By Sax Rohmer
I. A CLIENT FOR PAUL HARLEY II. THE SIXTH SENSE III. SHADOWS IV. INTRODUCING MR. NICOL BRINN V. "THE GATES OF HELL" VI. PHIL ABINGDON ARRIVES VII. CONFESSIONS VIII. A WREATH OF HYACINTHS IX. TWO REPORTS X. HIS EXCELLENCY ORMUZ KHAN XI. THE PURPLE STAIN XII. THE VEIL IS RAISED XIII. NICOL BRINN HAS A VISITOR XIV. WESSEX GETS BUSY XV. NAIDA XVI. NICOL BRINN GOES OUT XVII. WHAT HAPPENED TO HARLEY XVIII. WHAT HAPPENED TO HARLEY (continued) XIX. WHAT HAPPENED TO HARLEY (concluded) XX. CONFLICTING CLUES XXI. THE SEVENTH KAMA XXII. FIRE-TONGUE SPEAKS XXIII. PHIL ABINGDON'S VISITOR XXIV. THE SCREEN OF GOLD XXV. AN ENGLISHMAN'S HONOUR XXVI. THE ORCHID OF SLEEP XXVII. AT HILLSIDE XXVIII.THE CHASE XXIX. THE CATASTROPHE XXX. NICOL BRINN'S STORY OF THE CITY OF FIRE XXXI. STORY OF THE CITY OF FIRE (continued) XXXII. STORY OF THE CITY OF FIRE (continued) XXXIII.STORY OF THE CITY OF FIRE (continued) XXXIV. NICOL BRINN'S STORY (concluded)
CHAPTER I. A CLIENT FOR PAUL HARLEY
Some of Paul Harley's most interesting cases were brought to his notice in an almost accidental way. Although he closed his office in Chancery Lane sharply at the hour of six, the hour of six by no means marked the end of his business day. His work was practically ceaseless. But even in times of leisure, at the club or theatre, fate would sometimes cast in his path the first slender thread which was ultimately to lead him into some unsuspected labyrinth, perhaps in the underworld of London, perhaps in a city of the Far East.
His investigation of the case of the man with the shaven skull afforded an instance of this, and even more notable was his first meeting with Major Jack Ragstaff of the Cavalry Club, a meeting which took place after the office had been closed, but which led to the unmasking of perhaps the most cunning murderer in the annals of crime.
One summer's evening when the little clock upon his table was rapidly approaching the much-desired hour, Harley lay back in his chair and stared meditatively across his private office in the direction of a large and very handsome Burmese cabinet, which seemed strangely out of place amid the filing drawers, bookshelves, and other usual impedimenta of a professional man. A peculiarly uninteresting week was drawing to a close, and he was wondering if this betokened a decreased activity in the higher criminal circles, or whether it was merely one of those usual quiescent periods which characterize every form of warfare.
Paul Harley, although the fact was unknown to the general public, occupied something of the position of an unofficial field marshal of the forces arrayed against evildoers. Throughout the war he had undertaken confidential work of the highest importance, especially in regard to the Near East, with which he was intimately acquainted. A member of the English bar, and the last court of appeal to which Home Office and Foreign Office alike came in troubled times, the brass plate upon the door of his unassuming premises in Chancery Lane conveyed little or nothing to the uninitiated.
The man himself, with his tropical bronze and air of eager vitality, must have told the most careless observer that he stood in the presence of an extraordinary personality. He was slightly gray at the temples in these days, but young in mind and body, physically fit, and possessed of an intellectual keenness which had forced recognition from two hemispheres. His office was part of an old city residence, and his chambers adjoined his workroom, so that now, noting that his table clock registered the hour of six, he pressed a bell which summoned Innes, his confidential secretary.
"Well, Innes," said Harley, looking around, "another uneventful day."
"Very uneventful, Mr. Harley. About a month of this and you will have to resume practice at the bar."
Paul Harley laughed.
"Not a bit likely, Innes," he replied. "No more briefs for me. I shall retire to Norfolk and devote my declining years to fishing."
"I don't know that fishing would entirely satisfy me," said Innes.
"It would more than satisfy me," returned Harley. "But every man to his own ambition. Well, there is no occasion to wait; you might as well get along. But what's that you've got in your hand?"
"Well," replied Innes, laying a card upon the table, "I was just coming in with it when you rang."
Paul Harley glanced at the card.
"Sir Charles Abingdon," he read aloud, staring reflectively at his secretary. "That is the osteologist?"
"Yes," answered Innes, "but I fancy he has retired from practice."
"Ah," murmured Harley, "I wonder what he wants. I suppose I had better see him, as I fancy that he and I met casually some years ago in India. Ask him to come in, will you?"
