Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer
Chapter VIII. A Wreath of Hyacinths
Deep in reflection and oblivious of the busy London life around him, Paul Harley walked slowly along the Strand. Outwardly he was still the keen-eyed investigator who could pry more deeply into a mystery than any other in England; but to-day his mood was introspective. He was in a brown study.
The one figure which had power to recall him to the actual world suddenly intruded itself upon his field of vision. From dreams which he recognized in the moment of awakening to have been of Phil Abingdon, he was suddenly aroused to the fact that Phil Abingdon herself was present. Perhaps, half subconsciously, he had been looking for her.
Veiled and dressed in black, he saw her slim figure moving through the throng. He conceived the idea that there was something furtive in her movements. She seemed to be hurrying along as if desirous of avoiding recognition. Every now and again she glanced back, evidently in search of a cab, and a dormant suspicion which had lain in Harley's mind now became animate. Phil Abingdon was coming from the direction of the Savoy Hotel. Was it possible that she had been to visit Ormuz Khan?
Harley crossed the Strand and paused just in front of the hurrying, black-clad figure. "Miss Abingdon," he said, "a sort of instinct told me that I should meet you to-day."
She stopped suddenly, and through the black veil which she wore he saw her eyes grow larger--or such was the effect as she opened them widely. Perhaps he misread their message. To him Phil Abingdon's expression was that of detected guilt. More than ever he was convinced of the truth of his suspicions. "Perhaps you were looking for a cab?" he suggested.
Overcoming her surprise, or whatever emotion had claimed her at the moment of this unexpected meeting, Phil Abingdon took Harley's outstretched hand and held it for a moment before replying. "I had almost despaired of finding one," she said, "and I am late already."
"The porter at the Savoy would get you one."
"I have tried there and got tired of waiting," she answered quite simply.
For a moment Harley's suspicions were almost dispelled, and, observing an empty cab approaching, he signalled to the man to pull up.
"Where do you want to go to?" he inquired, opening the door.
"I am due at Doctor McMurdoch's," she replied, stepping in.
Paul Harley hesitated, glancing from the speaker to the driver.
"I wonder if you have time to come with me," said Phil Abingdon. "I know the doctor wants to see you."
"I will come with pleasure," replied Harley, a statement which was no more than true.
Accordingly he gave the necessary directions to the taxi man and seated himself beside the girl in the cab.
"I am awfully glad of an opportunity of a chat with you, Mr. Harley," said Phil Abingdon. "The last few days have seemed like one long nightmare to me." She sighed pathetically. "Surely Doctor McMurdoch is right, and all the horrible doubts which troubled us were idle ones, after all?"
She turned to Harley, looking almost eagerly into his face. "Poor daddy hadn't an enemy in the world, I am sure," she said. "His extraordinary words to you no doubt have some simple explanation. Oh, it would be such a relief to know that his end was a natural one. At least it would dull the misery of it all a little bit."
The appeal in her eyes was of a kind which Harley found much difficulty in resisting. It would have been happiness to offer consolation to this sorrowing girl. But, although he could not honestly assure her that he had abandoned his theories, he realized that the horror of her suspicions was having a dreadful effect upon Phil Abingdon's mind.
"You may quite possibly be right," he said, gently. "In any event, I hope you will think as little as possible about the morbid side of this unhappy business."
"I try to," she assured him, earnestly, "but you can imagine how hard the task is. I know that you must have some good reason for your idea; something, I mean, other than the mere words which have puzzled us all so much. Won't you tell me?"
Now, Paul Harley had determined, since the girl was unacquainted with Nicol Brinn, to conceal from her all that he had learned from that extraordinary man. In this determination he had been actuated, too, by the promptings of the note of danger which, once seemingly attuned to the movements of Sir Charles Abingdon, had, after the surgeon's death, apparently become centred upon himself and upon Nicol Brinn. He dreaded the thought that the cloud might stretch out over the life of this girl who sat beside him and whom he felt so urgently called upon to protect from such a menace.
The cloud? What was this cloud, whence did it emanate, and by whom had it been called into being? He looked into the violet eyes, and as a while before he had moved alone through the wilderness of London now he seemed to be alone with Phil Abingdon on the border of a spirit world which had no existence for the multitudes around. Psychically, he was very close to her at that moment; and when he replied he replied evasively: "I have absolutely no scrap of evidence, Miss Abingdon, pointing to foul play. The circumstances were peculiar, of course, but I have every confidence in Doctor McMurdoch's efficiency. Since he is satisfied, it would be mere imppertinence on my part to question his verdict."
