Chapter V. The Gates of Hell
 

If Paul Harley had counted upon the word "Fire-Tongue" to have a dramatic effect upon Nicol Brinn, he was not disappointed. It was a word which must have conveyed little or nothing to the multitude and which might have been pronounced without perceptible effect at any public meeting in the land. But Mr. Brinn, impassive though his expression remained, could not conceal the emotion which he experienced at the sound of it. His gaunt face seemed to grow more angular and his eyes to become even less lustrous.

"Fire-Tongue!" he said, tensely, following a short silence. "For God's sake, when did you hear that word?"

"I heard it," replied Harley, slowly, "to-night." He fixed his gaze intently upon the sallow face of the American. "It was spoken by Sir Charles Abingdon."

Closely as he watched Nicol Brinn while pronouncing this name he could not detect the slightest change of expression in the stoic features.

"Sir Charles Abingdon," echoed Brinn; "and in what way is it connected with your case?"

"In this way," answered Harley. "It was spoken by Sir Charles a few moments before he died."

Nicol Brinn's drooping lids flickered rapidly. "Before he died! Then Sir Charles Abingdon is dead! When did he die?"

"He died to-night and the last words that he uttered were 'Fire-Tongue'--" He paused, never for a moment removing that fixed gaze from the other's face.

"Go on," prompted Mr. Brinn.

"And 'Nicol Brinn.'"

Nicol Brinn stood still as a carven man. Indeed, only by an added rigidity in his pose did he reward Paul Harley's intense scrutiny. A silence charged with drama was finally broken by the American. "Mr. Harley," he said, "you told me that you were up against the big proposition of your career. You are right."

With that he sat down in an armchair and, resting his chin in his hand, gazed fixedly into the empty grate. His pose was that of a man who is suddenly called upon to review the course of his life and upon whose decision respecting the future that life may depend. Paul Harley watched him in silence.

"Give me the whole story," said Mr. Brinn, "right from the beginning." He looked up. "Do you know what you have done to-night, Mr. Harley?"

Paul Harley shook his head. Swiftly, like the touch of an icy finger, that warning note of danger had reached him again.

"I'll tell you," continued Brinn. "You have opened the gates of hell!"

Not another word did he speak while Paul Harley, pacing slowly up and down before the hearth, gave him a plain account of the case, omitting all reference to his personal suspicions and to the measures which he had taken to confirm them.

He laid his cards upon the table deliberately. Whether Sir Charles Abingdon had uttered the name of Nicol Brinn as that of one whose aid should be sought or as a warning, he had yet to learn. And by this apparent frankness he hoped to achieve his object. That the celebrated American was in any way concerned in the menace which had overhung Sir Charles he was not prepared to believe. But he awaited with curiosity that explanation which Nicol Brinn must feel called upon to offer.

"You think he was murdered?" said Brinn in his high, toneless voice.

"I have formed no definite opinion. What is your own?"

"I may not look it," replied Brinn, "but at this present moment I am the most hopelessly puzzled and badly frightened man in London."

"Frightened?" asked Harley, curiously.

"I said frightened, I also said puzzled; and I am far too puzzled to be able to express any opinion respecting the death of Sir Charles Abingdon. When I tell you all I know of him you will wonder as much as I do, Mr. Harley, why my name should have been the last to pass his lips."

He half turned in the big chair to face his visitor, who now was standing before the fireplace staring down at him.

"One day last month," he resumed, "I got out of my car in a big hurry at the top of the Haymarket. A fool on a motorcycle passed between the car and the sidewalk just as I stepped down, and I knew nothing further until I woke up in a drug store close by, feeling very dazed and with my coat in tatters and my left arm numbed from the elbow. A man was standing watching me, and presently when I had pulled round he gave me his card.

"He was Sir Charles Abingdon, who had been passing at the time of the accident. That was how I met him, and as there was nothing seriously wrong with me I saw him no more professionally. But he dined with me a week later and I had lunch at his club about a fortnight ago."

He looked up at Harley. "On my solemn word of honour," he said, "that's all I know about Sir Charles Abingdon."

Paul Harley returned the other's fixed stare. "I don't doubt your assurance on the point, Mr. Brinn," he acknowledged. "I can well understand that you must be badly puzzled; but I would remind you of your statement that you were also frightened. Why?"

Nicol Brinn glanced rapidly about his own luxurious room in an oddly apprehensive manner. "I said that," he declared, "and I meant it."

"Then I can only suppose," resumed Harley, deliberately, "that the cause of your fear lies in the term, 'Fire-Tongue'?"

Brinn again rested his chin in his hand, staring fixedly into the grate.

"And possibly," went on the remorseless voice, "you can explain the significance of that term?"

Nicol Brinn remained silent--but with one foot he was slowly tapping the edge of the fender.

