XXXIX. The Labyrinth
 

Feverishly, Max clutched at the last three books upon the shelf adjoining the gap. Of these, the center volume, a work bound in yellow calf and bearing no title, proved to be irremovable; right and left it could be inclined, but not moved outward. It masked the lever handle of the door!

But that door was locked.

Max, with upraised arms, swept the perspiration from his brows and eyes; he leant dizzily up against the door which defied him; his mind was working with febrile rapidity. He placed the pistol in his pocket, and, recrossing the room, mounted up again upon the shelves, and crept through into the apartment beyond, from which the yellow hand had protruded. He dropped, panting, upon the bed, then, eagerly leaping to the door, grasped the handle.

"Pardieu!" he muttered, "it is unlocked!"

Though the light was still burning in this room, the corridor outside was in darkness. He pressed the button of the ingenious lamp which was also a watch, and made for the door communicating with the cave of the dragon. It was readily to be detected by reason of its visible handle; the other doors being externally indistinguishable from the rest of the matting-covered wall.

The cave of the dragon proved to be empty, and in darkness. He ran across its polished floor and opened at random the door immediately facing him. A corridor similar to the one which he had just quitted was revealed. Another door was visible at one end, and to this he ran, pulled it open, stepped through the opening, and found himself back in the cave of the dragon!

"Morbleu!" he muttered, "it is bewildering--this!"

Yet another door, this time one of ebony, he opened; and yet another matting-lined corridor presented itself to his gaze. He swept it with the ray of the little lamp, detected a door, opened it, and entered a similar suite to those with which he already was familiar. It was empty, but, unlike the one which he himself had tenanted, this suite possessed two doors, the second opening out of the bathroom. To this he ran; it was unlocked; he opened it, stepped ahead . . . and was back again in the cave of the dragon.

"Mon dieu!" he cried, "this is Chinese--quite Chinese!"

He stood looking about him, flashing the ray of light upon doors which were opened and upon openings in the walls where properly there should have been no doors.

"I am too late!" he muttered; "they had information of this and they have 'unloaded.' That they intend to fly the country is proven by their leaving Mrs. Leroux behind. Ah, nom d'un nom, the good God grant that they have left also." . . .

Coincident with his thoughts of her, the voice of Helen Cumberly reached his ears! He stood there quivering in every nerve, as: "Help! Help!" followed by a choking, inarticulate cry, came, muffled, from somewhere--he could not determine where.

But the voice was the voice of Helen Cumberly. He raised his left fist and beat his brow as if to urge his brain to super-activity. Then, leaping, he was off.

Door after door he threw open, crying, "Miss Cumberly! Miss Cumberly! Where are you? Have courage! Help is here!"

But the silence remained unbroken--and always his wild search brought him back to the accursed cave of the golden dragon. He began to grow dizzy; he felt that his brain was bursting. For somewhere--somewhere but a few yards removed from him--a woman was in extreme peril!

Clutching dizzily at the pedestal of the dragon, he cried at the top of his voice:--

"Miss Cumberly! For the good God's sake answer me! Where are you?"

"Here, M. Max!" he was answered; "the door on your right . . . and then to your right again--quick! Quick! Saints! she has killed me!"

It was Gianapolis who spoke!

Max hurled himself through the doorway indicated, falling up against the matting wall by reason of the impetus of his leap. He turned, leaped on, and one of the panels was slightly ajar; it was a masked door. Within was darkness out of which came the sounds of a great turmoil, as of wild beasts in conflict.

Max kicked the door fully open and flashed the ray of the torch into the room. It poured its cold light upon a group which, like some masterpiece of classic statuary, was to remain etched indelibly upon his mind.

Helen Cumberly lay, her head and shoulders pressed back upon the silken pillows of the bed, with both hands clutching the wrist of the Eurasian and striving to wrench the latter's fingers from her throat, in the white skin of which they were bloodily embedded. With his left arm about the face and head of the devilish half- caste, and grasping with his right hand her slender right wrist-- putting forth all his strength to hold it back--was Gianapolis!

His face was of a grayish pallor and clammy with sweat; his crooked eyes had the glare of madness. The lithe body of the Eurasian writhing in his grasp seemed to possess the strength of two strong men; for palpably the Greek was weakening. His left sleeve was torn to shreds--to bloody shreds beneath the teeth of the wild thing with which he fought; and lower, lower, always nearer to the throat of the victim, the slender, yellow arm forced itself, forced the tiny hand clutching a poniard no larger than a hatpin but sharp as an adder's tooth.

