Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer
Chapter III. Shadows
"Had you reason to suspect any cardiac trouble, Doctor McMurdoch?" asked Harley.
Doctor McMurdoch, a local practitioner who had been a friend of Sir Charles Abingdon, shook his head slowly. He was a tall, preternaturally thin Scotsman, clean-shaven, with shaggy dark brows and a most gloomy expression in his deep-set eyes. While the presence of his sepulchral figure seemed appropriate enough in that stricken house, Harley could not help thinking that it must have been far from reassuring in a sick room.
"I had never actually detected anything of the kind," replied the physician, and his deep voice was gloomily in keeping with his personality. "I had observed a certain breathlessness at times, however. No doubt it is one of those cases of on suspected endocarditis. Acute. I take it," raising his shaggy brows interrogatively, "that nothing had occurred to excite Sir Charles?"
"On the contrary," replied Harley, "he was highly distressed about some family trouble, the nature of which he was about to confide to me when this sudden illness seized him."
He stared hard at Doctor McMurdoch, wondering how much he might hope to learn from him respecting the affairs of Sir Charles. It seemed almost impertinent at that hour to seek to pry into the dead man's private life.
To the quiet, book-lined apartment stole now and again little significant sounds which told of the tragedy in the household. Sometimes when a distant door was opened, it would be the sobs of a weeping woman, for the poor old housekeeper had been quite prostrated by the blow. Or ghostly movements would become audible from the room immediately over the library--the room to which the dead man had been carried; muffled footsteps, vague stirrings of furniture; each sound laden with its own peculiar portent, awakening the imagination which all too readily filled in the details of the scene above. Then, to spur Harley to action, came the thought that Sir Charles Abingdon had appealed to him for aid. Did his need terminate with his unexpected death or would the shadow under which he had died extend nowHarley found himself staring across the library at the photograph of Phil Abingdon. It was of her that Sir Charles had been speaking when that mysterious seizure had tied his tongue. That strange, fatal illness, mused Harley, all the more strange in the case of a man supposedly in robust health--it almost seemed like the working of a malignant will. For the revelation, whatever its nature, had almost but not quite been made in Harley's office that evening. Something, some embarrassment or mental disability, had stopped Sir Charles from completing his statement. Tonight death had stopped him.
"Was he consulting you professionally, Mr. Harley?" asked the physician.
"He was," replied Harley, continuing to stare fascinatedly at the photograph on the mantelpiece. "I am informed," said he, abruptly, "that Miss Abingdon is out of town?"
Doctor McMurdoch nodded in his slow, gloomy fashion. "She is staying in Devonshire with poor Abingdon's sister," he answered. "I am wondering how we are going to break the news to her."
Perceiving that Doctor McMurdoch had clearly been intimate with the late Sir Charles, Harley determined to make use of this opportunity to endeavour to fathom the mystery of the late surgeon's fears. "You will not misunderstand me, Doctor McMurdoch," he said, "if I venture to ask you one or two rather personal questions respecting Miss Abingdon?"
Doctor McMurdoch lowered his shaggy brows and looked gloomily at the speaker. "Mr. Harley," he replied, "I know you by repute for a man of integrity. But before I answer your questions will you answer one of mine?"
"Then my question is this: Does not your interest cease with the death of your client?"
"Doctor McMurdoch," said Harley, sternly, "you no doubt believe yourself to be acting as a friend of this bereaved family. You regard me, perhaps, as a Paul Pry prompted by idle curiosity. On the contrary, I find myself in a delicate and embarrassing situation. From Sir Charles's conversation I had gathered that he entertained certain fears on behalf of his daughter."
"Indeed," said Doctor McMurdoch.
"If these fears were well grounded, the danger is not removed, but merely increased by the death of Miss Abingdon's natural protector. I regret, sir, that I approached you for information, since you have misjudged my motive. But far from my interest having ceased, it has now as I see the matter become a sacred duty to learn what it was that Sir Charles apprehended. This duty, Doctor McMurdoch, I propose to fulfil with or without your assistance."
"Oh," said Doctor McMurdoch, gloomily, "I'm afraid I've offended you. But I meant well, Mr. Harley." A faint trace of human emotion showed itself in his deep voice. "Charley Abingdon and I were students together in Edinburgh," he explained. "I was mayhap a little strange."
