THE MASTER MYSTERY
ARTHUR B. REEVE and JOHN W. GREY
From Scenarios by Arthur B. Reeve in Collaboration with John W. Grey and C.A. Logue
Profusely Illustrated with Photographic Reproductions Taken from the Houdini Super-Serial of the Same Name. A B. A. Rolfe Production.
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers
Published May, 1919
THE MASTER MYSTERY
Peter Brent sat nervously smoking in the library of his great house, Brent Rock.
He was a man of about forty-five or -six—a typical, shrewd business man. Something, however, was evidently on his mind, for, though he tried to conceal it, he lacked the self-assurance that was habitually his before the world.
A scowl clouded his face as the door of the library was flung open and he heard voices in the hall. A tall, spare, long-haired man forced his way in, crushing his soft black hat in his hands.
"I will see Mr. Brent," insisted the new-comer, as he pushed past the butler. "Mr. Brent!" he cried, advancing with a wild light in his eyes. "I'm tired of excuses. I want justice regarding that water-motor of mine." He paused, then added, shaking his finger threateningly, "Put it on the market—or I will call in the Department of Justice!"
Brent scowled again. For years he had been amassing a fortune by a process that was scarcely within the law.
For, when inventions threaten to render useless already existing patents, necessitating the scrapping of millions of dollars' worth of machinery, vested interests must be protected.
Thus, Brent and his partner, Herbert Balcom, had evolved a simple method of protecting corporations against troublesome inventors and inventions. They had formed their own corporation, International Patents, Incorporated.
Their method was effective—though desperate. It was to suppress the inventor and his labor. They bought the sole rights from the inventor, promising him glittering royalties. The joker was that the invention was suppressed. None were ever manufactured. Hence there were no royalties and the corporations went on undisturbed while Brent and Balcom collected huge retainers for the protection they afforded them.
Thus Brent Rock had come to be hated by scores of inventors defrauded in this unequal conflict with big business.
The inventor looked about at the library, richly paneled in oak and luxuriously furnished. Through a pair of folding-doors he could see the dining-room and a conservatory beyond. All this had been paid for by himself and such as he.
"Sit down, sir," nodded Brent, suavely.
The man continued to stand, growing more and more excited. Had he been a keener observer he would have seen that under Brent's suavity there was a scarcely hidden nervousness.
Finally Brent leaned over and spoke in a whisper, looking about as though the very walls might have ears.
"My dear fellow," he confided, "for some time I have been considering your water-motor. I will return the model to you—release the patent to the world."
He drew back to watch the effect on the aged inventor. Could it be that Brent was lying? Or was it fear? Could it be that at last his seared conscience was troubling him?
At that exact moment, up-stairs, in a private laboratory in the house, sat a young man at a desk—a handsome, strong-faced, clean-cut chap. All about him were the scientific instruments which he used to test inventions offered to Brent.
A look of intent eagerness passed over his face. For Quentin Locke was not testing any of Brent's patents just now. Over his head he had the receivers of a dictagraph.
It was a strange act for one so recently employed as manager of Brent's private laboratory. Yet such a man must have had his reasons.
One who was interested might have followed the wire from the dictagraph-box in the top drawer of the desk down the leg of the desk, through the very walls to the huge chandelier in the library below, where, in the ornamented brass-work, reposed a small black disk about the size of a watch. It was the receiving-end of the dictagraph.
Suddenly the young man's face broke out into a smile and without thinking he stopped writing what the little mechanical eavesdropper was conveying him from below. He listened intently as he heard a silvery laugh over the wire.
"Oh, I didn't know you were busy. I thought these flowers—Well, never mind. I'll leave them, anyway."
It was Eva Brent, daughter of the head of the firm, who had danced in from the conservatory like a June zephyr in December.
"My dear," Locke could hear the patent magnate welcome, "it is all right. Stay a moment and talk to this gentleman while I go down to the museum."
Locke listened eagerly, glancing now and then at a photograph of Eva Brent on his own desk, while she chatted gaily with the inventor. It was evident that Eva had not the faintest idea of the hard nature of the business of her father.
Meanwhile, Brent himself had left the library and passed through the portiered door into the hall. He did not turn up the grand staircase in the center of the wide hall, but hurried, preoccupied, to a door under the stairs that opened down to the cellar.
He started to open it to pass down. As he did so he did not hear a light footstep on the stairs as his secretary, Zita Dane, came down. But he did not escape her watchful eye.
"Mr. Brent," she called, "is there anything I can do?"
Brent paused. "Wait a moment for me in the library," he directed, as he turned again to enter the cellar.
He closed the door and Zita watched him with an almost uncanny interest, then turned to the library to join Eva and the new-comer.
Down the cellar steps Brent made his way, and across the cellar floor, pausing at the rocky wall of the foundation of the house blasted and hewn out of the cliff on which it towered above the river. A heavy steel door in the rock wall barred the way.