"Hold her!" whispered Gianapolis in a voice barely audible, as Max burst into the room. "She came back for this and . . . I followed her. She has the strength of . . . a tigress!"

Max hurled himself into the melee, grasping the wrist of the Eurasian below where it was clutched by Gianapolis. Nodding to the Greek to release his hold, he twisted it smartly upward.

The dagger fell upon the floor, and with an animal shriek of rage, the Eurasian tottered back. Max caught her about the waist and tossed her unceremoniously into a corner of the room.

Helen Cumberly slipped from the bed, and lay very white and still upon the garish carpet, with four tiny red streams trickling from the nail punctures in her throat. Max stooped and raised her shoulders; he glanced at the Greek, who, quivering in all his limbs, and on the verge of collapse, only kept himself upright by dint of clutching at the side of the doorway. Max realized that Gianapolis was past aiding him; his own resources were nearly exhausted, but, stooping, he managed to lift the girl and to carry her out into the corridor.

"Follow me!" he gasped, glancing back at Gianapolis; "Morbleu, make an effort! The keys--the keys!"

Laying Helen Cumberly upon one of the raised divans, with her head resting upon a silken cushion, Max, teeth tightly clenched and dreadfully conscious that his strength was failing him, waited for Gianapolis. Out from the corridor the Greek came staggering, and Max now perceived that he was bleeding profusely from a wound in the breast.

"She came back," whispered Gianapolis, clutching at the Frenchman for support. . . "the hellcat! . . . I did not know . . . that . . . Miss Cumberly was here. As God is my witness I did not know! But I followed . . . her--Mahara . . . thank God I did! She has finished me, I think, but"--he lowered the crooked eyes to the form of Helen Cumberly--"never mind . . . Saints!"

He reeled and sank upon his knees. He clutched at the edge of his coat and raised it to his lips, wherefrom blood was gushing forth. Max stooped eagerly, for as the Greek had collapsed upon the floor, he had heard the rattle of keys.

"She had . . . the keys," whispered Gianapolis. "They have . . . tabs . . . upon them . . . Mrs. Leroux . . . number 3 B. The door to the stair"--very, very slowly, he inclined his head toward the ebony door near which Max was standing--"is marked X. The door . . . at the top--into garage . . . B."

"Tell me," said Max, his arm about the dying man's shoulders--"try to tell me: who killed Mrs. Vernon and why?"

"Mr. King!" came in a rattling voice. "Because of the . . . carelessness of someone . . . Mrs. Vernon wandered into the room . . . of Mrs. Leroux. She seems to have had a fit of remorse . . . or something like it. She begged Mrs. Leroux to pull up . . . before . . . too late. Ho-Pin arrived just as she was crying to . . . Mrs. Leroux . . . and asking if she could ever forgive her . . . for bringing her here. . . . It was Mrs. Vernon who . . . introduced Mrs. . . . Leroux. Ho-Pin heard her . . . say that she . . . would tell . . . Leroux the truth . . . as the only means" . . .

"Yes, yes, morbleu! I understand! And then?"

"Ho-Pin knows . . . women . . . like a book. He thought Mrs. Vernon would . . . shirk the scandal. We used to send our women . . . to Nurse Proctor's, then. . . to steady up a bit . . . We let Mrs. Vernon go . . . as usual. The scene with . . . Mrs. Leroux had shaken . . . her and she fainted . . . in the car . . . Victoria Street. . . . I was with her. Nurse Proctor had . . . God! I am dying! . . . a time with her; . . . she got so hysterical that they had to . . . detain her . . . and three days later . . . her husband died; Proctor, the . . . fool . . . somehow left a paper containing the news in Mrs. Vernon's room. . . . They had had to administer an injection that afternoon . . . and they thought she was . . . sleeping." . . .

"Morbleu! Yes, yes!--a supreme effort, my friend!"

"Directly Ho-Pin heard of Vernon's death, he knew that his hold . . . on Mrs. Vernon . . . was lost. . . . He . . . and Mahara . . . and . . . Mr. King . . . drove straight to . . . Gillingham . . . Street . . . to . . . arrange. . . . Ah! . . . she rushed like a mad woman into the street, a moment before . . . they arrived. A cab was passing, and" . . .

