XV. Cave of the Golden Dragon
 

When the car stopped at the end of a short drive, Soames had not the slightest idea of his whereabouts. The blinds at the window of the limousine had been lowered during the whole journey, and now he descended from the step of the car on to the step of a doorway. He was in some kind of roofed-in courtyard, only illuminated by the headlamps of the car. Mr. Gianapolis pushed him forward, and, as the door was closed, he heard the gear of the car reversed; then-- silence fell.

"My grip!" he began, nervously.

"It will be placed in your room, Soames."

The voice of the Greek answered him from the darkness.

Guided by the hand of Gianapolis, he passed on and descended a flight of stone steps. Ahead of him a light shone out beneath a door, and, as he stumbled on the steps, the door was thrown suddenly open.

He found himself looking into a long, narrow apartment. . . . He pulled up short with a smothered, gasping cry.

It was a cavern!--but a cavern the like of which he had never seen, never imagined. The walls had the appearance of being rough-hewn from virgin rock--from black rock--from rock black as the rocks of Shellal--black as the gates of Erebus.

Placed at regular intervals along the frowning walls, to right and left, were spiral, slender pillars, gilded and gleaming. They supported an archwork of fancifully carven wood, which curved gently outward to the center of the ceiling, forming, by conjunction with a similar, opposite curve, a pointed arch.

In niches of the wall were a number of grotesque Chinese idols. The floor was jet black and polished like ebony. Several tiger- skin rugs were strewn about it. But, dominating the strange place, in the center of the floor stood an ivory pedestal, supporting a golden dragon of exquisite workmanship; and before it, as before a shrine, an enormous Chinese vase was placed, of the hue, at its base, of deepest violet, fading, upward, through all the shades of rose pink seen in an Egyptian sunset, to a tint more elusive than a maiden's blush. It contained a mass of exotic poppies of every shade conceivable, from purple so dark as to seem black, to poppies of the whiteness of snow.

Just within the door, and immediately in front of Soames, stood a slim man of about his own height, dressed with great nicety in a perfectly fitting morning-coat, his well-cut cashmere trousers falling accurately over glossy boots having gray suede uppers. His linen was immaculate, and he wore a fine pearl in his black poplin cravat. Between two yellow fingers smoldered a cigarette.

Soames, unconsciously, clenched his fists: this slim man embodied the very spirit of the outre. The fantastic surroundings melted from the ken of Soames, and he seemed to stand in a shadow-world, alone with an incarnate shadow.

For this was a Chinaman! His jet black lusterless hair was not shaven in the national manner, but worn long, and brushed back from his slanting brow with no parting, so that it fell about his white collar behind, lankly. He wore gold-rimmed spectacles, which magnified his oblique eyes and lent him a terrifying beetle-like appearance. His mephistophelean eyebrows were raised interrogatively, and he was smiling so as to exhibit a row of uneven yellow teeth.

Soames, his amazement giving place to reasonless terror, fell back a step--into the arms of Gianapolis.

"This is our friend from Palace Mansions," said the Greek. He squeezed Soames' arm, reassuringly. "Your new principal, Soames, Mr. Ho-Pin, from whom you will take your instructions."

"I have these instructions for Mr. Soames," said Ho-Pin, in a metallic, monotonous voice. (He gave to r half the value of w, with a hint of the presence of l.) 'He will wremain here as valet until the search fowr him becomes less wrigowrous."

Soames, scarce believing that he was awake, made no reply. He found himself unable to meet the glittering eyes of the Chinaman; he glanced furtively about the room, prepared at any moment to wake up from what seemed to him an absurd, a ghostly dream.

"Said will change his appeawrance," continued Ho-Pin, smoothly, "so that he will not wreadily be wrecognized. Said will come now."

Ho-Pin clapped his hands three times.

The door at the end of the room immediately opened, and a thick-set man of a pronounced Arabian type, entered. He wore a chauffeur's livery of dark blue; and Soames recognized him for the man who had driven the car.

"Said," said Ho-Pin very deliberately, turning to face the new arrival, "ahu hina--Lucas Effendi--Mr. Lucas. Waddi el--shenta ila beta oda. Fehimt?"

Said bowed his head.

"Fahim, effendi," he muttered rapidly.

"Ma fihsh." . . .