Brent whirled the combination and shot the bolts, and the door swung ponderously open, disclosing a rock-hewn cavern. Three walls of the cavern were lined with shelves containing inventions of all kinds—telegraph and telephone instruments, engine models, railroad-signaling and safety devices, racks of bottles containing dangerous chemicals and their antidotes—all conceivable manner of mechanical and scientific paraphernalia. It was literally a Graveyard of Genius—harboring the ghosts of a thousand inventors' dead hopes.
Brent entered hastily and went directly to a shelf. There he picked up a model of a motor. He blew the dust from it and examined it approvingly.
Suddenly he saw something that caused him to start. He looked down at his feet. There was a piece of paper on the floor.
He picked it up and read it, and as he did so he started back, frightened—then angry. He looked about at the rock-hewn cavern walls—then read again:
BRENT—This is my last warning. If you persist in your course you will be struck down by the Madagascar madness. Q.
Under his breath, Brent swore. Again he looked about the cavern, then turned hurriedly, picked up the motor, passed out the steel door, clanged it shut, and locked it.
No sooner had Brent shut the door, however, than it seemed as if the very face of the outer rocky wall of the cavern began to move—to tilt, as if on hinges.
If a human eye had been in the Graveyard of Genius at that instant it would have sworn that it perceived in the inky blackness of the tilting rock a passage, and in the shadows of that passage a huge, weird, grotesque figure peering in.
Then the tilting rock door closed again, as the figure disappeared down the rocky passage on the opposite side—a menace and a threat to the owner of Brent Rock, insecure even in his millions.
When Brent arrived back at the library he had quite recovered his poise, at least to the eyes of those in the library. Zita had joined Eva with the old inventor, Davis.
As Brent entered, Davis uttered an exclamation of joy at the sight of his motor. For the moment Brent almost glowed.
"Along with your invention," he beamed, as he handed the model to the old man, "I am going to release many others to the world."
All this not only Locke was noting, but Zita, too, appeared to be an almost too interested listener.
The others were chatting when Zita heard a noise in the hall and hurried out. She was just in time to see a rather hard-visaged man, with cruel, penetrating eyes. It was Herbert Balcom, vice-president of the company.
Zita whispered to him a moment and Balcom's hard face grew harder.
"Go up-stairs—watch him," he ordered, passing down the hall.
Balcom entered the library just as Davis was about to leave, hugging close to him his brain child. Davis clutched it a bit closer at sight of the other partner.
A glance would have been sufficient to show that Brent was secretly afraid of his partner, Balcom, and that Balcom dominated him.
"Go to the gate with him, my dear," whispered Brent to his daughter, who was clinging to his arm, convinced of the goodness of her father, ignorant of the very basis on which the Brent and Balcom fortune rested.
Balcom's mouth tightened as he came closer to Brent, menacing, the moment they were alone.
"How long has this double crossing been going on?" sneered Balcom, jerking his head toward the door through which Eva had just gone with the inventor, and shoving his face close to Brent's.
"It's not double crossing, Balcom," Brent attempted to conciliate, "but—"
"No 'buts,'" interrupted Balcom, with deadly coldness. "Keep on, and you'll have the government down on us for violating the anti-trust law. What's the matter? Have you lost your nerve?"
As Balcom almost hissed the question, up in the laboratory Locke was now writing furiously in his note-book, when he was interrupted by a knock at the door. He whipped the dictagraph receiver off his head and jumped to his feet, hiding all traces of the dictagraph in the desk drawer. Then he moved over to the door, unlocked it, and flung it open.
"Oh, I hope I haven't interrupted you in any important experiment," apologized Zita, innocently enough.
"Nothing important," camouflaged Locke.
Though Locke did not seem to notice it, another would have seen that Zita cared a great deal for him.
"May I come in?" she asked, wheedling.
"Certainly. I am charmed, I assure you."
While Zita was gushingly effusive, Locke was correct and formally polite as he bowed his acquiescence. Zita felt it.
For a moment she stood looking at a half-finished experiment on the laboratory table, then finally she turned to Locke with a calculated impulsiveness.
"Why do you treat me so coldly," she asked, "when you know I admire your wonderful work?"
"Really, Miss Dane," he apologized, "I didn't mean to be rude."
Yet there was an air of constraint in his very tone.
"Do you know," she flashed, "I can't help feeling that you are so brilliant—you must be something more than you seem."
Locke suppressed a quick look of surprise. Was she trying to worm some secret from him? He masked his face cleverly.
"Indeed, you must be imagining things," he replied, quietly, turning and strolling toward the window of his laboratory.
The moment his back was turned Zita picked up the photograph of Eva on the desk. For a moment she stood glaring at it jealously.
Out of the window Locke smiled. For, down on the gravel path, walking slowly toward the gate to the Brent Rock grounds, he could see Eva and Davis.
