Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer
Chapter VI. Phil Abingdon Arrives
On the following afternoon Paul Harley was restlessly pacing his private office when Innes came in with a letter which had been delivered by hand. Harley took it eagerly and tore open the envelope. A look of expectancy faded from his eager face almost in the moment that it appeared there. "No luck, Innes," he said, gloomily. "Merton reports that there is no trace of any dangerous foreign body in the liquids analyzed."
He dropped the analyst's report into a wastebasket and resumed his restless promenade. Innes, who could see that his principal wanted to talk, waited. For it was Paul Harley's custom, when the clue to a labyrinth evaded him, to outline his difficulties to his confidential secretary, and by the mere exercise of verbal construction Harley would often detect the weak spot in his reasoning. This stage come to, he would dictate a carefully worded statement of the case to date and thus familiarize himself with its complexities.
"You see, Innes," he began, suddenly, "Sir Charles had taken no refreshment of any kind at Mr. Wilson's house nor before leaving his own. Neither had he smoked. No one had approached him. Therefore, if he was poisoned, he was poisoned at his own table. Since he was never out of my observation from the moment of entering the library up to that of his death, we are reduced to the only two possible mediums--the soup or the water. He had touched nothing else."
"Wine was on the table but none had been poured out. Let us see what evidence, capable of being put into writing, exists to support my theory that Sir Charles was poisoned. In the first place, he clearly went in fear of some such death. It was because of this that he consulted me. What was the origin of his fear? Something associated with the term Fire-Tongue. So much is clear from Sir Charles's dying words, and his questioning Nicol Brinn on the point some weeks earlier.
"He was afraid, then, of something or someone linked in his mind with the word Fire-Tongue. What do we know about Fire-Tongue? One thing only: that it had to do with some episode which took place in India. This item we owe to Nicol Brinn.
"Very well. Sir Charles believed himself to be in danger from some thing or person unknown, associated with India and with the term Fire-Tongue. What else? His house was entered during the night under circumstances suggesting that burglary was not the object of the entrance. And next? He was assaulted, with murderous intent. Thirdly, he believed himself to be subjected to constant surveillance. Was this a delusion? It was not. After failing several times I myself detected someone dogging my movements last night at the moment I entered Nicol Brinn's chambers. Nicol Brinn also saw this person.
"In short, Sir Charles was, beyond doubt, at the time of his death, receiving close attention from some mysterious person or persons the object of which he believed to be his death. Have I gone beyond established facts, Innes, thus far?"
"No, Mr. Harley. So far you are on solid ground."
"Good. Leaving out of the question those points which we hope to clear up when the evidence of Miss Abingdon becomes available--how did Sir Charles learn that Nicol Brinn knew the meaning of Fire-Tongue?"
"He may have heard something to that effect in India."
"If this were so he would scarcely have awaited a chance encounter to prosecute his inquiries, since Nicol Brinn is a well-known figure in London and Sir Charles had been home for several years."
"Mr. Brinn may have said something after the accident and before he was in full possession of his senses which gave Sir Charles a clue."
"He did not, Innes. I called at the druggist's establishment this morning. They recalled the incident, of course. Mr. Brinn never uttered a word until, opening his eyes, he said: 'Hello! Am I much damaged?'"
Innes smiled discreetly. "A remarkable character, Mr. Harley," he said. "Your biggest difficulty at the moment is to fit Mr. Nicol Brinn into the scheme."
"He won't fit at all, Innes! We come to the final and conclusive item of evidence substantiating my theory of Sir Charles's murder: Nicol Brinn believes he was murdered. Nicol Brinn has known others, in his own words, 'to go the same way.' Yet Nicol Brinn, a millionaire, a scholar, a sportsman, and a gentleman, refuses to open his mouth."
"He is afraid of something."
"He is afraid of Fire-Tongue--whatever Fire-Tongue may be! I never saw a man of proved courage more afraid in my life. He prefers to court arrest for complicity in a murder rather than tell what he knows!"
"It would be, Innes, if Nicol Brinn's fears were personal."
Paul Harley checked his steps in front of the watchful secretary and gazed keenly into his eyes.
"Death has no terrors for Nicol Brinn," he said slowly. "All his life he has toyed with danger. He admitted to me that during the past seven years he had courted death. Isn't it plain enough, Innes? If ever a man possessed all that the world had to offer, Nicol Brinn is that man. In such a case and in such circumstances what do we look for?"
Innes shook his head.
"We look for the woman!" snapped Paul Harley.
There came a rap at the door and Miss Smith, the typist, entered. "Miss Phil Abingdon and Doctor McMurdoch," she said.
"Good heavens!" muttered Harley. "So soon? Why, she can only just--" He checked himself. "Show them in, Miss Smith," he directed.