Innes retiring, there presently entered a distinguished-looking, elderly gentleman upon whose florid face rested an expression not unlike that of embarrassment.
"Mr. Harley," he began, "I feel somewhat ill at ease in encroaching upon your time, for I am by no means sure that my case comes within your particular province."
"Sit down, Sir Charles," said Harley with quiet geniality. "Officially, my working day is ended; but if nothing comes of your visit beyond a chat it will have been very welcome. Calcutta, was it not, where we last met?"
"It was," replied Sir Charles, placing his hat and cane upon the table and sitting down rather wearily in a big leather armchair which Harley had pushed forward. "If I presume upon so slight an acquaintance, I am sorry, but I must confess that only the fact of having met you socially encouraged me to make this visit."
He raised his eyes to Harley's face and gazed at him with that peculiarly searching look which belongs to members of his profession; but mingled with it was an expression of almost pathetic appeal, of appeal for understanding, for sympathy of some kind.
"Go on, Sir Charles," said Harley. He pushed forward a box of cigars. "Will you smoke?"
"Thanks, no," was the answer.
Sir Charles evidently was oppressed by some secret trouble, thus Harley mused silently, as, taking out a tin of tobacco from a cabinet beside him, he began in leisurely manner to load a briar. In this he desired to convey that he treated the visit as that of a friend, and also, since business was over, that Sir Charles might without scruple speak at length and at leisure of whatever matters had brought him there.
"Very well, then," began the surgeon; "I am painfully conscious that the facts which I am in a position to lay before you are very scanty and unsatisfactory."
Paul Harley nodded encouragingly.
"If this were not so," he explained, "you would have no occasion to apply to me, Sir Charles. It is my business to look for facts. Naturally, I do not expect my clients to supply them."
Sir Charles slowly nodded his head, and seemed in some measure to recover confidence.
"Briefly, then," he said, "I believe my life is in danger."
"You mean that there is someone who desires your death?"
"H'm," said Harley, replacing the tin in the cupboard and striking a match. "Even if the facts are scanty, no doubt you have fairly substantial grounds for such a suspicion?"
"I cannot say that they are substantial, Mr. Harley. They are rather more circumstantial. Frankly, I have forced myself to come here, and now that I have intruded upon your privacy, I realize my difficulties more keenly than ever."
The expression of embarrassment upon the speaker's face had grown intense; and now he paused, bending forward in his chair. He seemed in his glance to appeal for patience on the part of his hearer, and Harley, lighting his pipe, nodded in understanding fashion. He was the last man in the world to jump to conclusions. He had learned by bitter experience that lightly to dismiss such cases as this of Sir Charles as coming within the province of delusion, was sometimes tantamount to refusing aid to a man in deadly peril.
"You are naturally anxious for the particulars," Sir Charles presently resumed. "They bear, I regret to say, a close resemblance to the symptoms of a well-known form of hallucination. In short, with one exception, they may practically all be classed under the head of surveillance."
"Surveillance," said Paul Harley. "You mean that you are more or less constantly followed?"
"And what is your impression of this follower?"
"A very hazy one. To-night, as I came to your office, I have every reason to believe that someone followed me in a taxicab."
"You came in a car?"
"And a cab followed you the whole way?"
"Practically the whole way, except that as my chauffeur turned into Chancery Lane, the cab stopped at the corner of Fleet Street."
"Your idea is that your pursuer followed on foot from this point?"
"Such was my impression."
"H'm, quite impossible. And is this sort of thing constant, Sir Charles?"
"It has been for some time past."
"One very notable thing, Mr. Harley. I was actually assaulted less than a week ago within sight of my own house."
"Indeed! Tell me of this." Paul Harley became aware of an awakening curiosity. Sir Charles Abingdon was not the type of man who is lightly intimidated.
"I had been to visit a friend in the neighbourhood," Sir Charles continued, "whom I am at present attending professionally, although I am actually retired. I was returning across the square, close to midnight, when, fortunately for myself, I detected the sound of light, pattering footsteps immediately behind me. The place was quite deserted at that hour, and although I was so near home, the worst would have happened, I fear, if my sense of hearing had been less acute. I turned in the very instant that a man was about to spring upon me from behind. He was holding in his hand what looked like a large silk handkerchief. This encounter took place in the shadow of some trees, and beyond the fact that my assailant was a small man, I could form no impression of his identity."
"What did you do?"
"I turned and struck out with my stick."
"Then he made no attempt to contest the issue, but simply ran swiftly off, always keeping in the shadows of the trees."
"Very strange," murmured Harley. "Do you think he had meant to drug you?"