The smile faded into a scowl. He had seen a young man enter the gate. It was Paul Balcom, son of Herbert Balcom, and Paul was engaged to Eva—thus giving Balcom a stronger hold over Brent.
Locke knew enough about Paul to dislike him thoroughly and to distrust him. Had Locke been able to see over the hedge he would have confirmed his suspicions. For Paul had actually driven up to Brent Rock in the runabout of as notorious a woman as could have been found in the night life of the city—one known as De Luxe Dora in the unsavory half-world in which both were leaders. Had his dictagraph been extended to the hedge he would have heard her voice rasp at Paul:
"Your father may make you pay attention to this girl, Paul, but remember—you had not better double cross me."
Paul's protestations of underworld fidelity, would have added to Locke's fury.
However, Locke had not seen or heard. Still, it was unbearable that this fellow Paul should be engaged to a girl like Eva. Tall, dark, handsome though he was, Locke knew him to be a man not to be trusted.
Paul hurried up to Eva, not a bit disconcerted at the near discovery of his intimacy with Dora. And, whatever one may believe about woman's intuition, there must have been something in it, for even at a distance one could see that Eva mistrusted Paul Balcom, her fiance. Locke scowled blackly.
Paul thrust himself almost rudely between Davis and Eva. Again Davis shrank, as he had from the young man's father, then bowed, excused himself, and hurried off, hugging his motor to him, while Paul took Eva's hand, which she was not any too willing to give him. Locke watched, motionless, as the couple turned back to the house.
Somehow Eva must have felt his gaze. She turned and looked upward at the laboratory window. As she saw Locke her face broke into a smile and she waved her hand gaily. Paul saw it and a swift flush of anger crossed his face. He pulled Eva abruptly by the arm.
"Let's go into the house," he said, almost angrily.
Seeing the action, Locke also turned from the window to encounter Zita, still watching. Without a word he left the laboratory.
While this little quadrangle of conflicting emotions of Locke, Eva, Paul, and Zita was being enacted the two partners in the library were disputing hot and heavy. As they argued, almost it seemed as if Balcom's very face limned his thoughts—that he desired Brent out of the way, as a weakling in whom he had discovered some traces of conscience which, to Balcom, meant weakness.
Balcom leaned forward excitedly. "I do not intend to let you wreck this company because your conscience, as you call it, has begun to trouble you," he hissed.
Brent's hand clutched nervously. He was afraid of Balcom—so much so that he fought back only weakly.
Locke was down in the hallway just in time to meet Eva and Paul as they entered.
"Oh—do you know, I'm so glad—I think my father is the most kind-hearted of men," Eva trilled to Locke, as she recounted what had happened in the library with Davis.
Locke listened with restrained admiration for the girl, whatever might have been his secret opinion of her father or of the story he already knew.
On his part, Paul did not relish the situation, nor did he take any pains to conceal it. He shrugged and turned away.
"Come," he said, with a tone of surly authority, "I think I hear my father in the library."
Eva looked back swiftly at Locke and smiled as Paul led her toward the library door. But that, also, made Paul more furious.
"Why do you make me ridiculous before that fellow?" he demanded.
"I'm sorry," replied Eva, in surprise. "I didn't meant to do that."
Vaguely Paul understood. The girl was too unsophisticated to have meant it. Somehow that made it worse. Though she did not know it, he did. Unknown to herself, there was a response in the presence of Locke which was not inspired in his own society. He hurried her into the library.
It was as though the entrance of Paul and Eva had been preconcerted. The partners, in their dispute, stopped and turned as the young people entered and moved over to a divan. Balcom lowered his voice and plucked at Brent's sleeve as he nodded toward the couple.
"I could trust you better if they were married within a week," suggested Balcom.
Brent recoiled, but Balcom affected not to notice.
"Then I will believe that you are dealing fairly with me," he emphasized.
Brent studied a moment, then nodded assent. Balcom extended a cold, commanding hand and the partners shook hands.
Outside, Locke had paused, about to enter the library. The pause had been just long enough for him to hear—and it was a blow to him. He watched, dazed, as the two older men walked over to the younger couple; then he turned away, heart sick.
"My dear," began Brent, as he patted the shoulder of the girl, the one spot of goodness that had shone in the otherwise blackness of his life, making him at last realize the depth to which lust of money had made him sink, "we were just saying that perhaps it would be advisable to—er—hasten your marriage to Paul—say—perhaps next week."
The words seemed to stick in his throat.
As for Eva, she felt a shiver pass over her. Without knowing why, she drew back from Paul, at her side, shrank even closer to her father, trying not to tremble. Did Paul realize it?
Brent felt the shudder with a pang. He leaned over. "Promise to do this—for my sake," he whispered, so low that there was no chance of the others hearing. "By to-morrow all may be changed."
There was something ominous about the very words.
Brent had no intention of keeping the promise which Balcom had extracted from him by a species of moral duress that afternoon.