"Mr. Harley," he began, abruptly, "you have been perfectly frank with me and in return I wish to be as frank with you as I can be. I am face to face with a thing that has haunted me for seven years, and every step I take from now onward has to be considered carefully, for any step might be my last. And that's not the worst of the matter. I will risk one of those steps here and now. You ask me to explain the significance of Fire-Tongue" (there was a perceptible pause before he pronounced the word, which Harley duly noticed). "I am going to tell you that Sir Charles Abingdon, when I lunched with him at his club, asked me precisely the same thing."

"What! He asked you that so long as two weeks ago?"

"He did."

"And what reason did he give for his inquiry?"

Nicol Brinn began to tap the fender again with his foot. "Let me think," he replied. "I recognize that you must regard my reticence as peculiar, Mr. Harley, but if ever a man had reason to look before he leaped, I am that man."

Silence fell again, and Paul Harley, staring down at Nicol Brinn, realized that this indeed was the most hopelessly mystifying case which fate had ever thrown in his way. This millionaire scholar and traveller, whose figure was as familiar in remote cities of the world as it was familiar in New York, in Paris, and in London, could not conceivably be associated with any criminal organization. Yet his hesitancy was indeed difficult to explain, and because it seemed to Harley that the cloud which had stolen out across the house of Sir Charles Abingdon now hung threateningly over those very chambers, he merely waited and wondered.

"He referred to an experience which had befallen him in India," came Nicol Brinn's belated reply.

"In India? May I ask you to recount that experience?"

"Mr. Harley," replied Brinn, suddenly standing up, "I can't."

"You can't?"

"I have said so. But I'd give a lot more than you might believe to know that Abingdon had told you the story which he told me."

"You are not helping, Mr. Brinn," said Harley, sternly. "I believe and I think that you share my belief that Sir Charles Abingdon did not die from natural causes. You are repressing valuable evi dence. Allow me to remind you that if anything should come to light necessitating a post-mortem examination of the body, you will be forced to di vulge in a court of justice the facts which you refuse to divulge to me."

"I know it," said Brinn, shortly.

He shot out one long arm and grasped Harley's shoulder as in a vice. "I'm counted a wealthy man," he continued, "but I'd give every cent I possess to see 'paid' put to the bill of a certain person. Listen. You don't think I was in any way concerned in the death of Sir Charles Abingdon ? It isn't thinkable. But you do think I'm in possession of facts which would help you find out who is. You're right."

"Good God!" cried Harley. "Yet you remain silent!"

"Not so loud--not so loud!" implored Brinn, re peating that odd, almost furtive glance around. "Mr. Harley--you know me. You've heard of me and now you've met me. You know my place in the world. Do you believe me when I say that from this moment onward I don't trust my own servants?

"What! He asked you that so long as two weeks ago?"

"He did."

"And what reason did he give for his inquiry?"

Nicol Brinn began to tap the fender again with his foot. "Let me think," he replied. " I recognize that you must regard my reticence as peculiar, Mr. Harley, but if ever a man had reason to look before he leaped, I am that man."

Silence fell again, and Paul Harley, staring down at Nicol Brinn, realized that this indeed was the most hopelessly mystifying case which fate had ever thrown in his way. This millionaire scholar and traveller, whose figure was as familiar in remote cities of the world as it was familiar in New York, in Paris, and in London, could not conceivably be associated with any criminal organization. Yet his hesitancy was indeed difficult to explain, and because it seemed to Harley that the cloud which had stolen out across the house of Sir Charles Abingdon now hung threateningly over those very chambers, he merely waited and wondered.

"He referred to an experience which had befallen him in India," came Nicol Brinn's belated reply.

"In India? May I ask you to recount that experience?"

"Mr. Harley," replied Brinn, suddenly standing up, "I can't."

"You can't?"

"I have said so. But I'd give a lot more than you might believe to know that Abingdon had told you the story which he told me."

"You are not helping, Mr. Brinn," said Harley, sternly. "I believe and I think that you share my belief that Sir Charles Abingdon did not die from natural causes. You are repressing valuable evidence. Allow me to remind you that if anything should come to light necessitating a post-mortem examination of the body, you will be forced to divulge in a court of justice the facts which you refuse to divulge to me."

"I know it," said Brinn, shortly.

He shot out one long arm and grasped Harley's shoulder as in a vice. "I'm counted a wealthy man," he continued, "but I'd give every cent I possess to see 'paid' put to the bill of a certain person. Listen. You don't think I was in any way concerned in the death of Sir Charles Abingdon? It isn't thinkable. But you do think I'm in possession of facts which would help you find out who is. You're right."

"Good God!" cried Harley. "Yet you remain silent!"

"Not so loud--not so loud!" implored Brinn, repeating that odd, almost furtive glance around. "Mr. Harley--you know me. You've heard of me and now you've met me. You know my place in the world. Do you believe me when I say that from this moment onward I don't trust my own servants? Nor my own friends?" He removed his grip from Harley's shoulder. "Inanimate things look like enemies. That mummy over yonder may have ears!"

"I'm afraid I don't altogether understand you."

"See here!"