"Maybe," replied Sir Charles. "The handkerchief was perhaps saturated with some drug, or he may even have designed to attempt to strangle me."
"And you formed absolutely no impression of the man?"
"None whatever, Mr. Harley. When you see the spot at which the encounter took place, if you care to do so, you will recognize the difficulties. It is perfectly dark there after nightfall."
"H'm," mused Harley. "A very alarming occurrence, Sir Charles. It must have shaken you very badly. But we must not overlook the possibility that this may have been an ordinary footpad."
"His methods were scarcely those of a footpad," murmured Sir Charles.
"I quite agree," said Harley. "They were rather Oriental, if I may say so."
Sir Charles Abingdon started. "Oriental!" he whispered. "Yes, you are right."
"Does this suggest a train of thought?" prompted Harley.
Sir Charles Abingdon cleared his throat nervously. "It does, Mr. Harley," he admitted, "but a very confusing train of thought. It leads me to a point which I must mention, but which concerns a very well-known man. Before I proceed I should like to make it clear that I do not believe for a moment that he is responsible for this unpleasant business."
Harley stared at him curiously. "Nevertheless," he said, "there must be some data in your possession which suggest to your mind that he has some connection with it."
"There are, Mr. Harley, and I should be deeply indebted if you could visit my house this evening, when I could place this evidence, if evidence it may be called, before you. I find myself in so delicate a position. If you are free I should welcome your company at dinner."
Paul Harley seemed to be reflecting.
"Of course, Sir Charles," he said, presently, "your statement is very interesting and curious, and I shall naturally make a point of going fully into the matter. But before proceeding further there are two questions I should like to ask you. The first is this: What is the name of the 'well-known' man to whom you refer? And the second: If not he then whom do you suspect of being behind all this?"
"The one matter is so hopelessly involved in the other," he finally replied, "that although I came here prepared as I thought with a full statement of the case, I should welcome a further opportunity of rearranging the facts before imparting them to you. One thing, however, I have omitted to mention. It is, perhaps, of paramount importance. There was a robbery at my house less than a week ago."
"What! A robbery! Tell me: what was stolen?"
"Nothing of the slightest value, Mr. Harley, to any one but myself—or so I should have supposed." The speaker coughed nervously. "The thief had gained admittance to my private study, where there are several cases of Oriental jewellery and a number of pieces of valuable gold and silverware, all antique. At what hour he came, how he gained admittance, and how he retired, I cannot imagine. All the doors were locked as usual in the morning and nothing was disturbed."
"I don't understand, then."
"I chanced to have occasion to open my bureau which I invariably keep locked. Immediately—immediately—I perceived that my papers were disarranged. Close examination revealed the fact that a short manuscript in my own hand, which had been placed in one of the pigeonholes, was missing."
"A manuscript," murmured Harley. "Upon a technical subject?"
"Scarcely a technical subject, Mr. Harley. It was a brief account which I had vaguely contemplated publishing in one of the reviews, a brief account of a very extraordinary patient whom I once attended."
"And had you written it recently?"
"No; some years ago. But I had recently added to it. I may say that it was my purpose still further to add to it, and with this object I had actually unlocked the bureau."
"New facts respecting this patient had come into your possession?"
"Before the date of the attack upon you?"
"Before that date, yes."
"And before surveillance of your movements began?"
"I believe so."
"May I suggest that your patient and the 'well-known man' to whom you referred are one and the same?"
"It is not so, Mr. Harley," returned Sir Charles in a tired voice. "Nothing so simple. I realize more than ever that I must arrange my facts in some sort of historical order. Therefore I ask you again: will you dine with me to-night?"
"With pleasure," replied Harley, promptly. "I have no other engagement."
That his ready acceptance had immensely relieved the troubled mind of Sir Charles was evident enough. His visitor stood up. "I am not prone to sickly fancies, Mr. Harley," he said. "But a conviction has been growing upon me for some time that I have incurred, how I cannot imagine, but that nevertheless I have incurred powerful enmity. I trust our evening's counsel may enable you, with your highly specialized faculties, to detect an explanation."
And it was instructive to note how fluently he spoke now that he found himself temporarily relieved of the necessity of confessing the source of his mysterious fears.
CHAPTER II. THE SIXTH SENSE
Paul Harley stepped into his car in Chancery Lane. "Drive in the direction of Hyde Park Corner," he directed the chauffeur. "Go along the Strand."
Glancing neither right nor left, he entered the car, and presently they were proceeding slowly with the stream of traffic in the Strand. "Pull up at the Savoy," he said suddenly through the tube.