Again Said bowed his head, then, glancing at Soames:--

"Ta'ala wayyaya!" he said.

Soames, looking helplessly at Gianapolis--who merely pointed to the door--followed Said from the room.

He was conducted along a wide passage, thickly carpeted and having its walls covered with a kind of matting kept in place by strips of bamboo. Its roof was similarly concealed. A door near to the end, and on the right, proved to open into a square room quite simply furnished in the manner of a bed-sitting room. A little bathroom opened out of it in one corner. The walls were distempered white, and there was no window. Light was furnished by an electric lamp, hanging from the center of the ceiling.

Soames, glancing at his bag, which Said had just placed beside the white-enameled bedstead, turned to his impassive guide.

"This is a funny go!" he began, with forced geniality. "Am I to live here?"

"Ma'lesh!" muttered Said--"ma'lesh!"

He indicated, by gestures, that Soames should remove his collar; he was markedly unemotional. He crossed to the bathroom, and could be heard filling the hand-basin with water.

"Kursi!" he called from within.

Soames, seriously doubting his own sanity, and so obsessed with a sense of the unreal that his senses were benumbed, began to take off his collar; he could not feel the contact of his fingers with his neck in the act. Collarless, he entered the little bathroom. . . .

"Kursi!" repeated Said; then: "Ah! ana nesit! ma'lesh!"

Said--whilst Soames, docile in his stupor, watched him--went back, picked up the solitary cane chair which the apartment boasted, and brought it into the bathroom. Soames perceived that he was to be treated to something in the nature of a shampoo; for Said had ranged a number of bottles, a cake of soap, and several towels, along a shelf over the bath.

In a curious state of passivity, Soames submitted to the operation. His hair was vigorously toweled, then fanned in the most approved fashion; but this was no more than the beginning of the operation. As he leaned back in the chair:

"Am I dreaming?" he said aloud. "What's all this about?"

"Uskut!" muttered Said--"Uskut!"

Soames, at no time an aggressive character, resigned himself to the incredible.

Some lotion, which tingled slightly upon the scalp, was next applied by Said from a long-necked bottle. Then, fresh water having been poured into the basin, a dark purple liquid was added, and Soames' head dipped therein by the operating Eastern. This time no rubbing followed, but after some minutes of vigorous fanning, he was thrust back into the chair, and a dry towel tucked firmly into his collar-band. He anticipated that he was about to be shaved, and in this was not disappointed.

Said, filling a shaving-mug from the hot-water tap, lathered Soames' chin and the abbreviated whiskers upon which he had prided himself. Then the razor was skilfully handled, and Soames' face shaved until his chin was as smooth as satin.

Next, a dark brown solution was rubbed over the skin, and even upon his forehead and right into the roots of the hair; upon his throat, his ears, and the back of his neck. He was now past the putting of questions or the raising of protest; he was as clay in the hands of the silent Oriental. Having fanned his wet face again for some time, Said, breaking the long silence, muttered:

"Ikfil'iyyun!"

Soames stared. Said indicated, by pantomime, that he desired him to close his eyes, and Soames obeyed mechanically. Thereupon the Oriental busied himself with the ex-butler's not very abundant lashes for five minutes or more. Then the busy fingers were at work with his inadequate eyebrows: finally:--

"Khalas!" muttered Said, tapping him on the shoulder.

Soames wearily opened his eyes, wondering if his strange martyrdom were nearly at its end. He discovered his hair to be still rather damp, but, since it was sparse, it was rapidly drying. His eyes smarted painfully.

Removing all trace of his operations, Said, with no word of farewell, took up his towels, bottles and other paraphernalia and departed.

Soames watched the retreating figure crossing the outer room, but did not rise from the chair until the door had closed behind Said. Then, feeling strangely like a man who has drunk too heavily, he stood up and walked into the bedroom. There was a small shaving- glass upon the chest-of-drawers, and to this he advanced, filled with the wildest apprehensions.

One glance he ventured, and started back with a groan.

His apprehensions had fallen short of the reality. With one hand clutching the bedrail, he stood there swaying from side to side, and striving to screw up his courage to the point whereat he might venture upon a second glance in the mirror. At last he succeeded, looking long and pitifully.

"Oh, Lord!" he groaned, "what a guy!"

