Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer
Chapter X. His Excellency Ormuz Khan
The city clocks were chiming the hour of ten on the following morning when a page from the Savoy approached the shop of Mr. Jarvis, bootmaker, which is situated at no great distance from the hotel. The impudent face of the small boy wore an expression of serio-comic fright as he pushed open the door and entered the shop.
Jarvis, the bootmaker, belonged to a rapidly disappearing class of British tradesmen. He buckled to no one, but took an artistic pride in his own handiwork, criticism from a layman merely provoking a scornful anger which had lost Jarvis many good customers.
He was engaged, at the moment of the page's entrance, in a little fitting room at the back of his cramped premises, but through the doorway the boy could see the red, bespectacled face with its fringe of bristling white beard, in which he detected all the tokens of brewing storm. He whistled softly in self-sympathy.
"Yes, sir," Jarvis was saying to an invisible patron, "it's a welcome sight to see a real Englishman walk into my shop nowadays. London isn't London, sir, since the war, and the Strand will never be the Strand again." He turned to his assistant, who stood beside him, bootjack in hand. "If he sends them back again," he directed, "tell him to go to one of the French firms in Regent Street who cater to dainty ladies." He positively snorted with indignation, while the page, listening, whistled again and looked down at the parcel which he carried.
"An unwelcome customer, Jarvis?" inquired the voice of the man in the fitting room.
"Quite unwelcome," said Jarvis. "I don't want him. I have more work than I know how to turn out. I wish he would go elsewhere. I wish--"
He paused. He had seen the page boy. The latter, having undone his parcel, was holding out a pair of elegant, fawn-coloured shoes.
"Great Moses!" breathed Jarvis. "He's had the cheek to send them back again!"
"His excellency--" began the page, when Jarvis snatched the shoes from his hand and hurled them to the other end of the shop. His white beard positively bristled.
"Tell his excellency," he shouted, "to go to the devil, with my compliments!"
So positively ferocious was his aspect that the boy, with upraised arm, backed hastily out into the street. Safety won: "Blimey!" exclaimed the youth. "He's the warm goods, he is!"
He paused for several moments, staring in a kind of stupefied admiration at the closed door of Mr. Jarvis's establishment. He whistled again, softly, and then began to run--for the formidable Mr. Jarvis suddenly opened the door. "Hi, boy!" he called to the page. The page hesitated, glancing back doubtfully. "Tell his excellency that I will send round in about half an hour to remeasure his foot."
"D'you mean it?" inquired the boy, impudently--"or is there a catch in it?"
"I'll tan your hide, my lad!" cried the bootmaker--"and I mean that! Take my message and keep your mouth shut."
The boy departed, grinning, and little more than half an hour later a respectable-looking man presented himself at Savoy Court, inquiring of the attendant near the elevator for the apartments of "his excellency," followed by an unintelligible word which presumably represented "Ormuz Khan." The visitor wore a well-brushed but threadbare tweed suit, although his soft collar was by no means clean. He had a short, reddish-brown beard, and very thick, curling hair of the same hue protruded from beneath a bowler hat which had seen long service.
Like Mr. Jarvis, he was bespectacled, and his teeth were much discoloured and apparently broken in front, as is usual with cobblers. His hands, too, were toil-stained and his nails very black. He carried a cardboard box. He seemed to be extremely nervous, and this nervousness palpably increased when the impudent page, who was standing in the lobby, giggled on hearing his inquiry.
"He's second floor," said the youth. "Are you from Hot-Stuff Jarvis?"
"That's right, lad," replied the visitor, speaking with a marked Manchester accent; "from Mr. Jarvis."
"And are you really going up?" inquired the boy with mock solicitude.
"I'm going up right enough. That's what I'm here for."
"Shut up, Chivers," snapped the hall porter "Ring the bell." He glanced at the cobbler. "Second floor," he said, tersely, and resumed his study of a newspaper which he had been reading.
The representative of Mr. Jarvis was carried up to the second floor and the lift man, having indicated at which door he should knock, descended again. The cobbler's nervousness thereupon became more marked than ever, so that a waiter, seeing him looking helplessly from door to door, took pity on him and inquired for whom he was searching.
"His excellency," was the reply; "but I'm hanged if I can remember the number or how to pronounce his name.