In fact, already he had gone too far in his plans for restitution—or was it self-preservation?—to turn back. It was late in the night that he himself secretly admitted to the house a tall, dark-haired stranger who evidently called by appointment.
"Well, Flint," he greeted, in a hushed tone, "what was it you asked to see me about?"
Flint replied not a word, but impressively tapped a bundle which he carried under his arm and began to undo the cord which bound it.
Brent looked startled, then caught himself. He had known Flint for some time—an adventurer, more or less unscrupulous, who had been the foreign representative of International Patents.
Flint took off his coat and threw it on a chair with an air of assurance that seemed to increase Brent's anxiety, then began again to untie the bulky package.
"Just a moment, Flint," cautioned Brent, stopping him.
With an air of uneasy secrecy Brent hurried to the door that led from the dining-room to the conservatory and bolted it securely. Then he made sure that the door to the library was bolted.
As he did so he did not see his secretary, Zita, watching in the hall, for the footsteps of Locke, approaching, had caught her quick ear and she had fled.
"Locke!" called Brent, hearing his laboratory, manager. "Under no circumstances allow me to be disturbed to-night."
"Very well, sir," responded Locke.
Just then the light step of Eva was heard on the stairs.
"What's the matter, father?" she asked, still upset by the events of the afternoon. "Is there anything wrong?"
"No, my dear, nothing," hastily replied Brent. "In the morning I shall have something to say to you. Now run along like a good girl."
Dutifully Eva turned. Brent watched her out of sight. Then with a keen look at Locke he pulled out a paper from his pocket and handed it to the young scientist, who read:
BRENT,—This is my last warning. If you persist in your course you will be struck down by the Madagascar madness. Q.
Locke looked up from the scrawl in alarmed perplexity.
"What does this mean?" he queried.
Brent merely shook his head cryptically.
"Study this message. I shall have something very important to tell you in the morning."
As Brent turned back into the library he paused a moment and looked after Locke, hesitating, as if he would call him back. Then he decided not to do so, turned, and carefully locked the door from the dining-room into the hallway.
Eva was waiting at the head of the stairs as Locke, perplexed by the strange actions of his employer, came up.
"What is the trouble?" she repeated, anxiously. "Please tell me. Is there anything wrong?"
"No—nothing," reassured Locke, in spite of his own doubt. "Everything is all right."
"I hope so." Eva lingered. "Good night."
Locke bowed admiringly. But there was the same restraint in his look that had been shown in the afternoon.
"Good night," he murmured, slowly.
Eva quite understood, and there was a smile of encouragement on her face as she turned away and flitted down the hall to her room.
Outside, Zita had hurried from the house to the nearest public telephone-booth and was frantically calling Balcom at his apartment.
"Mr. Balcom," she repeated, breathlessly, as the junior partner answered, "Flint has returned. I have seen him."
"The devil!" exclaimed Balcom, angrily, then checked himself before he said any more. "Keep me informed."
Abruptly he hung up.
It was scarcely a moment later that Paul Balcom entered the Balcom apartment, admitted by a turbaned black suggestive of the Orient.
Paul was surly and had evidently been drinking, for he shoved the servant roughly out of the way as he strode toward his father.
Apparently outside Paul had overheard and had gathered the drift of what Balcom had been saying. Or perhaps, from his own sources of information, he already knew. At any rate, as Balcom turned from the telephone, father and son faced each other angrily.
"Brent's lying," exclaimed Paul. "That marriage to me must take place to-morrow."
Talking angrily, sometimes in agreement, at others far apart, the two left the room.
Back in the dining-room by this time Brent had rejoined Flint and now watched him eagerly as he took the last wrappings from the package which he had carried so carefully.
As the last wrapping was stripped from it, on the table before them lay a small steel model, perhaps three feet high—a weird-looking thing in the miniature shape of a man, designed along lines that only a cubist could have conceived—jointed, mobile, truly a contrivance at which to marvel.
Brent gazed incredulously at the strange thing. "An automaton!" he exclaimed.
"More than that," replied Flint, calmly.
Flint unrolled a chart of the human nervous system and spread it out on the table. Pointing to the brain, he leaned over tensely, and whispered:
"This model is merely a piece of mechanism. But the real automaton possesses a human brain which has been transplanted into it and made to guide it."
For a moment Brent listened incredulously, then sat back in his chair and laughed skeptically. But even Flint recognized that there was a hollowness in the laughter.
"Do you mean to tell me," demanded Brent, "that a human brain has been made to control a thing of no use except as a terrible engine of destruction?"
"Not only possible," reiterated Flint, "but it is true."
"Oh, Flint," rallied Brent, with a sort of uneasiness, "you can't tell me that!"
"Believe it or not," insisted the adventurer, "I have been in Madagascar and I know."