As the typist went out, followed by Innes, Paul Harley found himself thinking of the photograph in Sir Charles Abingdon's library and waiting with an almost feverish expectancy for the appearance of the original.
Almost immediately Phil Abingdon came in, accompanied by the sepulchral Doctor McMurdoch. And Harley found himself wondering whether her eyes were really violet-coloured or whether intense emotion heroically repressed had temporarily lent them that appearance.
Surprise was the predominant quality of his first impression. Sir Charles Abingdon's daughter was so exceedingly vital--petite and slender, yet instinct with force. The seeming repose of the photograph was misleading. That her glance could be naive he realized--as it could also be gay--and now her eyes were sad with a sadness so deep as to dispel the impression of lightness created by her dainty form, her alluring, mobile lips, and the fascinating, wavy, red-brown hair.
She did not wear mourning. He recalled that there had been no time to procure it. She was exquisitely and fashionably dressed, and even the pallor of grief could not rob her cheeks of the bloom born of Devon sunshine. He had expected her to be pretty. He was surprised to find her lovely.
Doctor McMurdoch stood silent in the doorway, saying nothing by way of introduction. But nothing was necessary. Phil Abingdon came forward quite naturally--and quite naturally Paul Harley discovered her little gloved hand to lie clasped between both his own. It was more like a reunion than a first meeting and was so laden with perfect understanding that, even yet, speech seemed scarcely worth while.
Thinking over that moment, in later days, Paul Harley remembered that he had been prompted by some small inner voice to say: "So you have come back?" It was recognition. Of the hundreds of men and women who came into his life for a while, and ere long went out of it again, he knew, by virtue of that sixth sense of his, that Phil Abingdon had come to stay--whether for joy or sorrow he could not divine.
It was really quite brief--that interval of silence--although perhaps long enough to bridge the ages.
"How brave of you, Miss Abingdon!" said Harley. "How wonderfully brave of you!"
"She's an Abingdon," came the deep tones of Doctor McMurdoch. "She arrived only two hours ago and here she is."
"There can be no rest for me, Doctor," said the girl, and strove valiantly to control her voice, "until this dreadful doubt is removed. Mr. Harley"--she turned to him appealingly--"please don't study my feelings in the least; I can bear anything--now; just tell me what happened. Oh! I had to come. I felt that I had to come."
As Paul Harley placed an armchair for his visitor, his glance met that of Doctor McMurdoch, and in the gloomy eyes he read admiration of this girl who could thus conquer the inherent weakness of her sex and at such an hour and after a dreadful ordeal set her hand to the task which fate had laid upon her.
Doctor McMurdoch sat down on a chair beside the door, setting his silk hat upon the floor and clasping his massive chin with his hand.
"I will endeavour to do as you wish, Miss Abingdon." said Harley, glancing anxiously at the physician.
But Doctor McMurdoch returned only a dull stare. It was evident that this man of stone was as clay in the hands of Phil Abingdon. He deprecated the strain which she was imposing upon her nervous system, already overwrought to the danger point, but he was helpless for all his dour obstinacy. Harley, looking down at the girl's profile, read a new meaning into the firm line of her chin. He was conscious of an insane desire to put his arms around this new acquaintance who seemed in some indefinable yet definite way to belong to him and to whisper the tragic story he had to tell, comforting her the while.
He began to relate what had taken place at the first interview, when Sir Charles had told him of the menace which he had believed to hang over his life. He spoke slowly, deliberately, choosing his words with a view to sparing Phil Abingdon's feelings as far as possible.
She made no comment throughout, but her fingers alternately tightened and relaxed their hold upon the arms of the chair in which she was seated. Once, at some reference to words spoken by her father, her sensitive lips began to quiver and Harley, watching her, paused. She held the chair arms more tightly. "Please go on, Mr. Harley," she said.
The words were spoken in a very low voice, but the speaker looked up bravely, and Harley, reassured, proceeded uninterruptedly to the end of the story. Then:
"At some future time, Miss Abingdon," he coneluded, "I hope you will allow me to call upon you. There is so much to be discussed--"
Again Phil Abingdon looked up into his face. "I have forced myself to come to see you to-day," she said, "because I realize there is no service I can do poor dad so important as finding out--"
"I understand," Harley interrupted, gently. "But--"
"No, no." Phil Abingdon shook her head rebelliously. "Please ask me what you want to know. I came for that."
He met the glance of violet eyes, and understood something of Doctor McMurdoch's helplessness. He found his thoughts again wandering into strange, wild byways and was only recalled to the realities by the dry, gloomy voice of the physician. "Go on, Mr. Harley," said Doctor McMurdoch. "She has grand courage."