The waiter glanced at him oddly. "Ormuz Khan," he said, and rang the bell beside a door. As he hurried away, "Good luck!" he called back.
There was a short interval, and then the door was opened by a man who looked like a Hindu. He wore correct morning dress and through gold-rimmed pince-nez he stared inquiringly at the caller.
"Is his excellency at home?" asked the latter. "I'm from Mr. Jarvis, the bootmaker."
"Oh!" said the other, smiling slightly. "Come in. What is your name?"
"Parker, sir. From Mr. Jarvis."
As the door closed, Parker found himself in a small lobby. Beside an umbrella rack a high-backed chair was placed. "Sit down," he was directed. "I will tell his excellency that you are here."
A door was opened and closed again, and Parker found himself alone. He twirled his bowler hat, which he held in his hand, and stared about the place vacantly. Once he began to whistle, but checked himself and coughed nervously. Finally the Hindu gentleman reappeared, beckoning to him to enter.
Parker stood up very quickly and advanced, hat in hand.
Then he remembered the box which he had left on the floor, and, stooping to recover it, he dropped his hat. But at last, leaving his hat upon the chair and carrying the box under his arm, he entered a room which had been converted into a very businesslike office.
There was a typewriter upon a table near the window at which someone had evidently been at work quite recently, and upon a larger table in the centre of the room were dispatch boxes, neat parcels of documents, ledgers, works of reference, and all the evidence of keen commercial activity. Crossing the room, the Hindu rapped upon an inner door, opened it, and standing aside, "The man from the bootmaker," he said in a low voice.
Parker advanced, peering about him as one unfamiliar with his surroundings. As he crossed the threshold the door was closed behind him, and he found himself in a superheated atmosphere heavy with the perfume of hyacinths.
The place was furnished as a sitting room, but some of its appointments were obviously importations. Its keynote was orientalism, not of that sensuous yet grossly masculine character which surrounds the wealthy Eastern esthete but quite markedly feminine. There were an extraordinary number of cushions, and many bowls and vases containing hyacinths. What other strange appointments were present Parker was far too nervous to observe.
He stood dumbly before a man who lolled back in a deep, cushioned chair and whose almond-shaped eyes, black as night, were set immovably upon him. This man was apparently young. He wore a rich, brocaded robe, trimmed with marten, fur, and out of it his long ivory throat rose statuesquely. His complexion was likewise of this uniform ivory colour, and from his low smooth brow his hair was brushed back in a series of glossy black waves.
His lips were full and very red. As a woman he might have been considered handsome--even beautiful; in a man this beauty was unnatural and repellent. He wore Oriental slippers, fur-lined, and his feet rested on a small ottoman. One long, slender hand lay upon a cushion placed on the chair arm, and a pretty girl was busily engaged in manicuring his excellency's nails. Although the day held every promise of being uncomfortably hot, already a huge fire was burning in the grate.
As Parker stood before him, the languid, handsome Oriental did not stir a muscle, merely keeping the gaze of his strange black eyes fixed upon the nervous cobbler. The manicurist, after one quick upward glance, continued her work. But in this moment of distraction she had hurt the cuticle of one of those delicate, slender fingers.
Ormuz Khan withdrew his hand sharply from the cushion, glanced aside at the girl, and then, extending his hand again, pushed her away from him. Because of her half-kneeling posture, she almost fell, but managed to recover herself by clutching at the edge of a little table upon which the implements of her trade were spread. The table rocked and a bowl of water fell crashing on the carpet. His excellency spoke. His voice was very musical.
"Clumsy fool," he said. "You have hurt me. Go."
The girl became very white and began to gather up the articles upon the table. "I am sorry," she said, "but--"
"I do not wish you to speak," continued the musical voice; "only to go."
Hurriedly collecting the remainder of the implements and placing them in an attache case, the manicurist hurried from the room. Her eyes were overbright and her lips pathetically tremulous. Ormuz Khan never glanced in her direction again, but resumed his disconcerting survey of Parker. "Yes?" he said.
Parker bumblingly began to remove the lid of the cardboard box which he had brought with him.
"I do not wish you to alter the shoes you have made," said his excellency. "I instructed you to remeasure my foot in order that you might make a pair to fit."