The car slowed down in that little bay which contains the entrance to the hotel, and Harley stared fixedly out of the rear window, observing the occupants of all other cars and cabs which were following. For three minutes or more he remained there watching. "Go on," he directed.
Again they proceeded westward and, half-way along Piccadilly, "Stop at the Ritz," came the order.
The car pulled up before the colonnade and Harley, stepping out, dismissed the man and entered the hotel, walked through to the side entrance, and directed a porter to get him a taxicab. In this he proceeded to the house of Sir Charles Abingdon. He had been seeking to learn whether he was followed, but in none of the faces he had scrutinized had he detected any interest in himself, so that his idea that whoever was watching Sir Charles in all probability would have transferred attention to himself remained no more than an idea. For all he had gained by his tactics, Sir Charles's theory might be no more than a delusion after all.
The house of Sir Charles Abingdon was one of those small, discreet establishments, the very neatness of whose appointments inspires respect for the occupant. If anything had occurred during the journey to suggest to Harley that Sir Charles was indeed under observation by a hidden enemy, the suave British security and prosperity of his residence must have destroyed the impression.
As the cab was driven away around the corner, Harley paused for a moment, glancing about him to right and left and up at the neatly curtained windows. In the interval which had elapsed since Sir Charles's departure from his office, he had had leisure to survey the outstanding features of the story, and, discounting in his absence the pathetic sincerity of the narrator, he had formed the opinion that there was nothing in the account which was not susceptible of an ordinary prosaic explanation.
Sir Charles's hesitancy in regard to two of the questions asked had contained a hint that they might involve intimate personal matters, and Harley was prepared to learn that the source of the distinguished surgeon's dread lay in some unrevealed episode of the past. Beyond the fact that Sir Charles was a widower, he knew little or nothing of his private life; and he was far too experienced an investigator to formulate theories until all the facts were in his possession. Therefore it was with keen interest that he looked forward to the interview.
Familiarity with crime, in its many complexions, East and West, had developed in Paul Harley a sort of sixth sense. It was an evasive, fickle thing, but was nevertheless the attribute which had made him an investigator of genius. Often enough it failed him entirely. It had failed him to-night—or else no one had followed him from Chancery Lane.
It had failed him earlier in the evening when, secretly, he had watched from the office window Sir Charles's car proceeding toward the Strand. That odd, sudden chill, as of an abrupt lowering of the temperature, which often advised him of the nearness of malignant activity, had not been experienced.
Now, standing before Sir Charles's house, he "sensed" the atmosphere keenly—seeking for the note of danger.
There had been a thunder shower just before he had set out, and now, although rain had ceased, the sky remained blackly overcast and a curious, dull stillness was come. The air had a welcome freshness and the glistening pavements looked delightfully cool after the parching heat of the day. In the quiet square, no doubt, it was always restful in contrast with the more busy highroads, and in the murmur of distant traffic he found something very soothing. About him then were peace, prosperity, and security.
Yet, as he stood there, waiting—it came to him: the note of danger. Swiftly he looked to right and left, trying to penetrate the premature dusk. The whole complexion of the matter changed. Some menace intangible now, but which at any moment might become evident—lay near him. It was sheer intuition, no doubt, but it convinced him.
A moment later he had rung the bell; and as a man opened the door, showing a easy and well-lighted lobby within, the fear aura no longer touched Paul Harley. Out from the doorway came hominess and that air of security and peace which had seemed to characterize the house when viewed from outside. The focus of menace, therefore, lay not inside the house of Sir Charles but without. It was very curious. In the next instant came a possible explanation.
"Mr. Paul Harley?" said the butler tentatively.
"Yes, I am he."
"Sir Charles is expecting you, sir. He apologizes for not being in to receive you, but he will only be absent a few minutes."
"Sir Charles has been called out?" inquired Harley as he handed hat and coat to the man.
"Yes, sir. He is attending Mr. Chester Wilson on the other side of the square, and Mr. Wilson's man rang up a few moments ago requesting Sir Charles to step across."
"I see," murmured Harley, as the butler showed him into a small but well-filled library on the left of the lobby.
Refreshments were set invitingly upon a table beside a deep lounge chair. But Harley declined the man's request to refresh himself while waiting and began aimlessly to wander about the room, apparently studying the titles of the works crowding the bookshelves. As a matter of fact, he was endeavouring to arrange certain ideas in order, and if he had been questioned on the subject it is improbable that he could have mentioned the title of one book in the library.
His mental equipment was of a character too rarely met with in the profession to which he belonged. While up to the very moment of reaching Sir Charles's house he had doubted the reality of the menace which hung over this man, the note of danger which he had sensed at the very threshold had convinced him, where more ordinary circumstantial evidence might have left him in doubt.
