Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer
Chapter XXVIII. At Hillside
Phil Abingdon arrived at Hillside in a state of mind which she found herself unable to understand. Mrs. McMurdoch, who had accepted the invitation under protest, saying that if Doctor McMurdoch had been at home he would certainly have disapproved, had so utterly fallen under the strange spell of Ormuz Khan, that long before they had come to Hillside she was hanging upon his every word in a way which was almost pathetic to watch.
On the other hand, Phil Abingdon had taken up a definite attitude of defense; and perceiving this, because of his uncanny intuitiveness, the Persian had exerted himself to the utmost, more often addressing Phil than her companion, and striving to regain that mastery of her emotions which he had formerly achieved, at least in part.
Her feelings, however, were largely compounded of fear, and fear strengthened her defense. The repulsive part of Ormuz Khan's character became more apparent to her than did the fascination which she had once experienced. She distrusted him, distrusted him keenly. She knew at the bottom of her heart that this had always been so, but she had suffered his attentions in much the same spirit as that which imbues the naturalist who studies the habits of a poisonous reptile.
She knew that she was playing with fire, and in this knowledge lay a dangerous pleasure. She had the utmost faith in her own common sense, and was ambitious to fence with edged tools.
When at last the car was drawn up before the porch of Hillside, and Ormuz Khan, stepping out, assisted the ladies to alight, for one moment Phil Abingdon hesitated, although she knew that it was already too late to do so. They were received by Mr. Rama Dass, his excellency's courteous secretary, whom she had already met, and whom Ormuz Khan presented to Mrs. McMurdoch. Almost immediately:
"You have missed Mr. Harley by only a few minutes," said Rama Dass.
"What!" exclaimed Phil, her eyes opening very widely.
"Oh, there is no occasion for alarm," explained the secretary in his urbane manner. "He has ventured as far as Lower Claybury station. The visit was unavoidable. He particularly requested that we should commence luncheon, but hoped to be back before we should have finished."
Phil Abingdon glanced rapidly from the face of the speaker to that of Ormuz Khan. But her scrutiny of those unreadable countenances availed her nothing. She was conscious of a great and growing uneasiness; and Mrs. McMurdoch, misunderstanding the expression upon her face, squeezed her arm playfully.
"Cheer up, dear" she whispered; "he will be here soon!"
Phil knew that her face had flushed deeply. Partly she was glad of her emotions, and partly ashamed. This sweet embarrassment in which there was a sort of pain was a new experience, but one wholly delightful. She laughed, and accepting the arm of Ormuz Khan, walked into a very English-looking library, followed by Rama Dass and Mrs. McMurdoch. The house, she thought, was very silent, and she found herself wondering why no servants had appeared.
Rama Dass had taken charge of the ladies' cloaks in the hall, and in spite of the typical English environment in which she found herself, Phil sat very near to Mrs. McMurdoch on a settee, scarcely listening to the conversation, and taking no part in it.
For there was a strange and disturbing air of loneliness about Hillside. She would have welcomed the appearance of a butler or a parlourmaid, or any representative of the white race. Yes: there lay the root of the matter--this feeling of aloofness from all that was occidental, a feeling which the English appointments of the room did nothing to dispel. Then a gong sounded and the party went in to lunch.
A white-robed Hindu waited at table, and Phil discovered his movements to be unpleasantly silent. There was something very unreal about it all. She found herself constantly listening for the sound of an approaching car, of a footstep, of a voice, the voice of Paul Harley. This waiting presently grew unendurable, and:
"I hope Mr. Harley is safe," she said, in a rather unnatural tone. "Surely he should have returned by now?"
Ormuz Khan shrugged his slight shoulders and glanced at a diamond-studded wrist watch which he wore.
"There is nothing to fear," he declared, in his soft, musical voice. "He knows how to take care of himself. And"--with a significant glance of his long, magnetic eyes--"I am certain he will return as speedily as possible."
Nevertheless, luncheon terminated, and Harley had not appeared.
"You have sometimes expressed a desire," said Ormuz Khan, "to see the interior of a Persian house. Permit me to show you the only really characteristic room which I allow myself in my English home."
Endeavouring to conceal her great anxiety, Phil allowed herself to be conducted by the Persian to an apartment which realized her dreams of that Orient which she had never visited.
Three beautiful silver lanterns depended from a domed ceiling in which wonderfully woven tapestry was draped. The windows were partly obscured by carved wooden screens, and the light entered through little panels of coloured glass. There were cushioned divans, exquisite pottery, and a playful fountain plashing in a marble pool.