His apology was so evidently sincere that Harley relented at once. "Please say no more, Doctor McMurdoch," he responded. "I fully appreciate your feelings in the matter. At such a time a stranger can only be an intruder; but"--he fixed his keen eyes upon the physician--"there is more underlying all this than you suspect or could readily believe. You will live to know that I have spoken the truth."
"I know it now," declared the Scotsman, solemnly. "Abingdon was always eccentric, but he didn't know the meaning of fear."
"Once that may have been true," replied Harley. "But a great fear was upon him when he came to me, Doctor McMurdoch, and if it is humanly possible I am going to discover its cause."
"Go ahead," said Doctor McMurdoch and, turning to the side table, he poured out two liberal portions of whiskey. "If there's anything I can do to help, count me at your service. You tell me he had fears about little Phil?"
"He had," answered Harley, "and it is maddening to think that he died before he could acquaint me with their nature. But I have hopes that you can help me in this. For instance"--again he fixed his gaze upon the gloomy face of the physician-"who is the distinguished Oriental gentleman with whom Sir Charles had recently become acquainted?"
Doctor McMurdoch's expression remained utterly blank, and he slowly shook his head. "I haven't an idea in the world," he declared. "A patient, perhaps?"
"Possibly," said Harley, conscious of some disappointment; "yet from the way he spoke of him I scarcely think that he was a patient. Surely Sir Charles, having resided so long in India, numbered several Orientals among his acquaintances if not among his friends?"
"None ever came to his home," replied Doctor McMurdoch. "He had all the Anglo-Indian's prejudice against men of colour." He rested his massive chin in his hand and stared down reflectively at the carpet.
"Then you have no suggestion to offer in regard to this person?"
"None. Did he tell you nothing further about him?"
"Unfortunately, nothing. In the next place, Doctor McMurdoch, are you aware of any difference of opinion which had arisen latterly between Sir Charles and his daughter?"
"Difference of opinion!" replied Doctor McMur doch, raising his brows ironically. "There would always be difference of opinion between little Phil and any man who cared for her. But out-and-out quarrel--no!"
Again Harley found himself at a deadlock, and it was with scanty hope of success that he put his third question to the gloomy Scot. "Was Sir Charles a friend of Mr. Nicol Brinn?" he asked.
"Nicol Brinn?" echoed the physician. He looked perplexed. "You mean the American millionaire? I believe they were acquainted. Abingdon knew most of the extraordinary people in London; and if half one hears is true Nicol Brinn is as mad as a hatter. But they were not in any sense friends as far as I know." He was watching Harley curiously. "Why do you ask that question?"
"I will tell you in a moment," said Harley, rapidly, "but I have one more question to put to you first. Does the term Fire-Tongue convey anything to your mind?"
Doctor McMurdoch's eyebrows shot upward most amazingly. "I won't insult you by supposing that you have chosen such a time for joking," he said, dourly. "But if your third question surprised me, I must say that your fourth sounds simply daft."
"It must," agreed Harley, and his manner was almost fierce; "but when I tell you why I ask these two questions--and I only do so on the understand ing that my words are to be treated in the strictest confidence--you may regard the matter in a new light. 'Nicol Brinn' and 'Fire-Tongue' were the last words which Sir Charles Abingdon uttered."
"What!" cried Doctor McMurdoch, displaying a sudden surprising energy. "What?"
"I solemnly assure you," declared Harley, "that such is the case. Benson, the butler, also overheard them."
Doctor McMurdoch relapsed once more into gloom, gazing at the whiskey in the glass which he held in his hand and slowly shaking his head. "Poor old Charley Abingdon," he murmured. "It's plain to me, Mr. Harley, that his mind was wandering. May not we find here an explanation, too, of this idea of his that some danger overhung Phil? You didn't chance to notice, I suppose, whether he had a temperature?"
"I did not," replied Harley, smiling slightly. But the smile quickly left his face, which became again grim and stern.
A short silence ensued, during which Doctor McMurdoch sat staring moodily down at the carpet and. Harley slowly paced up and down the room; then:
"In view of the fact," he said, suddenly, "that Sir Charles clearly apprehended an attempt upon his life, are you satisfied professionally that death was due to natural causes?"