"I know this! I know this! What happened at Palace Mansions?"

The Greek's voice grew fainter.

"Mr. King followed . . . her . . . upstairs. Too late; . . . but whilst Leroux was in . . . Cumberly's flat . . . leaving door open . . . Mr. King went . . . in . . . Mahara . . . was watching . . . gave signal . . . whistle . . . of someone's approach. It was thought . . . Mr. King . . . had secured all the message . . . Mrs. Vernon . . . was . . . writing. . . . Mr. King opened the door of . . . the lift-shaft . . . lift not working . . . climbed down that way . . . and out by door on . . . ground floor . . . when Mr. . . . the Member of Parliament . . . went upstairs." . . .

"Ah! pardieu! one last word! Who is Mr. King?"

Gianapolis lurched forward, his eyes glazing, half raised his arm-- pointing back into the cave of the dragon--and dropped, face downward, on the floor, with a crimson pool forming slowly about his head.

An unfamiliar sound had begun to disturb the silence of the catacombs. Max glanced at the white face of Helen Cumberly, then directed the ray of the little lamp toward the further end of the apartment. A steady stream of dirty water was pouring into the cave of the dragon through the open door ahead of him.

Into the disc of light, leaped, fantastic, the witch figure of the Eurasian. She turned and faced him, threw up both her arms, and laughed shrilly, insanely. Then she turned and ran like a hare, her yellow silk dress gleaming in the moving ray. Inhaling sibilantly, Max leaped after her. In three strides he found his foot splashing in water. An instant he hesitated. Through the corridor ahead of him sped the yellow figure, and right to the end. The seemingly solid wall opened before her; it was another masked door.

Max crossed the threshold hard upon her heels. Three descending steps were ahead of him, and then a long brick tunnel in which swirled fully three feet of water, which, slowly rising, was gradually flooding the cave of the dragon.

On went the Eurasian, up to her waist in the flood, with Max gaining upon her, now, at every stride. There was a damp freshness in the air of the passage, and a sort of mist seemed to float above the water. This mist had a familiar smell. . . .

They were approaching the river, and there was a fog to-night!

Even as he realized the fact, the quarry vanished, and the ray of light from Max's lamp impinged upon the opening in an iron sluice gate. The Eurasian had passed it, but Max realized that he must lower his head if he would follow. He ducked rapidly, almost touching the muddy water with his face. A bank of yellow fog instantly enveloped him, and he pulled up short, for, instinctively, he knew that another step might precipitate him into the Thames.

He strove to peer about him, but the feeble ray of the lamp was incapable of penetrating the fog. He groped with his fingers, right and left, and presently found slimy wooden steps. He drew himself closely to these, and directed the light upon them. They led upward. He mounted cautiously, and was clear of the oily water, now, and upon a sort of gangway above which lowered a green and rotting wooden roof.

Obviously, the tide was rising; and, after seeking vainly to peer through the fog ahead, he turned and descended the steps again, finding himself now nearly up to his armpits in water. He just managed to get in under the sluice gate without actually submerging his head, and to regain the brick tunnel.

He paused for a moment, hoping to be able to lower the gate, but the apparatus was out of his reach, and he had nothing to stand upon to aid him in manipulating it.

Three or four inches of water now flooded the cave of the golden dragon. Max pulled the keys from his pocket, and unlocked the door at the foot of the steps. He turned, resting the electric lamp upon one of the little ebony tables, and lifting Helen Cumberly, carried her half-way up the steps, depositing her there with her back to the wall. He staggered down again; his remarkable physical resources were at an end; it must be another's work to rescue Mrs. Leroux. He stooped over Gianapolis, and turned his head. The crooked eyes glared up at him deathly.

"May the good God forgive you," he whispered. "You tried to make your peace with Him."

The sound of muffled blows began to be audible from the head of the steps. Max staggered out of the cave of the golden dragon. A slight freshness and dampness was visible in its atmosphere, and the gentle gurgling of water broke its heavy stillness. There was a new quality come into it, and, strangely, an old quality gone out from it. As he lifted the lamp from the table--now standing in slowly moving water--the place seemed no longer to be the cave of the golden dragon he had known. . . .

He mounted the steps again, with difficulty, resting his shaking hands upon the walls. Shattering blows were being delivered upon the door, above.

"Dunbar!" he cried feebly, stepping aside to avoid Helen Cumberly, where she lay. "Dunbar!" . . .