Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer
Chapter VII. Confessions
Paul Harley crossed the room and stood in front of the tall Burmese cabinet. He experienced the utmost difficulty in adopting a judicial attitude toward his beautiful visitor. Proximity increased his mental confusion. Therefore he stood on the opposite side of the office ere beginning to question her.
"In the first place, Miss Abingdon," he said, speaking very deliberately, "do you attach any particular significance to the term 'Fire-Tongue'?"
Phil Abingdon glanced rapidly at Doctor McMurdoch. "None at all, Mr. Harley," she replied. "The doctor has already told me of--"
"You know why I ask?" She inclined her head.
"And Mr. Nicol Brinn? Have you met this gentleman?"
"Never. I know that Dad had met him and was very much interested in him."
"In what way?"
"I have no idea. He told me that he thought Mr. Brinn one of the most singular characters he had ever known. But beyond describing his rooms in Piccadilly, which had impressed him as extraordinary, he said very little about Mr. Brinn. He sounded interesting and "--she hesitated and her eyes filled with tears--"I asked Dad to invite him home." Again she paused. This retrospection, by making the dead seem to live again, added to the horror of her sudden bereavement, and Harley would most gladly have spared her more. "Dad seemed strangely disinclined to do so," she added.
At that the keen investigator came to life within Harley. "Your father did not appear anxious to bring Mr. Brinn to his home?" he asked, eagerly.
"Not at all anxious. This was all the more strange because Dad invited Mr. Brinn to his club."
"He gave no reason for his refusal?"
"Oh, there was no refusal, Mr. Harley. He merely evaded the matter. I never knew why."
"H'm," muttered Harley. "And now, Miss Abingdon, can you enlighten me respecting the identity of the Oriental gentleman with whom he had latterly become acquainted?"
Phil Abingdon glanced rapidly at Doctor McMurdoch and then lowered her head. She did not answer at once. "I know to whom you refer, Mr. Harley," she said, finally. "But it was I who had made this gentleman's acquaintance. My father did not know him."
"Then I wonder why he mentioned him?" murmured Harley.
"That I cannot imagine. I have been wondering ever since Doctor McMurdoch told me."
"You recognize the person to whom Sir Charles referred?"
"Yes. He could only have meant Ormuz Khan."
"Ormuz Khan--" echoed Harley. "Where have I heard that name?"
"He visits England periodically, I believe. In fact, he has a house somewhere near London. I met him at Lady Vail's."
"Lady Vail's? His excellency moves, then, in diplomatic circles? Odd that I cannot place him."
"I have a vague idea, Mr. Harley, that he is a financier. I seem to have heard that he had something to do with the Imperial Bank of Iran." She glanced naively at Harley. "Is there such a bank?" she asked.
"There is," he replied. "Am I to understand that Ormuz Khan is a Persian?"
"I believe he is a Persian," said Phil Abingdon, rather confusedly. "To be quite frank, I know very little about him."
Paul Harley gazed steadily at the speaker for a moment. "Can you think of any reason why Sir Charles should have worried about this gentleman?" he asked.
The girl lowered her head again. "He paid me a lot of attention," she finally confessed.
"This meeting at Lady Vail's, then, was the first of many?"
"Oh, no--not of many! I saw him two or three times. But he began to send me most extravagant presents. I suppose it was his Oriental way of paying a compliment, but Dad objected."
"Of course he would. He knew his Orient and his Oriental. I assume, Miss Abingdon, that you were in England during the years that your father lived in the East?"
"Yes. I was at school. I have never been in the East."
Paul Harley hesitated. He found himself upon dangerously delicate ground and was temporarily at a loss as to how to proceed. Unexpected aid came from the taciturn Doctor McMurdoch.
"He never breathed a word of this to me, Phil," he said, gloomily. "The impudence of the man! Small wonder Abingdon objected."
Phil Abingdon tilted her chin forward rebelliously.
"Ormuz Khan was merely unfamiliar with English customs," she retorted. "There was nothing otherwise in his behaviour to which any one could have taken exception."
"What's that!" demanded the physician. "If a man of colour paid his heathen attentions to my daughter--"
"But you have no daughter, Doctor."
"No. But if I had--"
"If you had," echoed Phil Abingdon, and was about to carry on this wordy warfare which, Harley divined, was of old standing between the two, when sudden realization of the purpose of the visit came to her. She paused, and he saw her biting her lips desperately. Almost at random he began to speak again.