It was perhaps pure imagination, but experience had taught him that it was closely allied to clairvoyance.
Now upon his musing there suddenly intruded sounds of a muffled altercation. That is to say, the speakers, who were evidently in the lobby beyond the library door, spoke in low tones, perhaps in deference to the presence of a visitor. Harley was only mildly interested, but the voices had broken his train of thought, and when presently the door opened to admit a very neat but rather grim-looking old lady he started, then looked across at her with a smile.
Some of the grimness faded from the wrinkled old face, and the housekeeper, for this her appearance proclaimed her to be, bowed in a queer Victorian fashion which suggested that a curtsy might follow. One did not follow, however. "I am sure I apologize, sir," she said. "Benson did not tell me you had arrived."
"That's quite all right," said Harley, genially.
His smile held a hint of amusement, for in the comprehensive glance which the old lady cast across the library, a glance keen to detect disorder and from which no speck of dust could hope to conceal itself, there remained a trace of that grimness which he had detected at the moment of her entrance. In short, she was still bristling from a recent encounter. So much so that detecting something sympathetic in Harley's smile she availed herself of the presence of a badly arranged vase of flowers to linger and to air her grievances.
"Servants in these times," she informed him, her fingers busily rearranging the blooms, "are not what servants were in my young days."
"Unfortunately, that is so," Harley agreed.
The old lady tossed her head. "I do my best," she continued, "but that girl would not have stayed in the house for one week if I had had my way. Miss Phil is altogether too soft-hearted. Thank goodness, she goes to-morrow, though."
"You don't refer to Miss Phil?" said Harley, intentionally misunderstanding.
"Gracious goodness, no!" exclaimed the housekeeper, and laughed with simple glee at the joke. "I mean Jones, the new parlourmaid. When I say new, they are all new, for none of them stay longer than three months."
"Indeed," smiled Harley, who perceived that the old lady was something of a martinet.
"Indeed, they don't. Think they are ladies nowadays. Four hours off has that girl had to-day, although she was out on Wednesday. Then she has the impudence to allow someone to ring her up here at the house; and finally I discover her upsetting the table after Benson had laid it and after I had rearranged it."
She glanced indignantly in the direction of the lobby. "Perhaps one day," she concluded, pathetically, as she walked slowly from the room, "we shall find a parlourmaid who is a parlourmaid. Good evening, sir."
"Good evening," said Harley, quietly amused to be made the recipient of these domestic confidences.
He continued to smile for some time after the door had been closed. His former train of ideas was utterly destroyed, but for this he was not ungrateful to the housekeeper, since the outstanding disadvantage of that strange gift resembling prescience was that it sometimes blunted the purely analytical part of his mind when this should have been at its keenest. He was now prepared to listen to what Sir Charles had to say and to judge impartially of its evidential value.
Wandering from side to side of the library, he presently found himself standing still before the mantelpiece and studying a photograph in a silver frame which occupied the centre of the shelf. It was the photograph of an unusually pretty girl; that is to say, of a girl whose beauty was undeniable, but who belonged to a type widely removed from that of the ordinary good-looking Englishwoman.
The outline of her face was soft and charming, and there was a questioning look in her eyes which was alluring and challenging. Her naive expression was palpably a pose, and her slightly parted lips promised laughter. She possessed delightfully wavy hair and her neck and one shoulder, which were bare, had a Grecian purity. Harley discovered himself to be smiling at the naive lady of the photograph.
"Presumably 'Miss Phil'," he said aloud.
He removed his gaze with reluctance from the fascinating picture, and dropping into the big lounge chair, he lighted a cigarette. He had just placed the match in an ash tray when he heard Sir Charles's voice in the lobby, and a moment later Sir Charles himself came hurrying into the library. His expression was so peculiar that Harley started up immediately, perceiving that something unusual had happened.
"My dear Mr. Harley," began Sir Charles, "in the first place pray accept my apologies—"
"None are necessary," Harley interrupted. "Your excellent housekeeper has entertained me vastly."
"Good, good," muttered Sir Charles. "I am obliged to Mrs. Howett," and it was plainly to be seen that his thoughts were elsewhere. "But I have to relate a most inexplicable occurrence—inexplicable unless by some divine accident the plan has been prevented from maturing."
"What do you mean, Sir Charles?"
"I was called ten minutes ago by someone purporting to be the servant of Mr. Chester Wilson, that friend and neighbour whom I have been attending."
"So your butler informed me."
"My dear sir," cried Sir Charles, and the expression in his eyes grew almost wild, "no one in Wilson's house knew anything about the matter!"
"What! It was a ruse?"
"Palpably a ruse to get me away from home."