Beyond doubt he was strangely changed. By nature, Luke Soames had hair of a sandy color; now it was of so dark a brown as to seem black in the lamplight. His thin eyebrows and scanty lashes were naturally almost colorless; but they were become those of a pronounced brunette. He was of pale complexion, but to-night had the face of a mulatto, or of one long in tropical regions. In short, he was another man--a man whom he detested at first sight!

This was the price, or perhaps only part of the price, of his indiscretion. Mr. Soames was become Mr. Lucas. Clutching the top of the chest-of-drawers with both hands, he glared at his own reflection, dazedly.

In that pose, he was interrupted. Said, silently opening the door behind him, muttered:

"Ta'ala wayyaya!"

Soames whirled around in a sudden panic, his heart leaping madly. The immobile brown face peered in at the door.

"Ta'ala wayyaya!" repeated Said, his face expressionless as a mask. He pointed along the corridor. "Ho-Pin Effendi!" he explained.

Soames, raising his hands to his collarless neck, made a swallowing noise, and would have spoken; but:

"Ta'ala wayyaya!" reiterated the Oriental.

Soames hesitated no more. Reentering the corridor, with its straw- matting walls, he made a curious discovery. Away to the left it terminated in a blank, matting-covered wall. There was no indication of the door by which he had entered it. Glancing hurriedly to the right, he failed also to perceive any door there. The bespectacled Ho-Pin stood halfway along the passage, awaiting him. Following Said in that direction, Soames was greeted with the announcement:

"Mr. King will see you."

The words taught Soames that his capacity for emotion was by no means exhausted. His endless conjectures respecting the mysterious Mr. King were at last to be replaced by facts; he was to see him, to speak with him. He knew now that it was a fearful privilege which gladly he would have denied himself.

Ho-Pin opened a door almost immediately behind him, a door the existence of which had not hitherto been evident to Soames. Beyond, was a dark passage.

"You will follow me, closely," said Ho-Pin with one of his piercing glances.

Soames, finding his legs none too steady, entered the passage behind Ho-Pin. As he did so, the door was closed by Said, and he found himself in absolute darkness.

"Keep close behind me," directed the metallic voice.

Soames could not see the speaker, since no ray of light penetrated into the passage. He stretched out a groping hand, and, although he was conscious of an odd revulsion, touched the shoulder of the man in front of him and maintained that unpleasant contact whilst they walked on and on through apparently endless passages, extensive as a catacomb. Many corners they turned; they turned to the right, they turned to the left. Soames was hopelessly bewildered. Then, suddenly, Ho-Pin stopped.

"Stand still," he said.

Soames became vaguely aware that a door was being closed somewhere near to him. A lamp lighted up directly over his head . . . he found himself in a small library!

Its four walls were covered with book-shelves from floor to ceiling, and the shelves were packed to overflowing with books in most unusual and bizarre bindings. A red carpet was on the floor and a red-shaded lamp hung from the ceiling, which was conventionally white-washed. Although there was no fireplace, the room was immoderately hot, and heavy with the perfume of roses. On three little tables were great bowls filled with roses, and there were other bowls containing roses in gaps between the books on the open shelves.

A tall screen of beautifully carved sandalwood masked one corner of the room, but beyond it protruded the end of a heavy writing-table upon which lay some loose papers, and, standing amid them, an enormous silver rose-bowl, brimming with sulphur-colored blooms.

Soames, obeying a primary instinct, turned, as the light leaped into being, to seek the door by which he had entered. As he did so, the former doubts of his own sanity returned with renewed vigor.

The book-lined wall behind him was unbroken by any opening.

Slowly, as a man awaking from a stupor, Soames gazed around the library.

It contained no door.

He rested his hand upon one of the shelves and closed his eyes. Beyond doubt he was going mad! The tragic events of that night had proved too much for him; he had never disguised from himself the fact that his mental capacity was not of the greatest. He was assured, now, that his brain had lost its balance shortly after his flight from Palace Mansions, and that the events of the past two hours had been phantasmal. He would presently return to sanity (or, blasphemously, he dared to petition heaven that he would) and find himself . . . ? Perhaps in the hands of the police!

"Oh, God!" he groaned--"Oh, God!"

He opened his eyes . . .

