Chapter I. The Phantom Scimitar
 

I was not the only passenger aboard the S.S. Mandalay who perceived the disturbance and wondered what it might portend and from whence proceed. A goodly number of passengers were joining the ship at Port Said. I was lounging against the rail, pipe in mouth, lazily wondering, with a large vagueness.

What a heterogeneous rabble it was! - a brightly coloured rabble, but the colours all were dirty, like the town and the canal. Only the sky was clean; the sky and the hard, merciless sunlight which spared nothing of the uncleanness, and defied one even to think of the term dear to tourists, "picturesque." I was in that kind of mood. All the natives appeared to be pockmarked; all the Europeans greasy with perspiration.

But what was the stir about?

I turned to the dark, bespectacled young man who leaned upon the rail beside me. From the first I had taken to Mr. Ahmad Ahmadeen.

"There is some kind of undercurrent of excitement among the natives," I said, "a sort of subdued Greek chorus is audible. What's it all about?"

Mr. Ahmadeen smiled. After a gaunt fashion, he was a handsome man and had a pleasant smile.

"Probably," he replied, "some local celebrity is joining the ship."

I stared at him curiously.

"Any idea who he is?" (The soul of the copyhunter is a restless soul.)

A group of men dressed in semi-European fashion - that is, in European fashion save for their turbans, which were green - passed close to us along the deck.

Ahmadeen appeared not to have heard the question.

The disturbance, which could only be defined as a subdued uproar, but could be traced to no particular individual or group, grew momentarily louder - and died away. It was only when it had completely ceased that one realized how pronounced it had been - how altogether peculiar, secret; like that incomprehensible murmuring in a bazaar when, unknown to the insular visitor, a reputed saint is present.

Then it happened; the inexplicable incident which, though I knew it not, heralded the coming of strange things, and the dawn of a new power; which should set up its secret standards in England, which should flood Europe and the civilized world with wonder.

A shrill scream marked the overture - a scream of fear and of pain, which dropped to a groan, and moaned out into the silence of which it was the cause.

"My God! what's that?"

I started forward. There was a general crowding rush, and a darkly tanned and bearded man came on board, carrying a brown leather case. Behind him surged those who bore the victim.

"It's one of the lascars!"

"No - an Egyptian!"

"It was a porter -?"

"What is it -?"

"Someone been stabbed!"

"Where's the doctor?"

"Stand away there, if you please!"

That was a ship's officer; and the voice of authority served to quell the disturbance. Through a lane walled with craning heads they bore the insensible man. Ahmadeen was at my elbow.

"A Copt," he said softly. "Poor devil!" I turned to him. There was a queer expression on his lean, clean-shaven, bronze face.

"Good God!" I said. "His hand has been cut off!"

That was the fact of the matter. And no one knew who was responsible for the atrocity. And no one knew what had become of the severed hand! I wasted not a moment in linking up the story. The pressman within me acted automatically.

"The gentleman just come aboard, sir," said a steward, "is Professor Deeping. The poor beggar who was assaulted was carrying some of the Professor's baggage. The whole incident struck me as most odd. There was an idea lurking in my mind that something else - something more - lay behind all this. With impatience I awaited the time when the injured man, having received medical attention, was conveyed ashore, and Professor Deeping reappeared. To the celebrated traveller and Oriental scholar I introduced myself.

He was singularly reticent.

"I was unable to see what took place, Mr. Cavanagh," he said. "The poor fellow was behind me, for I had stepped from the boat ahead of him. I had just taken a bag from his hand, but he was carrying another, heavier one. It is a clean cut, like that of a scimitar. I have seen very similar wounds in the cases of men who have suffered the old Moslem penalty for theft."

Nothing further had come to light when the Mandalay left, but I found new matter for curiosity in the behaviour of the Moslem party who had come on board at Port Said.

In conversation with Mr. Bell, the chief officer, I learned that the supposed leader of the party was one, Mr. Azraeel. "Obviously," said Bell, "not his real name or not all it. I don't suppose they'll show themselves on deck; they've got their own servants with them, and seem to be people of consequence."

This conversation was interrupted, but I found my unseen fellow voyagers peculiarly interesting and pursued inquiries in other directions. I saw members of the distinguished travellers' retinue going about their duties, but never obtained a glimpse of Mr. Azraeel nor of any of his green-turbaned companions.

"Who is Mr. Azraeel?" I asked Ahmadeen.

"I cannot say," replied the Egyptian, and abruptly changed the subject.

Some curious aroma of mystery floated about the ship. Ahmadeen conveyed to me the idea that he was concealing something. Then, one night, Mr. Bell invited me to step forward with him.

"Listen," he said.

>From somewhere in the fo'c'sle proceeded low chanting.

"Hear it?"

"Yes. What the devil is it?"

"It's the lascars," said Bell. "They have been behaving in a most unusual manner ever since the mysterious Mr. Azraeel joined us. I may be wrong in associating the two things, but I shan't be sorry to see the last of our mysterious passengers."

The next happening on board the Mandalay which I have to record was the attempt to break open the door of Professor Deeping's stateroom. Except when he was actually within, the Professor left his room door religiously locked.

He made light of the affair, but later took me aside and told me a curious story of an apparition which had appeared to him.

"It was a crescent of light," he said, "and it glittered through the darkness there to the left as I lay in my berth."

"A reflection from something on the deck?"

Deeping smiled, uneasily.

"Possibly," he replied; "but it was very sharply defined. Like the blade of a scimitar," he added.

I stared at him, my curiosity keenly aroused. "Does any explanation suggest itself to you?" I said.

"Well," he confessed, "I have a theory, I will admit; but it is rather going back to the Middle Ages. You see, I have lived in the East a lot; perhaps I have assimilated some of their superstitions."

He was oddly reticent, as ever. I felt convinced that he was keeping something back. I could not stifle the impression that the clue to these mysteries lay somewhere around the invisible Mohammedan party.

"Do you know," said Bell to me, one morning, "this trip's giving me the creeps. I believe the damned ship's haunted! Three bells in the middle watch last night, I'll swear I saw some black animal crawling along the deck, in the direction of the forward companion-way."

"Cat?" I suggested.

"Nothing like it," said Mr. Bell. "Mr. Cavanagh, it was some uncanny thing! I'm afraid I can't explain quite what I mean, but it was something I wanted to shoot!"

"Where did it go?"

The chief officer shrugged his shoulders. "Just vanished," he said. "I hope I don't see it again."

At Tilbury the Mohammedan party went ashore in a body. Among them were veiled women. They contrived so to surround a central figure that I entirely failed to get a glimpse of the mysterious Mr. Azraeel. Ahmadeen was standing close by the companion-way, and I had a momentary impression that one of the women slipped something into his hand. Certainly, he started; and his dusky face seemed to pale.

Then a deck steward came out of Deeping's stateroom, carrying the brown bag which the Professor had brought aboard at Port Said. Deeping's voice came:

"Hi, my man! Let me take that bag!"

The bag changed hands. Five minutes later, as I was preparing to go ashore, arose a horrid scream above the berthing clamour. Those passengers yet aboard made in the direction from which the scream had proceeded.

A steward - the one to whom Professor Deeping had spoken - lay writhing at the foot of the stairs leading to the saloon-deck. His right hand had been severed above the wrist!