Nicol Brinn crossed to a bureau, unlocked it, and while Harley watched him curiously, sought among a number of press cuttings. Presently he found the cutting for which he was looking. "This was said," he explained, handing the slip to Harley, "at the Players' Club in New York, after a big dinner in pre-dry days. It was said in confidence. But some disguised reporter had got in and it came out in print next morning. Read it."

Paul Harley accepted the cutting and read the following:

   NICOL BRINN'S SECRET AMBITIONS
MILLIONAIRE SPORTSMAN WHO WANTS TO SHOOT
             NIAGARA!

Mr. Nicol Brinn of Cincinnati, who is at present in New York, opened his heart to members of the Players' Club last night. Our prominent citizen, responding to a toast, "the distinguished visitor," said:

"I'd like to live through months of midnight frozen in among the polar ice; I'd like to cross Africa from east to west and get lost in the middle. I'd like to have a Montana sheriff's posse on my heels for horse stealing, and I've prayed to be wrecked on a desert island like Robinson Crusoe to see if I am man enough to live it out. I want to stand my trial for murder and defend my own case, and I want to be found by the eunuchs in the harem of the Shah. I want to dive for pearls and scale the Matterhorn. I want to know where the tunnel leads to--the tunnel down under the Great Pyramid of Gizeh--and I'd love to shoot Niagara Falls in a barrel."

"It sounds characteristic," murmured Harley, laying the slip on the coffee table.

"It's true!" declared Brinn. "I said it and I meant it. I'm a glutton for danger, Mr. Harley, and I'm going to tell you why. Something happened to me seven years ago--"

"In India?"

"In India. Correct. Something happened to me, sir, which just took the sunshine out of life. At the time I didn't know all it meant. I've learned since. For seven years I have been flirting with death and hoping to fall!"

Harley stared at him uncomprehendingly. "More than ever I fail to understand."

"I can only ask you to be patient, Mr. Harley. Time is a wonderful doctor, and I don't say that in seven years the old wound hasn't healed a bit. But to-night you have, unknowingly, undone all that time had done. I'm a man that has been down into hell. I bought myself out. I thought I knew where the pit was located. I thought I was well away from it, Mr. Harley, and you have told me something tonight which makes me think that it isn't where I supposed at all, but hidden down here right under our feet in London. And we're both standing on the edge!"

That Nicol Brinn was deeply moved no student of humanity could have doubted. From beneath the stoic's cloak another than the dare-devil millionaire whose crazy exploits were notorious had looked out. Persistently the note of danger came to Paul Harley. Those luxurious Piccadilly chambers were a focus upon which some malignant will was concentrated. He became conscious of anger. It was the anger of a just man who finds himself impotent--the rage of Prometheus bound.

"Mr. Brinn!" he cried, "I accept unreservedly all that you have told me. Its real significance I do not and cannot grasp. But my theory that Sir Charles Abingdon was done to death has become a conviction. That a like fate threatens yourself and possibly myself I begin to believe." He looked almost fiercely into the other's dull eyes. "My reputation east and west is that of a white man. Mr. Brinn--I ask you for your confidence."

Nicol Brinn dropped his chin into his hand and resumed that unseeing stare into the open grate. Paul Harley watched him intently.

"There isn't any one I would rather confide in," confessed the American. "We are linked by a common danger. But"--he looked up--"I must ask you again to be patient. Give me time to think --to make plans. For your own part--be cautious. You witnessed the death of Sir Charles Abingdon. You don't think and perhaps I don't think that it was natural; but whatever steps you may have taken to confirm your theories, I dare not hope that you will ever discover even a ghost of a clue. I simply warn you, Mr. Harley. You may go the same way. So may I. Others have travelled that road before poor Abingdon."

He suddenly stood up, all at once exhibiting to his watchful visitor that tremendous nervous energy which underlay his impassive manner. "Good God!" he said, in a cold, even voice. "To think that it is here in London. What does it mean?"

He ceased speaking abruptly, and stood with his elbow resting on a corner of the mantelpiece.

"You speak of it being here," prompted Harley. "Is it consistent with your mysterious difficulties to inform me to what you refer?"

Nicol Brinn glanced aside at him. "If I informed you of that," he answered, "you would know all you want to know. But neither you nor I would live to use the knowledge. Give me time. Let me think."

Silence fell in the big room, Nicol Brinn staring down vacantly into the empty fireplace, Paul Harley standing watching him in a state of almost stupefied mystification. Muffled to a soothing murmur the sounds of Piccadilly penetrated to that curtained chamber which held so many records of the troubled past and which seemed to be charged with shadowy portents of the future.

Something struck with a dull thud upon a windowpane--once--twice. There followed a faint, sibilant sound.

Paul Harley started and the stoical Nicol Brinn turned rapidly and glanced across the room.

"What was that?" asked Harley.

"I expect--it was an owl," answered Brinn. "We sometimes get them over from the Green Park."

His high voice sounded unemotional as ever. But it seemed to Paul Harley that his face, dimly illuminated by the upcast light from the lamp upon the coffee table, had paled, had become gaunt.