Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer
Chapter XXVI. An Englishman's Honour
"You have been guilty of a series of unfortunate mistakes, Mr. Harley," continued the speaker. "Notably, you have relied upon the clumsy device of disguise. To the organization in which you have chosen to interest yourself, this has provided some mild amusement. Your pedlar of almanacs was a clever impersonation, but fortunately your appearance at the Savoy had been anticipated, and no one was deceived."
Paul Harley did not reply. He concluded, quite correctly, that the organization had failed to detect himself in the person of the nervous cobbler. He drew courage from this deduction. Fire-Tongue was not omniscient.
"It is possible," continued the unseen speaker, in whom Harley had now definitely recognized Ormuz Khan's secretary, "that you recently overheard a resolution respecting yourself. Your death, in fact, had been determined upon. Life and death being synonymous, the philosopher contemplates either with equanimity."
"I am contemplating the latter with equanimity at the moment," said Harley, dryly.
"The brave man does so," the Hindu continued, smoothly. "The world only seems to grow older; its youth is really eternal, but as age succeeds age, new creeds must take the place of the old ones which are burned out. Fire, Mr. Harley, sweeps everything from its path irresistibly. You have dared to stand in the path of a fiery dawn; therefore, like all specks of dust which clog the wheels of progress, you must be brushed aside."
Harley nodded grimly, watching a ring of smoke floating slowly upward.
"It is a little thing to those who know the truth," the speaker resumed. "To the purblind laws of the West it may seem a great thing. We seek in Rome to do as Rome does. We judge every man as we find him. Therefore, recognizing that your total disappearance might compromise our movements in the near future, we have decided to offer you an alternative. This offer is based upon the British character. Where the oath of some men is a thing of smoke, the word of honour of an Englishman we are prepared to accept."
"Many thanks," murmured Harley. "On behalf of Great Britain I accept the compliment."
"We have such faith in the completeness of our plans, and in the nearness of the hour of triumph, that if you will pledge yourself to silence, in writing, you will not be molested in any way. You occupy at the moment the apartment reserved for neophytes of a certain order. But we do not ask you to become a neophyte. Disciples must seek us, we do not seek disciples. We only ask for your word that you will be silent."
"It is impossible," said Harley, tersely.
"Think well of the matter. It may not seem so impossible to-morrow."
"I decline definitely."
"You are sustaining yourself with false hopes, Mr. Harley. You think you have clues which will enable you to destroy a system rooted in the remote past. Also you forget that you have lost your freedom."
Paul Harley offered no further answer to the speaker concealed behind the violet curtain.
"Do not misunderstand us," the voice continued. "We bind you to nothing but silence."
"I refuse," said Harley, sharply. "Dismiss the matter."
"In spite of your refusal, time for consideration will be given to you."
Faintly Paul Harley detected the sounds made by Ormuz Khan and his secretary in withdrawing. The light beneath the curtain disappeared.
For perhaps a space of two hours, Paul Harley sat smoking and contemplating the situation from every conceivable angle. It was certainly desperate enough, and after a time he rose with a weary sigh, and made a second and more detailed examination of the several apartments.
It availed him nothing, but one point he definitely established. Escape was impossible, failing outside assistance. A certain coldness in the atmosphere, which was perceptible immediately beneath the barred window, led him to believe that this communicated with the outer air.
He was disposed to think that his unconsciousness had lasted less than an hour, and that it was still dark without. He was full of distrust. He no longer believed his immediate death to have been decided upon. For some reason it would seem that the group wished him to live, at any rate, temporarily. But now a complete theory touching the death of Sir Charles Abingdon had presented itself to his mind. Knowing little, but suspecting much of the resources of Fire-Tongue, he endeavoured to avoid contact with anything in the place.
Night attire was provided in the sleeping chamber, but he did not avail himself of this hospitality. Absolute silence reigned about him. Yet so immutable are Nature's laws, that presently Paul Harley sank back upon the mattresses, and fell asleep.
He awoke, acutely uncomfortable and ill-rested. He found a shaft of light streaming into the room, and casting shadows of the iron bars upon the opposite wall. The brass lantern still burned above him, and the silence remained complete as when he had fallen asleep. He stood up yawning and stretching himself.
At least, it was good to be still alive. He was vaguely conscious of the fact that he had been dreaming of Phil Abingdon, and suppressing a sigh, he clenched his teeth grimly and entered the little bathroom. There proved to be a plentiful supply of hot and cold water. At this he sniffed suspiciously, but at last:
"I'll risk it," he muttered.
He undressed and revelled in the joy of a hot bath, concluding with a cold plunge. A razor and excellent toilet requisites were set upon the dressing table, and whilst his imagination whispered that the soap might be poisoned and the razor possess a septic blade, he shaved, and having shaved, lighted his pipe and redressed himself at leisure.
He had nearly completed his toilet when a slight sound in the outer room arrested his attention. He turned sharply, stepping through the doorway.