For a moment Brent paused at the vehemence of Flint's answer. What had Flint to gain by misrepresentation? A thousand images of the past flitted through Brent's brain. Then slowly a look of terror came over Brent's face. Suppose it were indeed true—this Frankenstein, this conscienceless inhuman superman? Brent gripped himself and composed his features and his voice.
"But this thing," he rasped. "What does this prove?"
"Oh, this is merely automatic—a piece of mechanism—a model which I stole. It works when it is wound up—not like the real one. Look."
Flint put a pencil in the little steel hand of the model and pressed a lever as he held a piece of paper under the pencil. Brent leaned over, fascinated.
Instantly the tiny hand began to trace on the paper one letter—the simple letter "Q."
As the hand finished the tail of the "Q" Brent gripped the table for support. His eyes bulged and stared wildly.
"My God!" burst from his lips. "It is the warning—Q!"
For minutes Brent strove to regain his composure.
Nor was Flint less impressed than the man before him.
What would have been the emotions of both if they had been able to penetrate with the eye through the rocky cliffs on which the stately mansion of Brent Rock stood would have been hard to say.
For, down in a rock-hewn cavern, not many hundred yards away and below them, reached by a secret entrance from the shrubbery of the cliffs near the shore, already had congregated several rough characters. They were playing cards and drinking, now and then glancing furtively at the passage entrance, as though they were expecting the arrival of some one or something.
Suddenly came a dull metallic clank through the passage, strangely echoing. At once all leaped to their feet, at attention, not unmixed with awe and fear that sat strangely on their desperate features. What was it that they, who feared neither God nor man, feared?
They strained their eyes, looking into the passage that led darkly away into blackness.
Dimly down it now could be seen two gleaming spots of light, points in the Cimmerian darkness. They seemed to be growing larger and coming nearer as with each hollow reverberation the dull metallic thuds increased.
Faintly now could be made out in the blackness a huge, stalking figure, having the shape of a man, with gigantic, powerful shoulders, powerful arms, a thick body, hips, and thighs that spelled terrific strength, legs and feet that suggested irresistible force.
"The Automaton!" escaped involuntarily from all lips.
Slowly, irresistibly, the horrendous figure stalked forth into the dim light. There it paused for a moment—a figure of steel, larger than most men, yet not so large but that it might have incased a man. And yet its motions, its every action, were like nothing mortal. Even these hardened denizens of the underworld shuddered.
In its hand the Automaton carried a five-branched candlestick, for what purpose none seemed to know. Yet all bowed and quaked at every pantomime motion of the figure, ready to do the bidding of the least motion of their inhuman master.
Still holding the candlestick with its five huge yellow candles before him, the Automaton stalked forward to the table and impressively deposited the candlestick on it, then stepped back a pace and waved his ponderous hand at the assembled emissaries, who scarcely repressed their own abject terror.
At a motion from the Automaton a dark-skinned Madagascan stepped forward and lighted the five candles. At once a dense smoke began drifting from the candles.
The men looked at one another, showing an uncomfortable fear of what the negro and the Automaton were doing. Even the negro edged away fearfully and all crouched back, afraid of the fumes.
A moment later the Automaton, with a mighty blast of air, snuffed all the candles at once, then, without a word, picked up the candlestick and stalked off through the passage on the opposite side of the den from the entrance, the passage that led to the Graveyard of Genius.
A few moments later the secret rock door from this passage into the Graveyard swung open and the Automaton stalked in, going carefully, noiselessly, now. Across the floor he walked to the steel door, which he swung open, then on out into the cellar of Brent Rock and up the steps to the door under the stairs that led to the hallway of the great house.
In the hall the Automaton halted beside a small stand on which stood a candlestick exactly like the one he carried. Quickly he picked up the original candlestick and replaced it by the one he carried. Then he set the original back of the portieres, and with a glance at the library door turned back to the cellar, closing the door noiselessly behind him.
Down the steps he went, toward the open door of the Graveyard of Genius. Beside the door was the fuse-box of the lighting system of the house.
The Automaton reached out and began rubbing sharply at the insulation of the feed wires.
Up-stairs, in the dining-room, Brent had by this time flung off his coat and was examining with Flint the curious model the adventurer had brought from Madagascar. Brent was very excited and questioned Flint eagerly.
"I tell you, Flint," cried Brent, at length, huskily, as he seized a pen and dipped in into the ink, "the time has come for me to do what I have long intended. I am going to do now what I should have done years ago."
Brent started to write feverishly:
QUENTIN LOCKE,—I have done you a great injury about which you know nothing, but I am willing to—
His hand had scarcely traced the last word when the room was plunged into absolute darkness.
Down in the cellar the Automaton had succeeded in rubbing off the insulation of the feed wires. There was a flash of light as he laid his steel hand over the two feed wires—then darkness.
In the dining-room Brent and Flint, already keyed to the highest pitch, leaped to their feet with an exclamation of terror.
Late as it was, Locke was working in his laboratory on the second floor of the house when the lights winked out. Surprised for the moment, he ran out into the hall.
