Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer
Chapter II. The Sixth Sense
Paul Harley stepped into his car in Chancery Lane. "Drive in the direction of Hyde Park Corner," he directed the chauffeur. "Go along the Strand."
Glancing neither right nor left, he entered the car, and presently they were proceeding slowly with the stream of traffic in the Strand. "Pull up at the Savoy," he said suddenly through the tube.
The car slowed down in that little bay which contains the entrance to the hotel, and Harley stared fixedly out of the rear window, observing the occupants of all other cars and cabs which were following. For three minutes or more he remained there watching. "Go on," he directed.
Again they proceeded westward and, half-way along Piccadilly, "Stop at the Ritz," came the order.
The car pulled up before the colonnade and Harley, stepping out, dismissed the man and entered the hotel, walked through to the side entrance, and directed a porter to get him a taxicab. In this he proceeded to the house of Sir Charles Abingdon. He had been seeking to learn whether he was followed, but in none of the faces he had scrutinized had he detected any interest in himself, so that his idea that whoever was watching Sir Charles in all probability would have transferred attention to himself remained no more than an idea. For all he had gained by his tactics, Sir Charles's theory might be no more than a delusion after all.
The house of Sir Charles Abingdon was one of those small, discreet establishments, the very neatness of whose appointments inspires respect for the occupant. If anything had occurred during the journey to suggest to Harley that Sir Charles was indeed under observation by a hidden enemy, the suave British security and prosperity of his residence must have destroyed the impression.
As the cab was driven away around the corner, Harley paused for a moment, glancing about him to right and left and up at the neatly curtained windows. In the interval which had elapsed since Sir Charles's departure from his office, he had had leisure to survey the outstanding features of the story, and, discounting in his absence the pathetic sincerity of the narrator, he had formed the opinion that there was nothing in the account which was not susceptible of an ordinary prosaic explanation.
Sir Charles's hesitancy in regard to two of the questions asked had contained a hint that they might involve intimate personal matters, and Harley was prepared to learn that the source of the distinguished surgeon's dread lay in some unrevealed episode of the past. Beyond the fact that Sir Charles was a widower, he knew little or nothing of his private life; and he was far too experienced an investigator to formulate theories until all the facts were in his possession. Therefore it was with keen interest that he looked forward to the interview.
Familiarity with crime, in its many complexions, East and West, had developed in Paul Harley a sort of sixth sense. It was an evasive, fickle thing, but was nevertheless the attribute which had made him an investigator of genius. Often enough it failed him entirely. It had failed him to-night--or else no one had followed him from Chancery Lane.
It had failed him earlier in the evening when, secretly, he had watched from the office window Sir Charles's car proceeding toward the Strand. That odd, sudden chill, as of an abrupt lowering of the temperature, which often advised him of the nearness of malignant activity, had not been experienced.
Now, standing before Sir Charles's house, he "sensed" the atmosphere keenly--seeking for the note of danger.
There had been a thunder shower just before he had set out, and now, although rain had ceased, the sky remained blackly overcast and a curious, dull stillness was come. The air had a welcome freshness and the glistening pavements looked delightfully cool after the parching heat of the day. In the quiet square, no doubt, it was always restful in contrast with the more busy highroads, and in the murmur of distant traffic he found something very soothing. About him then were peace, prosperity, and security.
Yet, as he stood there, waiting--it came to him: the note of danger. Swiftly he looked to right and left, trying to penetrate the premature dusk. The whole complexion of the matter changed. Some menace intangible now, but which at any moment might become evident--lay near him. It was sheer intuition, no doubt, but it convinced him.
A moment later he had rung the bell; and as a man opened the door, showing a easy and well-lighted lobby within, the fear aura no longer touched Paul Harley. Out from the doorway came hominess and that air of security and peace which had seemed to characterize the house when viewed from outside. The focus of menace, therefore, lay not inside the house of Sir Charles but without. It was very curious. In the next instant came a possible explanation."
"Mr. Paul Harley?" said the butler tentatively.
"Yes, I am he."