Harley dropped his cigarette into the ash tray beside the match, where, smouldering, it sent up a gray spiral into the air of the library. Whether because of his words or because of the presence of the man himself, the warning, intuitive finger had again touched Paul Harley. "You saw or heard nothing on your way across the square to suggest that any one having designs on your safety was watching you?"
"Nothing. I searched the shadows most particularly on my return journey, of course. For the thing cannot have been purposeless."
"I quite agree with you," said Paul Harley, quietly.
Between the promptings of that uncanny sixth sense of his and the working of the trained deductive reasoning powers, he was momentarily at a loss. Some fact, some episode, a memory, was clamouring for recognition, while the intuitive, subconscious voice whispered: "This man is in danger; protect him." What was the meaning of it all? He felt that a clue lay somewhere outside the reach of his intelligence, and a sort of anger possessed him because of his impotence to grasp it.
Sir Charles was staring at him in that curiously pathetic way which he had observed at their earlier interview in Chancery Lane. "In any event," said his host, "let us dine: for already I have kept you waiting."
Harley merely bowed, and walking out of the library, entered the cosy dining room. A dreadful premonition had claimed him as his glance had met that of Sir Charles—a premonition that this man's days were numbered. It was uncanny, unnerving; and whereas, at first, the atmosphere of Sir Charles Abingdon's home had been laden with prosperous security, now from every side, and even penetrating to the warmly lighted dining room, came that chilling note of danger.
In crossing the lobby he had not failed to note that there were many Indian curios in the place which could not well have failed to attract the attention of a burglar. But that the person who had penetrated to the house was no common burglar he was now assured and he required no further evidence upon this point.
As he took his seat at the dining table he observed that Sir Charles's collection had overflowed even into this room. In the warm shadows about him were pictures and ornaments, all of which came from, or had been inspired by, the Far East.
In this Oriental environment lay an inspiration. The terror which had come into Sir Charles's life, the invisible menace which, swordlike, hung over him, surely belonged in its eerie quality to the land of temple bells, of silent, subtle peoples, to the secret land which has bred so many mysteries. Yes, he must look into the past, into the Indian life of Sir Charles Abingdon, for the birth of this thing which now had grown into a shadow almost tangible.
Benson attended at table, assisted by a dark-faced and very surly-looking maid, in whom Harley thought he recognized the housekeeper's bete noire.
When presently both servants had temporarily retired. "You see, Mr. Harley," began Sir Charles, glancing about his own room in a manner almost furtive, "I realized to-day at your office that the history of this dread which has come upon me perhaps went back so far that it was almost impossible to acquaint you with it under the circumstances."
"I quite understand."
"I think perhaps I should inform you in the first place that I have a daughter. Her mother has been dead for many years, and perhaps I have not given her the attention which a motherless girl is entitled to expect from her father. I don't mean," he said, hastily, "that we are in any sense out of sympathy, but latterly in some way I must confess that we have got a little out of touch." He glanced anxiously at his guest, indeed almost apologetically. "You will of course understand, Mr. Harley, that this seeming preamble may prove to have a direct bearing upon what I propose to tell you?"
"Pray tell the story in your own way, Sir Charles," said Harley with sympathy. "I am all attention, and I shall only interrupt you in the event of any point not being quite clear."
"Thank you," said Sir Charles. "I find it so much easier to explain the matter now. To continue, there is a certain distinguished Oriental gentleman—"
He paused as Benson appeared to remove the soup plates.
"It is always delightful to chat with one who knows India so well as you do," he continued, glancing significantly at his guest.
Paul Harley, who fully appreciated the purpose of this abrupt change in the conversation, nodded in agreement. "The call of the East," he replied, "is a very real thing. Only one who has heard it can understand and appreciate all it means."
The butler, an excellently trained servant, went about his work with quiet efficiency, and once Harley heard him mutter rapid instructions to the surly parlourmaid, who hovered disdainfully in the background. When again host and guest found themselves alone: "I don't in any way distrust the servants," explained Sir Charles, "but one cannot hope to prevent gossip." He raised his serviette to his lips and almost immediately resumed: "I was about to tell you, Mr. Harley, about my daughter's—"
He paused and cleared his throat, then, hastily pouring out a glass of water, he drank a sip or two and Paul Harley noticed that his hand was shaking nervously. He thought of the photograph in the library, and now, in this reference to a distinguished Oriental gentleman, he suddenly perceived the possible drift of the conversation.
This was the point to which Sir Charles evidently experienced such difficulty in coming. It was something which concerned his daughter; and, mentally visualizing the pure oval face and taunting eyes of the library photograph, Harley found it impossible to believe that the evil which threatened Sir Charles could possibly be associated in any way with Phyllis Abingdon.
