Part IV. The Lair of the Scorpion
Chapter III. The Fifth Secret of Rache Churan
 

Stricken silent with fear, Miska staggered back against the lacquered door, dropping the keys which she held in her hand. Fo-Hi had removed the cowled garment and was now arrayed in a rich mandarin robe. Through the grotesque green veil which obscured his features the brilliant eyes shone catlike.

"So," he said softly, "you speed the parting guest. And did I not hear the sound of a chaste salute?"

Miska watched him, wild-eyed.

"And he knows," continued the metallic voice, "'how to deal with Chunda Lal'? But it may be that Chunda Lal will know how to deal with him! I had suspected that Dr. Keppel Stuart entertained an unprofessional interest in his charming patient. Your failure to force the bureau drawer in his study excited my suspicion--unjustly, I admit; for did not I fail also when I paid the doctor a personal visit? True, I was disturbed. But this suspicion later returned. It was in order that some lingering doubt might be removed that I afforded you the opportunity of interviewing my guest. But whatever surprise his ingenuity, aided by your woman's wit, has planned for Chunda Lal, I dare to believe that Chunda Lal, being forewarned, will meet successfully. He is expecting an attempt, by Dr. Stuart, to leave this house. He has my orders to detain him."

At that, anger conquered terror in the heart of Miska, and:

"You mean he has your orders to kill him!" she cried desperately.

Fo-Hi closed the door.

"On the contrary, he has my orders to take every possible care of him. Those blind, tempestuous passions which merely make a woman more desirable find no place in the trained mind of the scientist. That Dr. Stuart covets my choicest possession in no way detracts from his value to my Council."

Miska had never moved from the doorway by which Stuart had gone out; and now, having listened covertly and heard no outcry, her faith in Chunda Lal was restored. Her wonderful eyes narrowed momentarily, and she spoke with the guile, which seems so naive, of the Oriental woman.

"I care nothing for him--this Dr. Stuart. But he had done you no wrong----"

"Beyond seeking my death--none. I have already said"--the eyes of Fo-Hi gleamed through the hideous veil--"that I bear him no ill will."

"But you plan to carry him to China--like those others."

"I assign him a part in the New Renaissance--yes. In the Deluge that shall engulf the world, his place is in the Ark. I honor him."

"Perhaps he rather remain a--nobody--than be so honored."

"In his present state of imperfect understanding it is quite possible," said Fo-Hi smoothly. "But if he refuses to achieve greatness he must have greatness thrust upon him. Van Rembold, I seem to recall, hesitated for some time to direct his genius to the problem of producing radium in workable quantities from the pitchblend deposits of Ho-Nan. But the split rod had not been applied to the soles of his feet more than five times ere he reviewed his prejudices and found them to be surmountable."

Miska, knowing well the moods of the monstrous being whose unveiled face she had never seen, was not deceived by the suavity of his manner. Nevertheless, she fought down her terror, knowing how much might depend upon her retaining her presence of mind. How much of her interview with Stuart he had overheard she did not know, nor how much he had witnessed.

"But," she said, moving away from him, "he does not matter--this one. Forgive me if I think to let him go; but I am afraid----"

Fo-Hi crossed slowly, intercepting her.

"Ah!" said Miska, her eyes opening widely--"you are going to punish me again! For why? Because I am a woman and cannot always be cruel?"

From its place on the wall Fo-Hi took a whip. At that:

"Ah! no, no!" she cried. "You drive me mad! I am only in part of the East and I cannot bear it--I cannot bear it! You teach me to be like the women of England, who are free, and you treat me like the women of China, who are slaves. Once, it did not matter. I thought it was a part of a woman's life to be treated so. But now I cannot bear it!" She stamped her foot fiercely upon the floor. "I tell you I cannot bear it!"

Whip in hand, Fo-Hi stood watching her.

"You release that man--for whom you 'care nothing'--in order that he may bring my enemies about me, in order that he may hand me over to the barbarous law of England. Now, you 'cannot bear' so light a rebuke as the whip. Here, I perceive, is some deep psychological change. Such protests do not belong to the women of my country; they are never heard in the zenana, and would provoke derision in the harems of Stambul.

"You have trained me to know that life in a harem is not life, but only the existence of an animal."

"I have trained you--yes. What fate was before you when I intervened in that Mecca slave-market? You who are 'only in part of the East.' Do you forget so soon how you cowered there amongst the others, Arabs, Circassians, Georgians, Nubians, striving to veil your beauty from those ravenous eyes? From what did I rescue you?"

"And for what?" cried Miska bitterly. "To use me as a lure--and beat me if I failed."