"Sir Charles is expecting you, sir. He apologizes for not being in to receive you. but he will only be absent a few minutes."
"Sir Charles has been called out?" inquired Harley as he handed hat and coat to the man.
"Yes, sir. He is attending Mr. Chester Wilson on the other side of the square, and Mr. Wilson's man rang up a few moments ago requesting Sir Charles to step across."
"I see," murmured Harley, as the butler showed him into a small but well-filled library on the left of the lobby.
Refreshments were set invitingly upon a table beside a deep lounge chair. But Harley declined the man's request to refresh himself while waiting and began aimlessly to wander about the room, apparently studying the titles of the works crowding the bookshelves. As a matter of fact, he was endeavouring to arrange certain ideas in order, and if he had been questioned on the subject it is improbable that he could have mentioned the title of one book in the library.
His mental equipment was of a character too rarely met with in the profession to which he belonged. While up to the very moment of reaching Sir Charles's house he had doubted the reality of the menace which hung over this man, the note of danger which he had sensed at the very threshold had convinced him, where more ordinary circumstantial evidence might have left him in doubt.
It was perhaps pure imagination, but experience had taught him that it was closely allied to clairvoyance.
Now upon his musing there suddenly intruded sounds of a muffled altercation. That is to say, the speakers, who were evidently in the lobby beyond the library door, spoke in low tones, perhaps in deference to the presence of a visitor. Harley was only mildly interested, but the voices had broken his train of thought, and when presently the door opened to admit a very neat but rather grim-looking old lady he started, then looked across at her with a smile.
Some of the grimness faded from the wrinkled old face, and the housekeeper, for this her appearance proclaimed her to be, bowed in a queer Victorian fashion which suggested that a curtsy might follow. One did not follow, however. "I am sure I apologize, sir," she said. "Benson did not tell me you had arrived."
"That's quite all right," said Harley, genially.
His smile held a hint of amusement, for in the comprehensive glance which the old lady cast across the library, a glance keen to detect disorder and from which no speck of dust could hope to conceal itself, there remained a trace of that grimness which he had detected at the moment of her entrance. In short, she was still bristling from a recent encounter. So much so that detecting something sympathetic in Harley's smile she availed herself of the presence of a badly arranged vase of flowers to linger and to air her grievances.
"Servants in these times," she informed him, her fingers busily rearranging the blooms, "are not what servants were in my young days."
"Unfortunately, that is so," Harley agreed.
The old lady tossed her head. "I do my best," she continued, "but that girl would not have stayed in the house for one week if I had had my way. Miss Phil is altogether too soft-hearted. Thank goodness, she goes to-morrow, though."
"You don't refer to Miss Phil?" said Harley, intentionally misunderstanding.
"Gracious goodness, no!" exclaimed the house keeper, and laughed with simple glee at the joke. "I mean Jones, the new parlourmaid. When I say new, they are all new, for none of them stay longer than three months."
"Indeed," smiled Harley, who perceived that the old lady was something of a martinet.
"Indeed, they don't. Think they are ladies nowadays. Four hours off has that girl had to-day, although she was out on Wednesday. Then she has the impudence to allow someone to ring her up here at the house; and finally I discover her upsetting the table after Benson had laid it and after I had rearranged it."
She glanced indignantly in the direction of the lobby. "Perhaps one day," she concluded, pathetically, as she walked slowly from the room, "we shall find a parlourmaid who is a parlourmaid. Good evening, sir,"
"Good evening," said Harley, quietly amused to be made the recipient of these domestic confidences.
He continued to smile for some time after the door had been closed. His former train of ideas was utterly destroyed, but for this he was not ungrateful to the housekeeper, since the outstanding disadvantage of that strange gift resembling prescience was that it sometimes blunted the purely analytical part of his mind when this should have been at its keenest. He was now prepared to listen to what Sir Charles had to say and to judge impartially of its evidential value.
Wandering from side to side of the library, he presently found himself standing still before the mantelpiece and studying a photograph in a silver frame which occupied the centre of the shelf. It was the photograph of an unusually pretty girl; that is to say, of a girl whose beauty was undeniable, but who belonged to a type widely removed from that of the ordinary good-looking Englishwoman.