Yet, if the revelation which he had to make must be held responsible for his present condition, then truly it was a dreadful one. No longer able to conceal his concern, Harley stood up. "If the story distresses you so keenly, Sir Charles," he said, "I beg—"
Sir Charles waved his hand reassuringly. "A mere nothing. It will pass," he whispered.
"But I fear," continued Harley, "that—"
He ceased abruptly, and ran to his host's assistance, for the latter, evidently enough, was in the throes of some sudden illness or seizure. His fresh-coloured face was growing positively livid, and he plucked at the edge of the table with twitching fingers. As Harley reached his side he made a sudden effort to stand up, throwing out his arm to grasp the other's shoulder.
"Benson!" cried Harley, loudly. "Quick! Your master is ill!"
There came a sound of swift footsteps and the door was thrown open.
"Too late," whispered Sir Charles in a choking voice. He began to clutch his throat as Benson hurried into the room.
"My God!" whispered Harley. "He is dying!"
Indeed, the truth was all too apparent. Sir Charles Abingdon was almost past speech. He was glaring across the table as though he saw some ghastly apparition there. And now with appalling suddenness he became as a dead weight in Harley's supporting grasp. Raspingly, as if forced in agony from his lips:
"Fire-Tongue," he said... "Nicol Brinn..."
Benson, white and terror-stricken, bent over him.
"Sir Charles!" he kept muttering. "Sir Charles! What is the matter, sir?"
A stifled shriek sounded from the doorway, and in tottered Mrs. Howett, the old housekeeper, with other servants peering over her shoulder into that warmly lighted dining room where Sir Charles Abingdon lay huddled in his own chair—dead.
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 unsuspected 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 now? Harley 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 McMurdoch, 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.
CHAPTER IV. INTRODUCING MR. NICOL BRINN
At about nine o'clock on the same evening, a man stood at a large window which overlooked Piccadilly and the Green Park. The room to which the window belonged was justly considered one of the notable sights of London and doubtless would have received suitable mention in the "Blue Guide" had the room been accessible to the general public. It was, on the contrary, accessible only to the personal friends of Mr. Nicol Brinn. As Mr. Nicol Brinn had a rarely critical taste in friendship, none but a fortunate few had seen the long room with its two large windows overlooking Piccadilly.
The man at the window was interested in a car which, approaching from the direction of the Circus, had slowed down immediately opposite and now was being turned, the chauffeur's apparent intention being to pull up at the door below. He had seen the face of the occupant and had recognized it even from that elevation. He was interested; and since only unusual things aroused any semblance of interest in the man who now stood at the window, one might have surmised that there was something unusual about the present visitor, or in his having decided to call at those chambers; and that such was indeed his purpose an upward glance which he cast in the direction of the balcony sufficiently proved.
The watcher, who had been standing in a dark recess formed by the presence of heavy velvet curtains draped before the window, now opened the curtains and stepped into the lighted room. He was a tall, lean man having straight, jet-black hair, a sallow complexion, and the features of a Sioux. A long black cigar protruded aggressively from the left corner of his mouth. His hands were locked behind him and his large and quite expressionless blue eyes stared straight across the room at the closed door with a dreamy and vacant regard. His dinner jacket fitted him so tightly that it might have been expected at any moment to split at the seams. As if to precipitate the catastrophe, he wore it buttoned.
There came a rap at the door.
"In!" said the tall man.
The door opened silently and a manservant appeared. He was spotlessly neat and wore his light hair cropped close to the skull. His fresh-coloured face was quite as expressionless as that of his master; his glance possessed no meaning. Crossing to the window, he extended a small salver upon which lay a visiting card.
"In!" repeated the tall man, looking down at the card.
His servant silently retired, and following a short interval rapped again upon the door, opened it, and standing just inside the room announced: "Mr. Paul Harley."
The door being quietly closed behind him, Paul Harley stood staring across the room at Nicol Brinn. At this moment the contrast between the types was one to have fascinated a psychologist. About Paul Harley, eagerly alert, there was something essentially British. Nicol Brinn, without being typical, was nevertheless distinctly a product of the United States. Yet, despite the stoic mask worn by Mr. Brinn, whose lack-lustre eyes were so unlike the bright gray eyes of his visitor, there existed, if not a physical, a certain spiritual affinity between the two; both were men of action.
Harley, after that one comprehensive glance, the photographic glance of a trained observer, stepped forward impulsively, hand outstretched. "Mr. Brinn," he said, "we have never met before, and it was good of you to wait in for me. I hope my telephone message has not interfered with your plans for the evening?"