A woman stood before the sandalwood screen! She had the pallidly dusky skin of a Eurasian, but, by virtue of nature or artifice, her cheeks wore a peachlike bloom. Her features were flawless in their chiseling, save for the slightly distended nostrils, and her black eyes were magnificent.

She was divinely petite, slender and girlish; but there was that in the lines of her figure, so seductively defined by her clinging Chinese dress, in the poise of her small head, with the blush rose nestling amid the black hair--above all in the smile of her full red lips--which discounted the youth of her body; which whispered "Mine is a soul old in strange sins--a soul for whom dead Alexandria had no secrets, that learnt nothing of Athenean Thais and might have tutored Messalina" . . .

In her fanciful robe of old gold, with her tiny feet shod in ridiculously small, gilt slippers, she stood by the screen watching the stupefied man--an exquisite, fragrantly youthful casket of ancient, unnameable evils.

"Good evening, Soames!" she said, stumbling quaintly with her English, but speaking in a voice musical as a silver bell. "You will here be known as Lucas. Mr. King he wishing me to say that you to receive two pounds, at each week." . . .

Soames, glassy-eyed, stood watching her. A horror, the horror of insanity, had descended upon him--a clammy, rose-scented mantle. The room, the incredible, book-lined room, was a red blur, surrounding the black, taunting eyes of the Eurasian. Everything was out of focus; past, present, and future were merged into a red, rose-haunted nothingness . . .

"You will attend to Block A," resumed the girl, pointing at him with a little fan. "You will also attend to the gentlemen." . . .

She laughed softly, revealing tiny white teeth; then paused, head tilted coquettishly, and appeared to be listening to someone's conversation--to the words of some person seated behind the screen. This fact broke in upon Soames' disordered mind and confirmed him in his opinion that he was a man demented. For only one slight sound broke the silence of the room. The red carpet below the little tables was littered with rose petals, and, in the super- heated atmosphere, other petals kept falling--softly, with a gentle rustling. Just that sound there was . . . and no other. Then:

"Mr. King he wishing to point out to you," said the girl, "that he hold receipts of you, which bind you to him. So you will be free man, and have liberty to go out sometimes for your own business. Mr. King he wishing to hear you say you thinking to agree with the conditions and be satisfied."

She ceased speaking, but continued to smile; and so complete was the stillness, that Soames, whose sense of hearing had become nervously stimulated, heard a solitary rose petal fall upon the corner of the writing-table.

"I . . . agree," he whispered huskily; "and . . . I am . . . satisfied."

He looked at the carven screen as a lost soul might look at the gate of Hades; he felt now that if a sound should come from beyond it he would shriek out, he would stop up his ears; that if the figure of the Unseen should become visible, he must die at the first glimpse of it.

The little brown girl was repeating the uncanny business of listening to that voice of silence; and Soames knew that he could not sustain his part in this eerie comedy for another half-minute without breaking out into hysterical laughter. Then:

"Mr. King he releasing you for to-night," announced the silver bell voice.

The light went out.

Soames uttered a groan of terror, followed by a short, bubbling laugh, but was seized firmly by the arm and led on into the blackness--on through the solid, book-laden walls, presumably; and on--on--on, along those interminable passages by which he had come. Here the air was cooler, and the odor of roses no longer perceptible, no longer stifling him, no longer assailing his nostrils, not as an odor of sweetness, but as a perfume utterly damnable and unholy.

With his knees trembling at every step, he marched on, firmly supported by his unseen companion.

"Stop!" directed a metallic, guttural voice.

Soames pulled up, and leaned weakly against the wall. He heard the clap of hands close behind him; and a door opened within twelve inches of the spot whereat he stood.

He tottered out into the matting-lined corridor from which he had started upon that nightmare journey; Ho-Pin appeared at his elbow, but no door appeared behind Ho-Pin!

"This is your wroom," said the Chinaman, revealing his yellow teeth in a mirthless smile.

He walked across the corridor, threw open a door--a real, palpable door . . . and there was Soames' little white room!

Soames staggered across, for it seemed a veritable haven of refuge-- entered, and dropped upon the bed. He seemed to see the rose- petals fall--fall--falling in that red room in the labyrinth--the room that had no door; he seemed to see the laughing eyes of the beautiful Eurasian.

"Good night!" came the metallic voice of Ho-Pin.

The light in the corridor went out.