Fo-Hi stood watching her, and slowly, as he watched, terror grew upon her and she retreated before him, step by step. He made no attempt to follow her, but continued to watch. Then, raising the whip he broke it across his knee and dropped the pieces on the floor.

At that she extended her hands towards him pitifully.

"Oh! what are you going to do to me!" she said. "Let me go! let me go! I can no more be of use to you. Give me back my life and let me go-- et me go and hide away from them all--from all ... the world...."

Her words died away and ceased upon a suppressed hysterical sob. For, in silence, Fo-Hi stood watching her, unmoved.

"Oh!" she moaned, and sank cowering upon a diwan-- "why do you watch me so!"

"Because," came the metallic voice, softly--"you are beautiful with a beauty given but rarely to the daughters of men. The Sublime Order has acquired many pretty women--for they are potent weapons--but none so fair as you. Miska, I would make life sweet for you."

"Ah! you do not mean that!" she whispered fearfully.

"Have I not clothed you in the raiment of a princess!" continued Fo-Hi. "To-night, at my urgent request, you wear the charming national costume in which I delight to see you. But is there a woman of Paris, of London, of New York, who has such robes, such jewels, such apartments as you possess? Perhaps the peculiar duties which I have required you to perform, the hideous disguises, which you have sometimes been called upon to adopt, have disgusted you."

Her heart beating wildly, for she did not know this mood but divined it to portend some unique horror, Miska crouched, head averted.

"To-night the hour has come to break the whip. To-night the master in me dies. My cloak of wise authority has fallen from me and I offer myself in bondage to you, my slave!"

"This is some trap you set for me!" she whispered.

But Fo-Hi, paying no heed to her words, continued in the same rapt voice:

"Truly have you observed that the Chinese wife is but a slave to her lord. I have said that the relation of master and slave is ended between us. I offer you a companionship that signifies absolute freedom and perfect understanding. Half of all I have--and the world lies in my grasp--is yours. I offer a throne set upon the Seven Mountains of the Universe. Look into my eyes and read the truth."

But lower and lower she cowered upon the diwan.

"No, no! I am afraid!"

Fo-Hi approached her closely and abject terror now had robbed her of strength. Her limbs seemed to have become numbed, her tongue clave to the roof of her mouth.

"Fear me no more, Miska," said Fo-Hi. "I will you nothing but joy. The man who has learned the Fifth Secret of Rache Churan--who has learned how to control his will--holds a power absolute and beyond perfectability. You know, who have dwelt beneath my roof, that there is no escape from my will." His calm was terrible, and his glance, through the green veil, was like a ray of scorching heat. His voice sank lower and lower.

"There is one frailty, Miska, that even the Adept cannot conquer. It is inherent in every man. Miska, I would not force you to grasp the joy I offer; I would have you accept it willingly. No! do not turn from me! No woman in all the world has ever heard me plead, as I plead to you. Never before have I sued for favours. Do not turn from me, Miska."

Slightly, the metallic voice vibrated, and the ruffling of that giant calm was a thing horrible to witness. Fo-Hi extended his long yellow hands, advancing step by step until he stood over the cowering girl. Irresistibly her glance was drawn to those blazing eyes which the veil could not hide, and as she met that unblinking gaze her own eyes dilated and grew fixed as those of a sleep-walker. A moment Fo-Hi stood so. Then passion swept him from his feet and he seized her fiercely.

"Your eyes drive me mad!" he hissed. "Your lips taunt me, and I know all earthly greatness to be a mirage, its conquests visions, and its fairness dust. I would rather be a captive in your white arms than the emperor of heaven! Your sweetness intoxicates me, Miska. A fever burns me up!"

Helpless, enmeshed in the toils of that mighty will, Miska raised her head; and gradually her expression changed. Fear was smoothed away from her lovely face as by some magic brush. She grew placid; and finally she smiled--the luresome, caressing smile of the East. Nearer and nearer drew the green veil. Then, uttering a sudden fierce exclamation, Fo-Hi thrust her from him.

"That smile is not for me, the man!" he cried gutterally. "Ah! I could curse the power that I coveted and set above all earthly joys! I who boasted that he could control his will--I read in your eyes that I am willing you to love me! I seek a gift and can obtain but a tribute!"

Miska, with a sobbing moan, sank upon the diwan. Fo-Hi stood motionless, looking straight before him. His terrible calm was restored.

"It is the bitter truth," he said--"that to win the world I have bartered the birthright of men; the art of winning a woman's heart. There is much in our Chinese wisdom. I erred in breaking the whip. I erred in doubting my own prescience, which told me that the smiles I could not woo were given freely to another ... and perhaps the kisses. At least I can set these poor frail human doubts at rest."

He crossed and struck a gong which hung midway between the two doors.