Phil Abingdon repeated the weary sigh and turned her head aside, glancing down to where with one small shoe she was restlessly tapping the floor of the cab. They were both silent for some moments.
"Don't you trust me?" she asked, suddenly. "Or don't you think I am clever enough to share your confidence?"
As she spoke she looked at him challengingly, and he felt all the force of personality which underlay her outward lightness of manner.
"I both trust you and respect your intelligence," he answered, quietly. "If I withhold anything from you, I am prompted by a very different motive from the one you suggest."
"Then you are keeping something from me," she said, softly. "I knew you were."
"Miss Abingdon," replied Harley, "when the worst trials of this affair are over, I want to have a long talk with you. Until then, won't you believe that I am acting for the best?"
But Phil Abingdon's glance was unrelenting.
"In your opinion it may be so, but you won't do me the honour of consulting mine."
Harley had half anticipated this attitude, but had hoped that she would not adopt it. She possessed in a high degree the feminine art of provoking a quarrel. But he found much consolation in the fact that she had thus shifted the discussion from the abstract to the personal. He smiled slightly, and Phil Abingdon's expression relaxed in response and she lowered her eyes quickly. "Why do you persistently treat me like a child?" she said.
"I don't know," replied Harley, delighted but bewildered by her sudden change of mood. "Perhaps because I want to."
She did not answer him, but stared abstractedly out of the cab window; and Harley did not break this silence, much as he would have liked to do so. He was mentally reviewing his labours of the preceding day when, in the character of a Colonial visitor with much time on his hands, he had haunted the Savoy for hours in the hope of obtaining a glimpse of Ormuz Khan. His vigil had been fruitless, and on returning by a roundabout route to his office he had bitterly charged himself with wasting valuable time upon a side issue. Yet when, later, he had sat in his study endeavouring to arrange his ideas in order, he had discovered many points in his own defence.
If his ineffective surveillance of Ormuz Khan had been dictated by interest in Phil Abingdon rather than by strictly professional motives, it was, nevertheless, an ordinary part of the conduct of such a case. But while he had personally undertaken the matter of his excellency he had left the work of studying the activities of Nicol Brinn to an assistant. He could not succeed in convincing himself that, on the evidence available, the movements of the Oriental gentleman were more important than those of the American.
"Here we are," said Phil Abingdon.
She alighted, and Harley dismissed the caLman and followed the girl into Doctor McMurdoch's house. Here he made the acquaintance of Mrs. McMurdoch, who, as experience had taught him to anticipate, was as plump and merry and vivacious as her husband was lean, gloomy, and taciturn. But she was a perfect well of sympathy, as her treatment of the bereaved girl showed. She took her in her arms and hugged her in a way that was good to see.
"We were waiting for you, dear," she said when the formality of presenting Harley was over. "Are you quite sure that you want to go?"
Phil Abingdon nodded pathetically. She had raised her veil, and Harley could see that her eyes were full of tears. "I should like to see the flowers," she answered.
She was staying at the McMurdoch's house, and as the object at present in view was that of a visit to her old home, from which the funeral of Sir Charles Abingdon was to take place on the morrow, Harley became suddenly conscious of the fact that his presence was inopportune.
"I believe you want to see me, Doctor McMurdoch," he said, turning to the dour physician. "Shall I await your return or do you expect to be detained?"
But Phil Abingdon had her own views on the matter. She stepped up beside him and linked her arm in his.
"Please come with me, Mr. Harley," she pleaded. "I want you to."
As a result he found himself a few minutes later entering the hall of the late Sir Charles's house. The gloved hand resting on his arm trembled, but when he looked down solicitously into Phil Abingdon's face she smiled bravely, and momentarily her clasp tightened as if to reassure him.
It seemed quite natural that she should derive comfort from the presence of this comparative stranger; and neither of the two, as they stood there looking at the tributes to the memory of the late Sir Charles--which overflowed from a neighbouring room into the lobby and were even piled upon the library table--were conscious of any strangeness in the situation.
