Part IV. The Lair of the Scorpion
Chapter VII. The Way of a Scorpion
 

A black cloud swept past the face of the moon and cold illumination flooded the narrow lane and patched with light the drive leading up to the front of the isolated mansion. Wrought-iron gates closed both entrances and a high wall, surmounted by broken glass and barbed wire, entirely surrounded the grounds.

"This one also is locked," said Gaston Max, trying the gate and then peering through the bars in the direction of the gloomy house.

All the visible windows were shuttered. No ray of light showed anywhere. The house must have been pronounced deserted by anyone contemplating it.

"Upon which side do you suppose the big room to be?" asked Max.

"It is difficult to judge," replied Stuart. "But I am disposed to believe that it is in the front of the house and on the first floor, for I traversed a long corridor, descended several stairs, turned to the right and emerged in a part of the garden bordering the lane in which Inspector Kelly is posted."

"I was thinking of the window and the balcony which 'The Scorpion' informed you commanded a view of Hampton Court. Hampton Court," he turned half-left, "lies about yonder. Therefore you are probably right, doctor; the room as you say should be in front of the house. Since we do not know how to disconnect the alarms, once we have entered the grounds it is important that we should gain access to the house immediately. Ah! morbleu! the moon disappears again!"

Darkness crept over the countryside.

"There is an iron balcony jutting out amongst the ivy just above and to the right of the porch!" cried Stuart, who had also been peering up the moon-patched drive. "I would wager that that is the room!"

"Ah!" replied Max, "I believe you are right. This, then is how we shall proceed: Inspector Kelly, with the aid of two men, can get over the wall near that garden door by which you came out. If they cannot force it from inside, you also must get over and lead the way to the entrance you know of. Sowerby and two more men will remain to watch the lane. The river front is well guarded. We will post a man here at this gate and one at the other. Dunbar and I will climb this one and rush straight for that balcony which we must hope to reach by climbing up the ivy. Ah! here comes Inspector Dunbar ... and someone is with him!"

Dunbar appeared at the double around the corner of the lane which led riverward, and beside him ran a girl who presented a bizarre figure beside the gaunt Scotsman and a figure wildly out of place in that English riverside setting.

It was Miska, arrayed in her flimsy harem dress!

"Miska!" cried Stuart, and sprang towards her, sweeping her hungrily into his arms--forgetful of, indifferent to, the presence of Max and Dunbar.

"Ah!" sighed the Frenchman--"yes, she is beautiful!"

Trembling wildly, Miska clung to Stuart and began to speak, her English more broken than ever, because of her emotion.

"Listen--quick!" she panted. "Oh! do not hold me so tight. I have the house-keys--look!"--she held up a bunch of keys--"but not the keys of the gates. Two men have gone to the end of the tunnel where the boat is hid beside the river. Someone--he better climb this gate and by the ivy he can reach the room in which Fo-Hi is! I come down so. You do not see me because the moon goes out and I run to the side-door. It is open. You come with me!"

She clung to Stuart, looking up into his eyes.

"Yes, yes, Miska!"

"Oh! Chunda Lal"--she choked down a sob. "Be quick! be quick! He will kill him! he will kill him!"

"Off you go, doctor!" cried Max. "Come along, Dunbar!"

He began to climb the ironwork of the gate.

"This way!" said Miska, dragging Stuart by the arm. "Oh! I am wild with fear and sorrow and joy!"

"With joy, dear little Miska!" whispered Stuart, as he followed her.

They passed around the bend into the narrower lane which led toward the river and upon which the garden-door opened. Stuart detained her. If the fate of the whole world had hung in the balance--as indeed, perhaps it did--he could not have acted otherwise. He raised her bewitching face and kissed her ardently.

She trembled and clung to him rapturously.

"I live!" she whispered. "Oh! I am mad with happiness! It is Chunda Lal that gives me life--for he tells me the truth. It is not with the living-death that he touches me; it is a trick, it is all a trick to bind me to him! Oh, Chunda Lal! Hurry! he is going to kill him!"

But supreme above all the other truths in the world, the joyous truth that Miska was to live set Stuart's heart on fire.