The outline of her face was soft and charming, and there was a questioning look in her eyes which was alluring and challenging. Her naive expression was palpably a pose, and her slightly parted lips promised laughter. She possessed delightfully wavy hair and her neck and one shoulder, which were bare, had a Grecian purity. Harley discovered himself to be smiling at the naive lady of the photograph.
"Presumably 'Miss Phil'," he said aloud.
He removed his gaze with reluctance from the fascinating picture, and dropping into the big lounge chair, he lighted a cigarette. He had just placed the match in an ash tray when he heard Sir Charles's voice in the lobby, and a moment later Sir Charles himself came hurrying into the library. His expression was so peculiar that Harley started up immediately, perceiving that something unusual had happened.
"My dear Mr. Harley," began Sir Charles, "in the first place pray accept my apologies--"
"None are necessary," Harley interrupted. "Your excellent housekeeper has entertained me vastly."
"Good, good," muttered Sir Charles. "I am obliged to Mrs. Howett," and it was plainly to be seen that his thoughts were elsewhere. "But I have to relate a most inexplicable occurrence--inexplicable unless by some divine accident the plan has been prevented from maturing."
"What do you mean, Sir Charles?"
"I was called ten minutes ago by someone purporting to be the servant of Mr. Chester Wilson, that friend and neighbour whom I have been attending."
"So your butler informed me."
"My dear sir," cried Sir Charles, and the expression in his eyes grew almost wild, "no one in Wilson's house knew anything about the matter!"
"What! It was a ruse?"
"Palpably a ruse to get me away from home."
Harley dropped his cigarette into the ash tray beside the match, where, smouldering, it sent up a gray spiral into the air of the library. Whether because of his words or because of the presence of the man himself, the warning, intuitive finger had again touched Paul Harley. "You saw or heard nothing on your way across the square to suggest that any one having designs on your safety was watching you?"
"Nothing. I searched the shadows most particularly on my return journey, of course. For the thing cannot have been purposeless."
"I quite agree with you," said Paul Harley, quietly.
Between the promptings of that uncanny sixth sense of his and the working of the trained deductive reasoning powers, he was momentarily at a loss. Some fact, some episode, a memory, was clamouring for recognition, while the intuitive, subconscious voice whispered: "This man is in danger; protect him." What was the meaning of it all? He felt that a clue lay somewhere outside the reach of his intelligence, and a sort of anger possessed him because of his impotence to grasp it.
Sir Charles was staring at him in that curiously pathetic way which he had observed at their earlier interview in Chancery Large. "In any event," said his host, "let us dine: for already I have kept you waiting."
Harley merely bowed, and walking out of the library, entered the cosy dining room. A dreadful premonition had claimed him as his glance had met that of Sir Charles--a premonition that this man's days were numbered. It was uncanny, unnerving; and whereas, at first, the atmosphere of Sir Charles Abingdon's home had been laden with prosperous security, now from every side, and even penetrating to the warmly lighted dining room, came that chilling note of danger.
In crossing the lobby he had not failed to note that there were many Indian curios in the place which could not well have failed to attract the attention of a burglar. But that the person who had penetrated to the house was no common burglar he was now assured and he required no further evidence upon this point.
As he took his seat at the dining table he observed that Sir Charles's collection had overflowed even into this room. In the warm shadows about him were pictures and ornaments, all of which came from, or had been inspired by, the Far East.
In this Oriental environment lay an inspiration. The terror which had come into Sir Charles's life, the invisible menace which, swordlike, hung over him, surely belonged in its eerie quality to the land of temple bells, of silent, subtle peoples, to the secret land which has bred so many mysteries. Yes, he must look into the past, into the Indian life of Sir Charles Abingdon, for the birth of this thing which now had grown into a shadow almost tangible.
Benson attended at table, assisted by a dark-faced and very surly-looking maid, in whom Harley thought he recognized the housekeeper's bete noire.