Already there was the butler, groping about with a candle.
"What's the matter, Quentin?" asked a breathless voice behind them.
It was Eva in a filmy dressing-gown. Locke turned to vision a creation of loveliness in the candle-light which set his heart thumping.
"Nothing," he reassured. "Just the lights short-circuited, that's all. I'll see."
Just then the dining-room door opened and Eva saw her father, disheveled and preoccupied, stride out and take the five-branched candlestick from the hall table. Nervously he began to light the candles. They sputtered a bit and he turned quickly, still holding the candlestick, as the smoke drifted away from them all.
"Fix the fuses in the cellar," he directed the butler.
"Is anything—really the matter—father?" implored Eva.
"No, no, my child," he answered, hastily. "Go back to bed. And, Locke, please don't let us be disturbed."
He was about to say more, then decided not to do so, and turned back into the dining-room.
Again Brent carefully locked the door to the dining-room and rejoined Flint.
He had placed the candles on the table, not noticing in the half-light that the smoke from them was growing denser as they burned down.
The smoke drifted over as the draught carried it. Flint coughed and moved a bit, his hand at his throat.
Brent seized the pen again and was about to write, when the smoke from the candles drifted into his own face. He, too, coughed.
Uneasy, Brent glanced over at Flint. Flint laughed, a bit hysterically.
"What the devil's the matter?" demanded Brent, with lowered brows, a strange dryness in his throat.
Flint was now leaning forward on his elbows and laughing foolishly, stupidly. It was a queer laugh, and struck terror into Brent as he himself coughed and clutched involuntarily at his throat. Brent stared at Flint.
"What is it?" he repeated, anxiously. "Have you suddenly gone mad, man?"
But there was no reply. Instead, Flint laughed all the more madly.
Brent was more than startled. If he could have seen himself in a glass he would have seen that he was already wide-mouthed and disheveled. Suddenly the smoke again blew in his face. He coughed again. His head reeled.
Then, in a flash, it all dawned on him.
He shielded himself from the candles. But it was too late.
"My God!" he exclaimed, starting up. "The Madagascar madness!"
Brent looked about wildly. He rushed to Flint and shook him. But Flint only laughed. He turned and moved toward the candles, reaching out for them. But even as he did so his hand faltered.
He stopped and passed his hand across his tightening forehead. Slowly over his face came a stupid expression. He felt himself going, without power of retraining himself. His lips twitched and he swayed.
Then he began to laugh uncontrollably.
Flint rose and clapped him on the shoulder. Then both laughed foolishly, loudly.
They were beyond help. It was the laughing madness.
Outside, in the hall, Eva and Locke had been standing, talking for a moment, when suddenly, below, they heard a terrific noise in the cellar. Involuntarily Eva's hand clutched Locke's arm. Locke drew a revolver and, in spite of Eva's fearsome caution, hastened down the cellar stairs.
About in the blackness of the cellar he groped until his foot touched something soft, a mass on the floor. He bent over. It was the butler, in a heap, unconscious, but still breathing.
There was not a sound, not another being in the cellar.
Together Eva and Locke helped the now half-conscious man to his feet and pushed and pulled him up the stairs; as slowly he recovered his power of speech.
"What was it—tell us?" urged Locke.
"I—I went down to fix the fuses—as the master ordered," muttered the butler, incoherently. "A huge figure—steel hand—it flung me across the floor—the last I remember."
He passed his hand over his head as though recollection even was too horrible for description.
Locke listened a bit doubtfully, then sent the butler on his way to bed, while Eva could scarcely restrain her fears.
Over to the dining-room door Locke strode and listened. There was nothing but the sound of merriment inside, of uncontrollable laughter. Could it be that Brent and Flint were drinking? He dared not betray a fear to Eva. Instead he knocked.
At that moment he could hear the sound of some heavy body falling; then more laughter as Brent in his hysteria struck the model of the automaton to the floor.
With the model, unnoticed by Brent, now fluttered to the floor the letter he had been writing. But the madman paid no attention to that now as it sifted through the air and fluttered under the sideboard.
"Mr. Brent," called Locke, "please open the door."
Instead of an answer came a loud and insulting laugh, followed by an incoherent mouthing of words. Eva looked startled, blanched. It was so unlike her father. For the moment Locke was piqued. But he tried not to show it as he turned away from the door.
"I am your father's employe," he said, sadly, "and it is his privilege, I suppose, to laugh at me." He hesitated.
"Oh, but, Quentin—Mr. Locke—I'm—I'm so sorry. Surely he could not have meant it."
At the head of the stairs Locke tried to smile.
"Don't worry," he said, repressing his feelings. "It will make no difference between us. Good night."
They parted, Eva closing her door for a sleepless night, Locke to work far into the night in his laboratory until sheer exhaustion overcame his feelings.
Meanwhile, in the dining-room, the two men kept terrible vigil, hour after hour, oblivious of time, in wild and wanton laughter—maniacal abandon.