The first thing that had struck Harley on entering the house had been an overpowering perfume of hyacinths. Now he saw whence it arose; for, conspicuous amid the wreaths and crosses, was an enormous device formed of hyacinths. Its proportions dwarfed those of all the others.
Mrs. Howett, the housekeeper, a sad-eyed little figure, appeared now from behind the bank of flowers. Her grief could not rob her of that Old World manner which was hers, and she saluted the visitors with a bow which promised to develop into a curtsey. Noting the direction of Phil Abingdon's glance, which was set upon a card attached to the wreath of hyacinths: "It was the first to arrive, Miss Phil," she said. "Isn't it beautiful?"
"It's wonderful," said the girl, moving forward and drawing Harley along with her. She glanced from the card up to his face, which was set in a rather grim expression.
"Ormuz Khan has been so good," she said. "He sent his secretary to see if he could be of any assistance yesterday, but I certainly had not expected this."
Her eyes filled with tears again, and, because he thought they were tears of gratitude, Harley clenched his hand tightly so that the muscles of his forearm became taut to Phil Abingdon's touch. She looked up at him, smiling pathetically: "Don't you think it was awfully kind of him?" she asked.
"Very," replied Harley.
A dry and sepulchral cough of approval came from Doctor McMurdoch; and Harley divined with joy that when the ordeal of the next day was over Phil Abingdon would have to face cross-examination by the conscientious Scotsman respecting this stranger whose attentions, if Orientally extravagant, were instinct with such generous sympathy.
For some reason the heavy perfume of the hyacinths affected him unpleasantly. All his old doubts and suspicions found a new life, so that his share in the conversation which presently arose became confined to a few laconic answers to direct questions.
He was angry, and his anger was more than half directed against himself, because he knew that he had no shadow of right to question this girl about her friendships or even to advise her. He determined, however, even at the cost of incurring a rebuke, to urge Doctor McMurdoch to employ all the influence he possessed to terminate an acquaintanceship which could not be otherwise than undesirable, if it was not actually dangerous.
When, presently, the party returned to the neighbouring house of the physician, however, Harley's plans in this respect were destroyed by the action of Doctor McMurdoch, in whose composition tact was not a predominant factor. Almost before they were seated in the doctor's drawing room he voiced his disapproval. "Phil," he said, ignoring a silent appeal from his wife, "this is, mayhap, no time to speak of the matter, but I'm not glad to see the hyacinths."
Phil Abingdon's chin quivered rebelliously, and, to Harley's dismay, it was upon him that she fixed her gaze in replying. "Perhaps you also disapprove of his excellency's kindness?" she said, indignantly.
Harley found himself temporarily at a loss for words. She was perfectly well aware that he disapproved, and now was taking a cruel pleasure in reminding him of the fact that he was not entitled to do so. Had he been capable of that calm analysis to which ordinarily he submitted all psychological problems, he must have found matter for rejoicing in this desire of the girl's to hurt him. "I am afraid, Miss Abingdon," he replied, quietly, "that the matter is not one in which I am entitled to express my opinion."
She continued to look at him challengingly, but:
"Quite right, Mr. Harley," said Doctor McMurdoch, "but if you were, your opinion would be the same as mine."
Mrs. McMurdoch's glance became positively beseeching, but the physician ignored it. "As your father's oldest friend," he continued, "I feel called upon to remark that it isn't usual for strangers to thrust their attentions upon a bereaved family."
"Oh," said Phil Abingdon with animation, "do I understand that this is also your opinion, Mr. Harley?"
"As a man of the world," declared Doctor McMurdoch, gloomily, "it cannot fail to be."
Tardily enough he now succumbed to the silent entreaties of his wife. "I will speak of this later," he concluded. "Mayhap I should not have spoken now."
Tears began to trickle down Phil Abingdon's cheeks.
"Oh, my dear, my dear!" cried little Mrs. McMurdoch, running to her side.
But the girl sprang up, escaping from the encircling arm of the motherly old lady. She shook her head disdainfully, as if to banish tears and weakness, and glanced rapidly around from face to face. "I think you are all perfectly cruel and horrible," she said in a choking voice, turned, and ran out.
A distant door banged.
"H'm," muttered Doctor McMurdoch, "I've put my foot in it."
His wife looked at him in speechless indignation and then followed Phil Abingdon from the room.