A low carved table, the only one which the apartment boasted, displayed an excellent English breakfast laid upon a spotless cover.
"Ah," he murmured, and by the sight was mentally translated to that celebrated apartment of the palace at Versailles, where Louis XIV and his notorious favourite once were accustomed to dine, alone, and unsuitably dressed, the courses being served in just this fashion.
Harley held his pipe in his hand, and contemplated the repast. It was only logical to suppose it to be innocuous, and a keen appetite hastened the issue. He sidetracked his suspicion, and made an excellent breakfast. So the first day of his captivity began.
Growing used to the stillness about him, he presently began to detect, as the hours wore on, distant familiar sounds. Automobiles on the highroad, trains leaving and entering a tunnel which he judged to be from two to three miles distant; even human voices at long intervals.
The noises of an English countryside crept through the barred windows. Beyond a doubt he was in the house known as Hillside. Probably at night the lights of London could be seen from the garden. He was within ordinary telephone call of Chancery Lane. Yet he resumed his pipe and smiled philosophically. He had hoped to see the table disappear beneath the floor. As evidence that he was constantly watched, this had occurred during a brief visit which he had made to the bedroom in quest of matches.
When he returned the table was in its former place, but the cover had been removed. He carefully examined the floor beneath it, and realized that there was no hope of depressing the trap from above. Then, at an hour which he judged to be that of noon, the same voice addressed him from beyond the gilded screen.
"Mr. Paul Harley?"
"Yes, what have you to say?"
"By this time, Mr. Harley, you must have recognized that opposition is futile. At any moment we could visit death upon you. Escape, on the other hand, is out of the question. We desire you no harm. For diplomatic reasons, we should prefer you to live. Our cause is a sacred one. Do not misjudge it by minor incidents. A short statement and a copy of your English testament shall be placed upon the table, if you wish."
"I do not wish," Paul Harley returned.
"Is that your last word, Mr. Harley? We warn you that the third time of asking will be the last time."
"This is my last word."
"Your own life is not the only stake at issue."
"What do you mean?"
"You will learn what we mean, if you insist upon withholding your consent until we next invite it."
"Nevertheless, you may regard it as withheld, definitely and finally."
Silence fell, and Paul Harley knew himself to be once more alone. Luncheon appeared upon the table whilst he was washing in the bathroom. Remembering the change in the tone of the unseen speaker's voice, he avoided touching anything.
From the divan, through half-closed eyes, he examined every inch of the walls, seeking for the spy-hole through which he knew himself to be watched. He detected it at last: a little grating, like a ventilator, immediately above him where he sat. This communicated with some room where a silent watcher was constantly on duty!
Paul Harley gave no sign that he had made this discovery. But already his keen wits were at work upon a plan. He watched the bar of light fading, fading, until, judging it to be dinner time, he retired discreetly.
When he returned, he found dinner spread upon the table.
He wondered for what ordeal the neophyte was prepared in this singular apartment. He wondered how such neophytes were chosen, and to what tests they were submitted before being accepted as members of the bloodthirsty order. He could not even surmise.
Evidently no neophyte had been accepted on the previous night, unless there were other like chambers in the house. The occupants of the shuttered cars must therefore have been more advanced members. He spent the night in the little cell-like bedchamber, and his second day of captivity began as the first had begun.
For his dinner he had eaten nothing but bread and fruit. For his breakfast he ate an egg and drank water from the tap in the bathroom. His plan was now nearing completion. Only one point remained doubtful.
At noon the voice again addressed him from behind the gilded screen:
"Mr. Paul Harley?"
"Your last opportunity has come. For your own future or for that of the world you seem to care little or nothing. Are you still determined to oppose our wishes?
"You have yet an hour. Your final decision will be demanded of you at the end of that time."
Faint sounds of withdrawal followed these words and Harley suddenly discovered himself to be very cold. The note of danger had touched him. For long it had been silent. Now it clamoured insistently. He knew beyond all doubt that he was approaching a crisis in his life. At its nature he could not even guess.
He began to pace the room nervously, listening for he knew not what. His mind was filled with vague imaginings; when at last came an overture to the grim test to be imposed upon him.
A slight metallic sound drew his glance in the direction of the gilded screen. A sliding door of thick plate glass had been closed behind it, filling the space between the metal work and the curtain. Then--the light in the brass lantern became extinguished.
Standing rigidly, fists clenched, Paul Harley watched the curtain. And as he watched, slowly it was drawn aside. He found himself looking into a long room which appeared to be practically unfurnished.
The floor was spread with rugs and at the farther end folding doors had been opened, so that he could see into a second room, most elegantly appointed in Persian fashion. Here were silver lanterns, and many silken cushions, out of which, as from a sea of colour, arose slender pillars, the scheme possessing an air of exotic luxury peculiarly Oriental.
Seated in a carved chair over which a leopard skin had been thrown, and talking earnestly to some invisible companion, whose conversation seemed wholly to enthrall her, was Phil Abingdon!