A terrible blow had been struck and Reason was tottering on her throne.
Two men had been stricken by an unknown hand—stark, stark mad.
"Father—please—open the door!"
It was early the following morning that the butler with frightened face had called Eva Brent to tell her that her father and Flint had been locked in the dining-room all night and were still laughing madly.
Eva had hurried down-stairs, encountering Zita as she ran. It was true. She could hear the voices inside. Nor could she get any answer from the two men.
"Oh—Zita—please—can't something be done?" Eva implored.
With a hasty word Zita hurried away just as Herbert Balcom himself entered the house from the street.
In utter surprise Balcom nodded at Zita as she poured forth the story of what had been discovered in the morning, then pushed past her in high excitement.
"What's wrong?" he asked as he came upon the butler and Eva still knocking excitedly at the dining-room door.
Eva was almost in a panic as she answered, "Father and Mr. Flint have been in there laughing ever since last night."
Balcom tried to comfort her. But somehow his sympathy sent a cold shudder through the poor girl.
Meanwhile Zita had encountered Locke hurrying down at the sound of the commotion. To him she told the story, again hurt that his interest was solely for Eva, not in herself.
Locke paused long enough to seize an umbrella from the rack, rip the cover off, and break out a rib, to which he tied a piece of string while he hurried to the group at the door.
"Break down the door and call the police," ordered Balcom.
The butler reached for a chair and was about to swing it over his head to break down the door.
"Stop!" interrupted Locke.
The young scientist knelt down, inserted the umbrella steel through the keyhole, and bent it by the string as he fished about with it on the other side to find the bolt. Meanwhile the butler telephoned frantically for the police.
It was at this height of excitement that Paul Balcom entered. A moment's talk with Zita, and he, too, joined the group.
Sympathetically he spoke to Eva, but Eva scarcely responded in the fashion of a girl to the man whom she was going to marry. Her attention was riveted on Locke, who was kneeling before the door. Paul saw it and an ominous scowl crossed his face.
Carefully Locke worked the umbrella steel and the string until he had caught the bolt. Then he shot the bolt back and rose to his feet. All watched him expectantly as he threw open the door.
Such a sight as met their eyes one could scarcely picture.
There were Brent and Flint at the table—laughing—laughing. The candles had long since burned out. On the floor lay the automaton model.
"Father!" cried Eva, running to him.
But there was no look of recognition on Brent's face.
"Don't you know me? Speak to me! Father!"
Instead, Brent merely patted her shoulder and laughed hollowly. Eva, on her knees by him, sobbed and smoothed his head by turns.
Locke, bending over Flint, found him in much the same condition.
Meanwhile, Balcom and Paul had picked up the model of the automaton and exchanged a quick glance.
"This man Locke's actions are suspicious," exclaimed Balcom, hastily. "He was in the house last night."
Outside they could hear the arrival of the detectives summoned by the butler.
"Go to Eva," nudged Balcom to Paul.
A moment later the butler entered with the detectives.
At the sight of the automaton model in Balcom's hands the butler cried out:
"That is what attacked me last night—only larger—much larger!"
All eyes were now on the butler. Quickly Balcom took advantage of the situation thus created. Locke, also, left Flint and moved over to the group examining the model. As he did so his eye caught a piece of paper under the sideboard. He was about to pick it up when he realized that all were looking at him. Quickly he covered his discovery and faced them.
"This man is the stranger in the house," cried Balcom, in anger. "Arrest him and make him explain."
It was the work of only an instant for the chief detective to step up to Locke and slip the bracelets on his wrists.
"Don't!" cried Eva.
"Please—my dear—your father," remonstrated Paul.
At that instant Brent was seized with another violent fit of coughing and laughter. Eva, distracted, was half fainting.
Thus, with Locke handcuffed, Balcom and Paul were triumphant.
Locke saw his chance. But the handcuffs prevented him from using his hands. In the instant that all were diverted toward Brent, with incredible deftness Locke slipped his hand from the cuffs, one link of which fell open as if by magic, through a secret all his own. He reached down and picked up the paper under the sideboard and read it. It was the letter Brent had been writing and served only to increase his perplexity. He read it again, then crushed it into his pocket, and before any one had discovered his trick had slipped his hand back into the cuffs and they were locked again.
At that very moment the telephone rang and the chief of the detectives answered. As he did so a perplexed expression crossed his face and he walked over quickly to Locke.
"I—beg your pardon," he apologized as he began to unlock the handcuffs.
"Here, my man, what are you doing?" interrupted Balcom.
"I know my business. You lay off," growled the detective.
A moment later Locke, with a slight smile on his handsome face, was answering the telephone.
Not a soul save the detective, even yet, suspected the true identity of Locke, even as he answered over the telephone with a respectful, "Yes, sir."
