we seek may escape. I believe that he contemplates departing at any moment, and I believe that the visit of Miguel means that what I may term the masters of the minor lodges are coming to London for parting instructions--or, of course Miguel may have come about the disappearance of 'Le Balafre.'"

"Suppose you meet Miguel!"

"My dear friend, I must trust to the Kismet who pursues evil-doers! The only reason which has led me to adopt this daring disguise is a simple one. Although I believe 'The Pidgin House' to be open to ordinary opium-smokers, it may not be open on 'lodge nights.' Do you follow me? Very well. I have the golden scorpion--which I suppose to be a sort of passport."

Stuart wondered more and more at the reasoning powers of this remarkable man, which could lead him to such an accurate conclusion.

"The existence of such a passport," continued Max, "would seem to point to the fact that all the members of this organisation are not known personally to one another. At the same time those invited or expected at present may be known to Ah-Fang-Fu or to whoever acts as concierge. You see? Expected or otherwise, I assume that 'Le Balafre' would be admitted--and at night I shall pass very well for 'Le Balafre'--somewhat damaged as a result of my encounter with the late Charles Malet, but still recognisable!"

"And I?"

"You will be 'franked' in. The word of 'Le Balafre' should be sufficient for that! Of course I may be conducted immediately into the presence of the Chief--'The Scorpion'--and he may prove to be none other than Miguel, for instance--or my Algerian acquaintance-- or may even be a 'she'--the fascinating Zara el-Khala! We do not know. But I think--oh, decidedly I think--that the cowled one is a male creature, and his habits and habitat suggests to me that he is a Chinaman."

"And in that event how shall you act?"

"At once! I shall hold him, if I can, or shoot him if I cannot hold him! Both of us will blow police-whistles with which we shall be provided and Inspectors Dunbar and Kelly will raid the premises. But I am hoping for an interval. I do not like these inartistic scrimmages! The fact that these people foregather at an opium-house suggests to me that a certain procedure may be followed which I observed during the course of the celebrated 'Mr. Q' case in New York. 'Mr. Q.' also had an audience-chamber adjoining and opium den, and his visitors went there ostensibly to smoke opium. The opium-den was a sort of anteroom."

"Weymouth's big Chinese case had similar features," said Inspector Dunbar, who re-entered at that moment carrying a leathern grip. "If you are kept waiting and you keep your ears open, doctor, that's when your knowledge of the lingo will come in useful. We might rope in the whole gang and find we hadn't a scrap of evidence against them, for except the attempt on yourself, Dr. Stuart, there's nothing so far that I can see to connect 'The Scorpion' with Sir Frank Newcombe!"

"It is such a bungle that I fear!" cried Max. "Ah! how this looped-up lip annoys me!" He adjusted the bandage carefully.

"We've got the place comfortably surrounded," continued Dunbar, "and whoever may be inside is booked! A lady, answering to the description of Mlle. Dorian, went in this evening, so Sowerby reports."

Stuart felt that he was changing colour, and he stooped hastily to inspect the contents of the bag which Dunbar had opened.

"Eh bien!" said Gaston Max. "We shall not go empty-handed, then. And now to transfigure you, my friend!"