"Thank God!" he said fervently--"oh, thank God! Miska!"

At the garden-door a group of men awaited them. Sergeant Sowerby and two assistants remaining to watch the entrance and the lane, Miska led Stuart and the burly Inspector Kelly along that path beside the wall which Stuart so well remembered.

"Hurry!" she whispered urgently. "We must try to reach him before ..."

"You fear for Chunda Lal?" said Stuart.

"Oh, yes! He has a terrible power--Fo-Hi--which he never employs with me, until to-night. Ah! it is only Chunda Lal, who saved me! But Chunda Lal he can command with his Will. From it, once he has made anyone a slave to it, there is no escape. I have seen one in the city of Quebec, in Canada, forget all else and begin to act in obedience to the will of Fo-Hi who is thousands of miles away!"

"My God!" murmured Stuart, "what a horrible monster!"

They had reached the open door beyond which showed the dimly lighted passage. Miska hesitated.

"Oh! I am afraid!" she whispered.

She thrust the keys into the hand of Inspector Kelly, pointing to one of them, and:

"That is the key!" she said. "Have your pistol ready. Do not touch anything in the room and do not go in if I tell you not to. Come!"

They pressed along the passage, came to the stair and were about to ascend, when there ensued a dull reverberating boom, and Miska shrank back into Stuart's arms with a stifled shriek.

"Oh! Chunda Lal!" she moaned--"Chunda Lal! It is the trap!"

"The trap!" said Inspector Kelly.

"The cellar trap. He has thrown him down ... to the ants!"

Inspector Kelly uttered a short laugh; but Stuart repressed a shudder. He was never likely to forget the skeleton of the Nubian mute which had been stripped by the ants in sixty-nine minutes!

"We are too late!" whispered Miska. "Oh! listen! listen!"

Bells began to ring somewhere above them.

"Max and Dunbar are in!" said Kelly. "Come on, sir! Follow closely, boys!"

He ran up the stairs and along the corridor to the door at the end.

A muffled shot sounded from somewhere in the depths of the house.

"That's Harvey!" said one of the men who followed--"Our man must have tried to escape by the tunnel to the river bank!"

Inspector Kelly placed the key in the lock of the door.

It was at this moment that Gaston Max, climbing up to the front balcony by means of the natural ladder afforded by the ancient ivy, grasped the iron railing and drew himself up to the level of the room. By this same stairway Chunda Lal had ascended to death and Miska had climbed down to life.

"Mind the ironwork doesn't give way, sir!" called Dunbar from below.

"It is strong," replied Max. "Join me here, my friend."

Max, taking a magazine pistol from his pocket, stepped warily over the ledge into the mysterious half-light behind the great screen. As he did so, one of the lacquer doors was unlocked from the outside, and across the extraordinary, smoke-laden room he saw Inspector Kelly enter. He saw something else.

Seated in a strangely-shaped canopied chair was a figure wearing a rich mandarin robe, but having its face covered with a green veil.

"Mon Deiu! at last!" he cried, and leapt into the room. "'The Scorpion'!"

Even as he leapt, and as the Scotland Yard men closed in upon the chair also, all of them armed and all half fearful, a thing happened which struck awe to every heart--for it seemed to be supernatural.

Raising a metal hammer which he held in his hand, Fo-Hi struck the bronze bell hung beside the chair. It emitted a deep, loud note....

There came a flash of blinding light, and intense crackling sound, the crash of broken glass, and a dense cloud of pungent fumes rose in the heated air.

Dunbar had just climbed in behind Gaston Max. Bother were all but hurled from their feet by the force of the explosion. Then:

"Oh, my God!" cried Dunbar, staggering, half blinded, "look--look!"

A deathly silence claimed them all. Just within the doorway Stuart appeared, having his arm about the shoulders of Miska.

The Throne of the Gods was empty! A thin coating of grey dust was settling upon it and upon the dais which supported it.

They had witnessed a scientific miracle ... the complete and instantaneous disintegration of a human body. Gaston Max was the first to recover speech.

"We are defeated," he said. "'The Scorpion,' surrounded, destroys himself. It is the way of a scorpion."