Nicol Brinn, without change of pose, no line of the impassive face altering, shot out a large, muscular hand, seized that of Paul Harley in a tremendous grip, and almost instantly put his hand behind his back again. "Had no plans," he replied, in a high, monotonous voice; "I was bored stiff. Take the armchair."
Paul Harley sat down, but in the restless manner of one who has urgent business in hand and who is impatient of delay. Mr. Brinn stooped to a coffee table which stood upon the rug before the large open fireplace. "I am going to offer you a cocktail," he said.
"I shall accept your offer," returned Harley, smiling. "The 'N. B. cocktail' has a reputation which extends throughout the clubs of the world."
Nicol Brinn, exhibiting the swift adroitness of that human dodo, the New York bartender, mixed the drinks. Paul Harley watched him, meanwhile drumming his fingers restlessly upon the chair arm.
"Here's success," he said, "to my mission."
It was an odd toast, but Mr. Brinn merely nodded and drank in silence. Paul Harley set his glass down and glanced about the singular apartment of which he had often heard and which no man could ever tire of examining.
In this room the poles met, and the most remote civilizations of the world rubbed shoulders with modernity. Here, encased, were a family of snow-white ermine from Alaska and a pair of black Manchurian leopards. A flying lemur from the Pelews contemplated swooping upon the head of a huge tigress which glared with glassy eyes across the place at the snarling muzzle of a polar bear. Mycenaean vases and gold death masks stood upon the same shelf as Venetian goblets, and the mummy of an Egyptian priestess of the thirteenth dynasty occupied a sarcophagus upon the top of which rested a basrelief found in one of the shrines of the Syrian fish goddess Derceto, at Ascalon.
Arrowheads of the Stone Age and medieval rapiers were ranged alongside some of the latest examples of the gunsmith's art. There were elephants' tusks and Mexican skulls; a stone jar of water from the well of Zem-Zem, and an ivory crucifix which had belonged to Torquemada. A mat of human hair from Borneo overlay a historical and unique rug woven in Ispahan and entirely composed of fragments of Holy Carpets from the Kaaba at Mecca.
"I take it," said Mr. Brinn, suddenly, "that you are up against a stiff proposition."
Paul Harley, accepting a cigarette from an ebony box (once the property of Henry VIII) which the speaker had pushed across the coffee table in his direction, stared up curiously into the sallow, aquiline face. "You are right. But how did you know?"
"You look that way. Also—you were followed. Somebody knows you've come here."
Harley leaned forward, resting one hand upon the table. "I know I was followed," he said, sternly. "I was followed because I have entered upon the biggest case of my career." He paused and smiled in a very grim fashion. "A suspicion begins to dawn upon my mind that if I fail it will also be my last case. You understand me?"
"I understand absolutely," replied Nicol Brinn. "These are dull days. It's meat and drink to me to smell big danger."
Paul Harley lighted a cigarette and watched the speaker closely the while. His expression, as he did so, was an odd one. Two courses were open to him, and he was mentally debating their respective advantages.
"I have come to you to-night, Mr. Brinn," he said finally, "to ask you a certain question. Unless the theory upon which I am working is entirely wrong, then, supposing that you are in a position to answer my question I am logically compelled to suppose, also, that you stand in peril of your life."
"Good," said Mr. Brinn. "I was getting sluggish." In three long strides he crossed the room and locked the door. "I don't doubt Hoskins's honesty," he explained, reading the inquiry in Harley's eyes, "but an A1 intelligence doesn't fold dress pants at thirty-nine."
Only one very intimate with the taciturn speaker could have perceived any evidence of interest in that imperturbable character. But Nicol Brinn took his cheroot between his fingers, quickly placed a cone of ash in a little silver tray (the work of Benvenuto Cellini), and replaced the cheroot not in the left but in the right corner of his mouth. He was excited.
"You are out after one of the big heads of the crook world," he said. "He knows it and he's trailing you. My luck's turned. How can I help?"
Harley stood up, facing Mr. Brinn. "He knows it, as you say," he replied, "and I hold my life in my hands. But from your answer to the question which I have come here to-night to ask you, I shall conclude whether or not your danger at the moment is greater than mine."
"Good," said Nicol Brinn.
In that unique room, at once library and museum, amid relics of a hundred ages, spoil of the chase, the excavator, and the scholar, these two faced each other; and despite the peaceful quiet of the apartment up to which as a soothing murmur stole the homely sounds of Piccadilly, each saw in the other's eyes recognition of a deadly peril. It was a queer, memorable moment.
"My question is simple but strange," said Paul Harley. "It is this: What do you know of 'Fire-Tongue'?"
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?"
"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."
"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."
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. 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.
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 concluded, "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."
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.
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."