Part IV. The Lair of the Scorpion
Chapter II. The Living Death
 

The little furnace hissed continuously. A wisp of smoke floated up from the incense-burner.

Stuart sat with his hands locked between his knees, and his gaze set upon the yellow flask.

Even now he found it difficult to credit the verity of his case. He found it almost impossible to believe that such a being as Fo-Hi existed, that such deeds had been done, were being done, in England, as those of which he had heard from the sinister cowled man. Save for the hissing of the furnace and the clanking of the chain as he strove with all his strength to win freedom, that wonderful evil room was silent as the King's Chamber at the heart of the Great Pyramid.

His gaze reverted to the yellow flask.

"Oh, my God!" he groaned.

Terror claimed him--the terror which he had with difficulty been fending off throughout that nightmare interview with Fo-Hi. Madness threatened him, and he was seized by an almost incontrollable desire to shout execrations--prayers--he knew not what. He clenched his teeth grimly and tried to think, to plan.

He had two chances:

The statement left with Inspector Dunbar, in which he had mentioned the existence of a house "near Hampton Court," and ... Miska.

That she was one of the two exceptions mentioned by Fo-Hi he felt assured. But was she in this house, and did she know of his presence there? Even so, had she access to that room of mysteries--of horrors?

And who was the other who remained? Almost certainly it was the fanatical Hindu, Chunda Lal, of whom she had spoken with such palpable terror and who watched her unceasingly, untiringly. He would prevent her intervening even if she had power to intervene.

His great hope, then, was in Dunbar ... for Gaston Max was dead.

At the coming of that thought, the foul doing to death of the fearless Frenchman, he gnashed his teeth savagely and strained at the gyves until the pain in his ankles brought out beads of perspiration upon his forehead.

He dropped his head into his hands and frenziedly clutched at his hair with twitching fingers.

The faint sound occasioned by the opening of one of the sliding doors brought him sharply upright.

Miska entered!

She looked so bewilderingly beautiful that terror and sorrow fled, leaving Stuart filled only with passionate admiration. She wore an Eastern dress of gauzy shimmering silk and high-heeled gilt Turkish slippers upon her stockingless feet. About her left ankle was a gold bangle, and there was barbaric jewellery upon her arms. She was a figure unreal as all lose in that house of dreams, but a figure so lovely that Stuart forgot the yellow flask ... forgot that less than ten minutes of life remained to him.

"Miska!" he whispered--"Miska!"

She exhibited intense but repressed excitement and fear. Creeping to the second door--that by which Fo-Hi had gone out--she pressed her ear to the lacquered panel and listened intently. Then, coming swiftly to the table, she took up a bunch of keys, approached Stuart and, kneeling, unlocked the gyves. The scent of jasmine stole to his nostrils.

"God bless you!" he said with stifled ardour.

She rose quickly to her feet, standing before him with head downcast. Stuart rose with difficulty. His legs were cramped and aching. He grasped Miska's hand and endeavoured to induce her to look up. One swift glance she gave him and looked away again.

"You must go--this instant," she said. "I show you the way. There is not a moment to lose...."

"Miska!"

She glanced at him again.

"You must come with me!"

"Ah!" she whispered--"that is impossible! Have I not told you so?"

"You have told me, but I cannot understand. Here, in England, you are free. Why should you remain with that cowled monster?"

"Shall I tell you?" she asked, and he could feel how she trembled. "If I tell you, will you promise to believe me--and to go?"

"Not without you!"

"Ah! no, no! If I tell you that my only chance of life--such a little, little chance--is to stay, will you go?"

Stuart secured her other hand and drew her toward him, half resisting.

"Tell me," he said softly. "I will believe you--and if it can spare you one moment of pain or sorrow, I will go as you ask me."

"Listen," she whispered, glancing fearfully back toward the closed door--"Fo-Hi has something that make people to die; and only he can bring them to life again. Do you believe this?"

She looked up at him rapidly, her wonderful eyes wide and fearful. He nodded.

"Ah! you know! Very well. On that day in Cairo, which I am taken before him--you remember, I tell you?--he ... oh!"

She shuddered wildly and hid her beautiful face against Stuart's breast. He threw his arms about her.

"Tell me," he said.

"With the needle, he ... inject ..."

"Miska!"

Stuart felt the blood rushing to his heart and knew that he had paled.

"There is something else," she went on, almost inaudibly, "with which he gives life again to those he had made dead with the needle. It is a light green liquid tasting like bitter apples; and once each week for six months it must be drunk or else ... the living death comes. Sometimes I have not seen Fo-Hi for six months at a time, but a tiny flask, one draught, of the green liquid, always comes to me wherever I am, every week ... and twice each year I see him--Fo-Hi ... and he ..."

Her voice quivered and ceased. Moving back, she slipped a soft shoulder free of it s flimsy covering.

Stuart looked--and suppressed a groan.

Her arm was dotted with the tiny marks made by a hypodermic syringe!

"You see!" she whispered tremulously. "If I go, I die, and I am buried alive ... or else I live until my body ..."

"Oh, God!" moaned Stuart--"the fiend! the merciless, cunning fiend! Is there nothing ..."

"Yes, yes!" said Miska, looking up. "If I can get enough of the green fluid and escape. But he tell me once--it was in America--that he only prepares one tiny draught at a time! Listen! I must stay, and if he can be captured he must be forced to make this antidote ... Ah! go! go!"

Her words ended in a sob, and Stuart held her to him convulsively, his heart filled with such helpless, fierce misery and bitterness as he had never known.

"Go, please go!" she whispered. "It is my only chance--there is no other. There is not a moment to wait. Listen to me! You will go by that door by which I come in. There is a better way, through a tunnel he has made to the river bank; but I cannot open the door. Only he has the key. At the end of the passage some one is waiting----"

"Chunda Lal!" Miska glanced up rapidly and then dropped her eyes again.

"Yes--poor Chunda Lal. He is my only friend. Give him this."

She removed an amulet upon a gold chain from about her neck and thrust it into Stuart's hand.

"It seems to you silly, but Chunda Lal is of the East; and he has promised. Oh! be quick! I am afraid. I tell you something. Fo-Hi does not know, but the police Inspector and many men search the river bank for the house! I see them from a window----"

"What!" cried Stuart--"Dunbar is here!"

"Ssh! ssh!" Miska clutched him wildly. "He is not far away. You will go and bring him here. No! for me do not fear. I put the keys back and he will think you have opened the lock by some trick----"

"Miska!"

"Oh, no more!"

She slipped from his arms, crossed and reopened the lacquered door, revealing a corridor dimly lighted. Stuart followed and looked along the corridor.

"Right to the end," she whispered, "and down the steps. You know"-- touching the amulet which Stuart carried--"how to deal with--Chunda Lal."

But still he hesitated; until she seized his hand and urged him. Thereupon he swept her wildly into his arms.

"Miska! how can I leave you! It is maddening!"

"You must! you must!"

He looked into her eyes, stooped and kissed her upon the lips. Then, with no other word, he tore himself away and walked quickly along the corridor. Miska watched him until he was out of sight, then re-entered the great room and closed the door. She turned, and:

"Oh, God of mercy," she whispered.

Just within the second doorway stood Fo-Hi watching her.