When presently both servants had temporarily retired. "You see, Mr. Harley," began Sir Charles, glancing about his own room in a manner almost furtive, "I realized to-day at your office that the history of this dread which has come upon me perhaps went back so far that it was almost impossible to acquaint you with it under the circumstances."
"I quite understand."
"I think perhaps I should inform you in the first place that I have a daughter. Her mother has been dead for many years, and perhaps I have not given her the attention which a motherless girl is entitled to expect from her father. I don't mean," he said, hastily, "that we are in any sense out of sympathy, but latterly in some way I must confess that we have got a little out of touch." He glanced anxiously at his guest, indeed almost apologetically. "You will of course understand, Mr. Harley, that this seeming preamble may prove to have a direct bearing upon what I propose to tell you?"
"Pray tell the story in your own way, Sir Charles," said Harley with sympathy. "I am all attention, and I shall only interrupt you in the event of any point not being quite clear."
"Thank you," said Sir Charles. "I find it so much easier to explain the matter now. To continue, there is a certain distinguished Oriental gentleman "
He paused as Benson appeared to remove the soup plates.
"It is always delightful to chat with one who knows India so well as you do," he continued, glancing significantly at his guest.
Paul Harley, who fully appreciated the purpose of this abrupt change in the conversation, nodded in agreement. "The call of the East," he replied, "is a very real thing. Only one who has heard it can understand and appreciate all it means."
The butler, an excellently trained servant, went about his work with quiet efficiency, and once Harley heard him mutter rapid instructions to the surly parlourmaid, who hovered disdainfully in the background. When again host and guest found themselves alone: "I don't in any way distrust the servants," explained Sir Charles, "but one cannot hope to prevent gossip." He raised his serviette to his lips and almost immediately resumed: "I was about to tell you, Mr. Harley, about my daughter's--"
He paused and cleared his throat, then, hastily pouring out a glass of water, he drank a sip or two and Paul Harley noticed that his hand was shaking nervously. He thought of the photograph in the library, and now, in this reference to a distinguished Oriental gentleman, he suddenly perceived the possible drift of the conversation.
This was the point to which Sir Charles evidently experienced such difficulty in coming. It was something which concerned his daughter; and, mentally visualizing the pure oval face and taunting eyes of the library photograph, Harley found it impossible to believe that the evil which threatened Sir Charles could possibly be associated in any way with Phyllis Abingdon.
Yet, if the revelation which he had to make must be held responsible for his present condition, then truly it was a dreadful one. No longer able to conceal his concern, Harley stood up. "If the story distresses you so keenly, Sir Charles," he said, "I beg--"
Sir Charles waved his hand reassuringly. "A mere nothing. It will pass," he whispered.
"But I fear," continued Harley, "that--"
He ceased abruptly, and ran to his host's assistance, for the latter, evidently enough, was in the throes of some sudden illness or seizure. His fresh-coloured face was growing positively livid, and he plucked at the edge of the table with twitching fingers. As Harley reached his side he made a sudden effort to stand up, throwing out his arm to grasp the other's shoulder.
"Benson!" cried Harley, loudly. "Quick! Your master is ill!"
There came a sound of swift footsteps and the door was thrown open.
"Too late," whispered Sir Charles in a choking voice. He began to clutch his throat as Benson hurried into the room.
"My God!" whispered Harley. "He is dying!"
Indeed, the truth was all too apparent. Sir Charles Abingdon was almost past speech. He was glaring across the table as though he saw some ghastly apparition there. And now with appalling suddenness he became as a dead weight in Harley's supporting grasp. Raspingly, as if forced in agony from his lips:
"Fire-Tongue," he said . . . "Nicol Brinn..."
Benson, white and terror-stricken, bent over him.
"Sir Charles!" he kept muttering. "Sir Charles! What is the matter, sir?"
A stifled shriek sounded from the doorway, and in tottered Mrs. Howett, the old housekeeper, with other servants peering over her shoulder into that warmly lighted dining room where Sir Charles Abingdon lay huddled in his own chair--dead.