Ormuz Khan conducted her to a wonderfully carven chair over which a leopard's skin was draped and there she seated herself. She saw through a wide doorway before her a long and apparently unfurnished room dimly lighted. At the farther end she could vaguely discern violet-coloured draperies. Ormuz Khan gracefully threw himself upon a divan to the right of this open door.
"This, Miss Abingdon," he said, "is a nearly exact reproduction of a room of a house which I have in Ispahan. I do not claim that it is typical, but does its manner appeal to you?"
"Immensely," she replied, looking around her.
She became aware of a heavy perfume of hyacinths, and presently observed that there were many bowls of those flowers set upon little tables, and in niches in the wall.
"Yet its atmosphere is not truly of the Orient."
"Are such apartments uncommon, then, in Persia?" asked Phil, striving valiantly to interest herself in the conversation.
"I do not say so," he returned, crossing one delicate foot over the other, in languorous fashion. "But many things which are typically of the Orient would probably disillusion you, Miss Abingdon."
"In what way?" she asked, wondering why Mrs. McMurdoch had not joined them.
"In many subtle ways. The real wonder and the mystery of the East lie not upon the surface, but beneath it. And beneath the East of to-day lies the East of yesterday."
The speaker's expression grew rapt, and he spoke in the mystic manner which she knew and now dreaded. Her anxiety for the return of Paui Harley grew urgent--a positive need, as, meeting the gaze of the long, magnetic eyes, she felt again, like the touch of cold steel, all the penetrating force of this man's will. She was angrily aware of the fact that his gaze was holding hers hypnotically, that she was meeting it contrary to her wish and inclination. She wanted to look away but found herself looking steadily into the coal-black eyes of Ormuz Khan.
"The East of yesterday"--his haunting voice seemed to reach her from a great distance--"saw the birth of all human knowledge and human power; and to us the East of yesterday is the East of today."
Phil became aware that a sort of dreamy abstraction was creeping over her, when in upon this mood came a sound which stimulated her weakening powers of resistance.
Dimly, for all the windows of the room were closed, she heard a car come up and stop before the house. It aroused her from the curious condition of lethargy into which she was falling. She turned her head sharply aside, the physical reflection of a mental effort to remove her gaze from the long, magnetic eyes of Ormuz Khan. And:
"Do you think that is Mr. Harley?" she asked, and failed to recognize her own voice.
"Possibly," returned the Persian, speaking very gently.
With one ivory hand he touched his knee for a moment, the only expression of disappointment which he allowed himself.
"May I ask you to go and enquire?" continued Phil, now wholly mistress of herself again. "I am wondering, too, what can have become of Mrs. McMurdoch."
"I will find out," said Ormuz Khan.
He rose, his every movement possessing a sort of feline grace. He bowed and walked out of the room. Phil Abingdon heard in the distance the motor restarted and the car being driven away from Hillside. She stood up restlessly.
Beneath the calm of the Persian's manner she had detected the presence of dangerous fires. The silence of the house oppressed her. She was not actually frightened yet, but intuitively she knew that all was not well. Then came a new sound arousing active fear at last.
Someone was rapping upon one of the long, masked windows! Phil Abingdon started back with a smothered exclamation.
"Quick!" came a high, cool voice, "open this window. You are in danger."
The voice was odd, peculiar, but of one thing she was certain. It was not the voice of an Oriental. Furthermore, it held a note of command, and something, too, which inspired trust.
She looked quickly about her to make sure that she was alone. And then, running swiftly to the window from which the sound had come, she moved a heavy gilded fastening which closed it, and drew open the heavy leaves.
A narrow terrace was revealed with a shrubbery beyond; and standing on the terrace was a tall, thin man wearing a light coat over evening dress. He looked pale, gaunt, and unshaven, and although the regard of his light eyes was almost dreamy, there was something very tense in his pose.
"I am Nicol Brinn," said the stranger. "I knew your father. You have walked into a trap. I am here to get you out of it. Can you drive?"
"Do you mean an automobile?" asked Phil, breathlessly.
"A Rolls Royce."
"Come right out."
"My furs! my hat!"
"Something bigger is at stake."
It was all wildly bizarre, almost unbelievable. Phil Abingdon had experienced in her own person the insidious power of Ormuz Khan. She now found herself under the spell of a personality at least as forceful, although in a totally different way. She found herself running through a winding path amid bushes, piloted by this strange, unshaven man, to whom on sight she had given her trust unquestioningly!
"When we reach the car," he said over his shoulder, "ask no questions--head for home, and don't stop for anything--on two legs or on four. That's the first thing--most important; then, when you know you're safe, telephone Scotland Yard to send a raid squad down by road, and do it quick."