"Perfectly satisfied," replied the physician, looking up with a start: "perfectly satisfied. It was unexpected, of course, but such cases are by no means unusual. He was formerly a keen athlete, remember. 'Tis often so. Surely you don't suspect foul play? I understood you to mean that his apprehensions were on behalf of Phil."
Paul Harley stood still, staring meditatively in the other's direction. "There is not a scrap of evidence to support such a theory," he admitted, "but if you knew of the existence of any poisonous agent which would produce effects simulating these familiar symptoms, I should be tempted to take certain steps."
"If you are talking about poisons," said the physician, a rather startled look appearing upon his face, "there are several I might mention; but the idea seems preposterous to me. Why should any one want to harm Charley Abingdon? When could poison have been administered and by whom?"
"When, indeed?" murmured Harley. "Yet I am not satisfied."
"You're not hinting at--suicide?"
"What had he eaten?"
"Nothing but soup, except that he drank a portion of a glass of water. I am wondering if he took anything at Mr. Wilson's house." He stared hard at Doctor McMurdoch. "It may surprise you to learn that I have already taken steps to have the remains of the soup from Sir Charles's plate examined, as well as the water in the glass. I now propose to call upon Mr. Wilson in order that I may complete this line of enquiry."
"I sympathize with your suspicions, Mr. Harley," said the physician dourly, "but you are wasting your time." A touch of the old acidity crept back into his manner. "My certificate will be 'syncope due to unusual excitement'; and I shall stand by it."
"You are quite entitled to your own opinion," Harley conceded, "which if I were in your place would be my own. But what do you make of the fact that Sir Charles received a bogus telephone message some ten minutes before my arrival, as a result of which he visited Mr. Wilson's house?"
"But he's attending Wilson," protested the physician.
"Nevertheless, no one there had telephoned. It was a ruse. I don't assume for a moment that this ruse was purposeless."
Doctor McMurdoch was now staring hard at the speaker.
"You may also know," Harley continued, "that there was an attempted burglary here less than a week ago."
"I know that," admitted the other, "but it counts for little. There have been several burglaries in the neighbourhood of late."
Harley perceived that Doctor McMurdoch was one of those characters, not uncommon north of the Tweed, who, if slow in forming an opinion, once having done so cling to it as tightly as any barnacle.
"You may be right and I may be wrong," Harley admitted, "but while your professional business with Sir Charles unfortunately is ended, mine is only beginning. May I count upon you to advise me of Miss Abingdon's return? I particularly wish to see her, and I should prefer to meet her in the capacity of a friend rather than in that of a professional investigator."
"At the earliest moment that I can decently arrange a meeting," replied Doctor McMurdoch, "I will communicate with you, Mr. Harley. I am just cudgelling my brains at the moment to think how the news is to be broken to her. Poor little Phil! He was all she had."
"I wish I could help you," declared Harley with sincerity, "but in the circumstances any suggestion of mine would be mere impertinence." He held out his hand to the doctor.
"Good-night," said the latter, gripping it heartily. "If there is any mystery surrounding poor Abingdon's death, I believe you are the man to clear it up. But, frankly, it was his heart. I believe he had a touch of the sun once in India. Who knows? His idea that some danger threatened him or threatened Phil may have been merely--" He tapped his brow significantly.
"But in the whole of your knowledge of Sir Charles," cried Harley, exhibiting a certain irritation, "have you ever known him to suffer from delusions of that kind or any other?"
"Never," replied the physician, firmly; "but once a man has had the sun one cannot tell."
"Ah!" said Harley. "Good-night, Doctor McMurdoch."
When presently he left the house, carrying a brown leather bag which he had borrowed from the butler, he knew that rightly or wrongly his own opinion remained unchanged in spite of the stubborn opposition of the Scottish physician. The bogus message remained to be explained, and the assault in the square, as did the purpose of the burglar to whom gold and silver plate made no appeal. More important even than these points were the dead man's extraordinary words: "Fire-Tongue"--"Nicol Brinn." Finally and conclusively, he had detected the note of danger outside and inside the house; and now as he began to cross the square it touched him again intimately.
He looked up at the darkened sky. A black cloud was moving slowly overhead, high above the roof of the late Sir Charles Abingdon; and as he watched its stealthy approach it seemed to Paul Harley to be the symbol of that dread in which latterly Sir Charles's life had lain, beneath which he had died, and which now was stretching out, mysterious and menacing, over himself.