"Yes, sir," said Parker. "Quite so, your excellency." And he dropped the box and the shoes upon the floor. "Just a moment, sir?"
From an inner pocket he drew out a large sheet of white paper, a pencil, and a tape measure. "Will you place your foot upon this sheet of paper, sir?"
Ormuz Khan raised his right foot listlessly.
"Slipper off, please, sir."
"I am waiting," replied the other, never removing his gaze from Parker's face.
"Oh, I beg your pardon sir, your excellency," muttered the bootmaker.
Dropping upon one knee, he removed the furred slipper from a slender, arched foot, bare, of the delicate colour of ivory, and as small as a woman's.
The ivory foot was placed upon the sheet of paper, and very clumsily Parker drew its outline. He then took certain measurements and made a number of notes with a stub of thick pencil. Whenever his none too clean hands touched Ormuz Khan's delicate skin the Oriental perceptibly shuddered.
"Of course, sir," said Parker at last, "I should really have taken your measurement with the sock on."
"I wear only the finest silk."
"Very well, sir. As you wish."
Parker replaced paper, pencil, and measure, and, packing up the rejected shoes, made for the door.
"Oh, bootmaker!" came the musical voice.
Parker turned. "Yes, sir?"
"They will be ready by Monday?"
"If possible, your excellency."
"Otherwise I shall not accept them."
Ormuz Khan drew a hyacinth from a vase close beside him and languidly waved it in dismissal.
In the outer room the courteous secretary awaited Parker, and there was apparently no one else in the place, for the Hindu conducted him to the lobby and opened the door.
Parker said "Good morning, sir," and would have departed without his hat had not the secretary smilingly handed it to him.
When, presently, the cobbler emerged from the elevator, below, he paused before leaving the hotel to mop his perspiring brow with a large, soiled handkerchief. The perfume of hyacinths seemed to have pursued him, bringing with it a memory of the handsome, effeminate ivory face of the man above. He was recalled to his senses by the voice of the impudent page.
"Been kicked out, gov'nor?" the youth inquired. "You're the third this morning."
"Is that so?" answered Parker. "Who were the other two, lad?"
"The girl wot comes to do his nails. A stunnin' bird, too. She came down cryin' a few minutes ago. Then--"
"Shut up, Chivers!" cried the hall porter. "You're asking for the sack, and I'm the man to get it for you."
Chivers did not appear to be vastly perturbed by this prospect, and he grinned agreeably at Parker as the latter made his way out into the courtyard.
Any one sufficiently interested to have done so might have found matter for surprise had he followed that conscientious bootmaker as he left the hotel. He did not proceed to the shop of Mr. Jarvis, but, crossing the Strand, mounted a citybound motor bus and proceeded eastward upon it as far as the Law Courts. Here he dismounted and plunged into that maze of tortuous lanes which dissects the triangle formed by Chancery Lane and Holborn.
His step was leisurely, and once he stopped to light his pipe, peering with interest into the shop window of a law stationer. Finally he came to another little shop which had once formed part of a private house. It was of the lock-up variety, and upon the gauze blind which concealed the interior appeared the words: "The Chancery Agency."
Whether the Chancery Agency was a press agency, a literary or a dramatic agency, was not specified, but Mr. Parker was evidently well acquainted with the establishment, for he unlocked the door with a key which he carried and, entering a tiny shop, closed and locked the door behind him again.
The place was not more than ten yards square and the ceiling was very low. It was barely furnished as an office, but evidently Mr. Parker's business was not of a nature to detain him here. There was a second door to be unlocked; and beyond it appeared a flight of narrow stairs--at some time the servant's stair of the partially demolished house which had occupied that site in former days. Relocking this door in turn, Mr. Parker mounted the stair and presently found himself in a spacious and well-furnished bedroom.
This bedroom contained an extraordinary number of wardrobes, and a big dressing table with wing mirrors lent a theatrical touch to the apartment. This was still further enhanced by the presence of all sorts of wigs, boxes of false hair, and other items of make-up. At the table Mr. Parker seated himself, and when, half an hour later, the bedroom door was opened, it was not Mr. Parker who crossed the book-lined study within and walked through to the private office where Innes was seated writing. It was Mr. Paul Harley.