Chapter XXIII. Fire-Tongue Speaks
 

Absolute darkness surrounded Nicol Brinn. Darkness, unpleasant heat, and a stifling odour of hyacinths. He had been well coached, and thus far his memory had served him admirably. But now he knew not what to expect. Therefore inwardly on fire but outwardly composed, muscles taut and nerves strung highly, he waited for the next development.

It took the form, first, of the tinkling of a silver bell, and then of the coming of a dim light at the end of what was evidently a long apartment. The light grew brighter, assuming the form of a bluish flame burning in a little flambeau. Nicol Brinn watched it fascinatedly.

Absolutely no sound was discernible, until a voice began to speak, a musical voice of curiously arresting quality.

"You are welcome," said the voice. "You are of the Bombay Lodge, although a citizen of the United States. Because of some strange error, no work has been allotted to you hitherto. This shall be remedied."

Of the weird impressiveness of the scene there could be no doubt. It even touched some unfamiliar chord in the soul of Nicol Brinn. The effect of such an interview upon an imaginative, highly strung temperament, could be well imagined. It was perhaps theatrical, but that by such means great ends had already been achieved he knew to his cost.

The introduction of Maskelyne illusions into an English country house must ordinarily have touched his sense of humour, but knowing something of the invisible presence in which he stood in that darkened chamber, there was no laughter in the heart of Nicol Brinn, but rather an unfamiliar coldness, the nearest approach to fear of which this steel-nerved man was capable.

"Temporarily," the sweet voice continued, "you will be affiliated with the London Lodge, to whom you will look for instructions. These will reach you almost immediately. There is great work to be done in England. It has been decided, however, that you shall be transferred as quickly as possible in our New York Lodge. You will await orders. Only Fire is eternal."

Again the voice ceased. But, Nicol Brinn remained silent:

"Your reply is awaited."

"Fire is life," replied Nicol Brinn.

The blue tongue of flame subsided, lower and lower, and finally disappeared, so that the apartment became enwrapped in absolute darkness. A faint rustling sound suggested that a heavy curtain had been lowered, and almost immediately the doors behind Nicol Brinn were opened again by Rama Dass.

"We congratulate you, brother," he said, extending his hand. "Yet the ordeal was no light one, for all the force of the Fire was focussed upon you."

Nicol Brinn reentered the room where the shaded lamp stood upon the writing table. In the past he had moved unscathed through peril unknown to the ordinary man. He was well acquainted with the resources of the organization whose agents, unseen, surrounded him in that remote country house, but that their pretensions were extravagant his present immunity would seem to prove.

If the speaker with the strangely arresting voice were indeed that Fire-Tongue whose mere name was synonymous with dread in certain parts of the East, then Fire-Tongue was an impostor. He who claimed to read the thoughts of all men had signally failed in the present instance, unless Nicol Brinn stared dully into the smiling face of Rama Dass. Not yet must he congratulate himself. Perhaps the Hindu's smile concealed as much as the mask worn by Nicol Brinn.

"We congratulate you," said Rama Dass. "You are a worthy brother."

He performed the secret salutation, which Nicol Brinn automatically acknowledged. Then, without another word, Rama Dass led the way to the door.

Out into the dark hallway Nicol Brinn stepped, his muscles taut, his brain alert for instant action. But no one offered to molest him. He was assisted into his coat, and his hat was placed in his hands. Then, the front door being opened, he saw the headlights of the waiting car shining on a pillar of the porch.

A minute later he was seated again in the shuttered limousine, and as it moved off, and the lights leapt up above him, he lay back upon the cushions and uttered a long sigh.

Already he divined that, following a night's sleep, these scenes would seem like the episodes of a dream. Taking off his hat, he raised his hand to his forehead, and discovered it to be slightly damp.

"No wonder," he muttered.

Drawing out a silk handkerchief from the breast pocket of his dinner jacket, he wiped his face and forehead deliberately. Then, selecting a long black cigar from a case which bore the monogram of the late Czar of Russia, he lighted it, dropped the match in the tray, and lolling back in a corner, closed his eyes wearily.

Thus, almost unmoving, he remained throughout the drive. His only actions were, first, to assure himself that both doors were locked again, and then at intervals tidily to place a little cone of ash in the tray provided for the purpose. Finally, the car drew up and a door was unlocked by the chauffeur.

Nicol Brinn, placing his hat upon his head, stepped out before the porch of the Cavalry Club.

The chauffeur closed the door, and returned again to the wheel. Immediately the car moved away. At the illuminated number Nicol Brinn scarcely troubled to glance. Common sense told him that it was not that under which the car was registered. His interest, on the contrary, was entirely focussed upon a beautiful Rolls Royce, which was evidently awaiting some visitor or member of the club. Glancing shrewdly at the chauffeur, a smart, military-looking fellow, Nicol Brinn drew a card from his waistcoat pocket, and resting it upon a wing in the light of one of the lamps, wrote something rapidly upon it in pencil.

Returning the pencil to his pocket:

"Whose car, my man?" he inquired of the chauffear.

"Colonel Lord Wolverham's, sir."

"Good," said Nicol Brinn, and put the card and a ten-shilling note into the man's hand. "Go right into the club and personally give Colonel Lord Wolverham this card. Do you understand?"

The man understood. Used to discipline, he recognized the note of command in the speaker's voice.

"Certainly, sir," he returned, without hesitation; and stepping down upon the pavement he walked into the club.

Less than two minutes afterward a highly infuriated military gentleman--who, as it chanced, had never even heard of the distinguished American traveller--came running out hatless into Piccadilly, holding a crumpled visiting card in his hand. The card, which his chauffeur had given him in the midst of a thrilling game, read as follows:

MR. NICOL BRINN
RALEIGH HOUSE,
PICCADILLY, W. I.

And written in pencil beneath the name appeared the following:

Borrowed your Rolls. Urgent. Will explain tomorrow. Apologize. N.B.