"So far as you are aware, then, Miss Abingdon, Sir Charles never met Ormuz Khan?"
"He never even saw him, Mr. Harley, that I know of."
"It is most extraordinary that he should have given me the impression that this man--for I can only suppose that he referred to Ormuz Khan--was in some way associated with his fears."
"I must remind you, Mr. Harley," Doctor McMurdoch interrupted, "that poor Abingdon was a free talker. His pride, I take it, which was strong, had kept him silent on this matter with me, but he welcomed an opportunity of easing his mind to one discreet and outside the family circle. His words to you may have had no bearing upon the thing he wished to consult you about."
"H'm," mused Harley. "That's possible. But such was not my impression."
He turned again to Phil Abingdon. "This Ormuz Khan, I understood you to say, actually resides in or near London?"
"He is at present living at the Savoy, I believe. He also has a house somewhere outside London."
There were a hundred other questions Paul Harley was anxious to ask: some that were professional but more that were personal. He found himself resenting the intrusion of this wealthy Oriental into the life of the girl who sat there before him. And because he could read a kindred resentment in the gloomy eye of Doctor McMurdoch, he was drawn spiritually closer to that dour character.
By virtue of his training he was a keen psychologist, and he perceived clearly enough that Phil Abingdon was one of those women in whom a certain latent perversity is fanned to life by opposition. Whether she was really attracted by Ormuz Khan or whether she suffered his attentions merely because she knew them to be distasteful to others, he could not yet decide.
Anger threatened him--as it had threatened him when he had realized that Nicol Brinn meant to remain silent. He combated it, for it had no place in the judicial mind of the investigator. But he recognized its presence with dismay. Where Phil Abingdon was concerned he could not trust himself. In her glance, too, and in the manner of her answers to questions concerning the Oriental, there was a provoking femininity--a deliberate and baffling intrusion of the eternal Eve.
He stared questioningly across at Doctor McMurdoch and perceived a sudden look of anxiety in the physician's face. Quick as the thought which the look inspired, he turned to Phil Abingdon.
She was sitting quite motionless in the big armchair, and her face had grown very pale. Even as he sprang forward he saw her head droop.
"She has fainted," said Doctor McMurdoch. "I'm not surprised."
"Nor I," replied Harley. "She should not have come."
He opened the door communicating with his private apartments and ran out. But, quick as he was, Phil Abingdon had recovered before he returned with the water for which he had gone. Her reassuring smile was somewhat wan. "How perfectly silly of me!" she said. "I shall begin to despise myself."
Presently he went down to the street with his visitors.
"There must be so much more you want to know, Mr. Harley," said Phil Abingdon. "Will you come and see me?"
He promised to do so. His sentiments were so strangely complex that he experienced a desire for solitude in order that he might strive to understand them. As he stood at the door watching the car move toward the Strand he knew that to-day he could not count upon his intuitive powers to warn him of sudden danger. But he keenly examined the faces of passers-by and stared at the occupants of those cabs and cars which were proceeding in the same direction as the late Sir Charles Abingdon's limousine.
No discovery rewarded him, however, and he returned upstairs to his office deep in thought. "I am in to nobody," he said as he passed the desk at which Innes was at work.
"Very good, Mr. Harley."
Paul Harley walked through to the private office and, seating himself at the big, orderly table, reached over to a cupboard beside him and took out a tin of smoking mixture. He began very slowly to load his pipe, gazing abstractedly across the room at the tall Burmese cabinet.
He realized that, excepting the extraordinary behaviour and the veiled but significant statements of Nicol Brinn, his theory that Sir Charles Abingdon had not died from natural causes rested upon data of the most flimsy description. From Phil Abingdon he had learned nothing whatever. Her evidence merely tended to confuse the case more hopelessly.
It was sheer nonsense to suppose that Ormuz Khan, who was evidently interested in the girl, could be in any way concerned in the death of her father. Nevertheless, as an ordinary matter of routine, Paul Harley, having lighted his pipe, made a note on a little block:
Cover activities of Ormuz Khan.
He smoked reflectively for a while and then added another note:
Watch Nicol Brinn.
For ten minutes or more he sat smoking and thinking, his unseeing gaze set upon the gleaming lacquer of the cabinet; and presently, as he smoked, he became aware of an abrupt and momentary chill. His sixth sense was awake again. Taking up a pencil, he added a third note:
Watch yourself. You are in danger.