The fact of the matter was that the message had come most opportunely. It was from the chief of the Department of Justice himself, ordering Locke to stay at the house until he had secured the evidence that would allow the department to proceed against the company under the anti-trust law. That, then, was the explanation of the secret dictagraph which Locke had installed, the explanation of his apparent faithlessness to his employer.
But weightier matters were now on Locke's mind. Here he was faced by the case of his life, involving the happiness of the very girl whom he had so soon come to love. His incentive was double—love and success: triple—above all, justice.
By this time the household themselves were sufficiently calm to help Brent to his bedroom and Flint to a guest-chamber.
Balcom was about to follow, when Locke, returning from the telephone, touched him on the shoulder and shoved the threat message which Brent had given him the night before under the face of the junior partner.
"Read that," he demanded.
Balcom read, controlling his features admirably, if control were necessary.
"What's the meaning of this?" he demanded, coldly.
"Were you in Madagascar lately?" shot back Locke.
Locke could not be sure whether or not Balcom suppressed a start. At any rate, he did not conceal anger at the insinuation.
"Certainly," he replied. "With my son I cruised through the Mozambique Channel and touched at Madagascar last summer. Why?"
Locke nodded and the detective made a note of the reply.
"What do you mean to insinuate by that question?" demanded Balcom.
Without reply Locke shrugged nonchalantly and smiled.
Not ten feet away, in the conservatory door, Paul listened, and his face darkened as he clenched his fists.
There was a murderous glare in Paul's eyes as Locke unconcernedly withdrew, whispering to the detective, who nodded deferentially to the young scientist who had been assigned by the Department of Justice, strangely, to the very case which now he realized in some unknown way must concern himself and the very mystery of his own identity.
So wore along the morning, with growing mystery and excitement.
It was not long before the Brent family physician was summoned, and after a careful diagnosis pronounced Brent in a hopeless state as far as his own science was concerned. Eva was by this time more than frantic. The consolation of Paul seemed to add to her nervousness. She was almost distracted when she heard Balcom and the doctor discussing the case in low tones in her father's room.
"Don't you think, Doctor," she overheard, "that he would be far better off in a sanitarium?"
She shuddered as the doctor agreed with Balcom, and Balcom sought to persuade her that the course was best. Even the solicitations of Paul annoyed her. Paul was more than vexed at this new repulse from his bride-to-be. His anger knew no bounds as he caught sight of Locke, who had overheard and showed his doubt over the whole proposal for the care of Brent. He plucked at his father's sleeve and nodded toward Locke.
Balcom needed no prompting from his crafty son.
"I'll have you understand, Locke," he cried, his face growing apoplectic red, "that I am in charge here now. Your services are no longer required."
"I quite understand," returned Locke, quietly. "We shall see."
Balcom stormed down from the room to the telephone, where, a moment later, he telephoned to an asylum, asking them to send a conveyance with nurses, keepers, and whatever paraphernalia was necessary to take care of his partner, Brent.
"Is he violent?" demanded the doctor over the telephone.
"Yes. Bring a strait-jacket," snapped back Balcom. "And the sooner he is under your care the better."
With that Balcom stamped out of the house.
In Brent's room, Paul was attempting still to ingratiate himself with Eva, who was growing more distant toward him with every moment. Finally Paul could stand it no longer. He turned on his heel and faced Locke angrily in the hall.
"You'll regret this, confound you!" he ground out, as he swung out of the room rapidly in a high state of feeling.
Unconcernedly Locke turned on his heel.
"Don't worry," he whispered to Eva. "I'll see that no harm comes to your father."
For answer, her own heart too full for words, Eva pressed the hand of the young scientist. It was reward enough for Locke.
Meanwhile, at Doctor Shaw's sanitarium, to which Balcom had telephoned with the permission of the doctor, elaborate preparations had been completed for the reception and transportation of Brent.
It was perhaps an hour later that the ambulance, with three white-uniformed attendants, pulled out, carrying all those appurtenances necessary for the care of the insane, including the strait-jacket which Balcom had so testily suggested.
That same hour had seen intense activity in another quarter. In the den of the Automaton, the hard-visaged emissaries had been already roused by the entrance of the Automaton.
Hasty directions had been uttered by the metallic, phonograph voice of the monster, and already four of the most desperate of the characters had hurried through the entrance out on the cliffs. The Automaton himself had turned toward the passage through the Graveyard of Genius to Brent Rock itself.
Thus it happened that when the ambulance from Doctor Shaw's sanitarium came bowling along the road to Brent Rock as fast as its motor would permit, the driver was forced suddenly to put on the brakes to save himself from being wrecked by a huge log that lay squarely across the road.
No sooner had the attendants jumped out to remove the log than four desperate men fell upon them from ambush, beat them, and left them trussed up and unconscious, while they donned the jackets and uniforms of Doctor Shaw's men, seized the ambulance, and swung off again at a fast clip in the direction of Brent Rock.
Lulled into a false security, as her father slept now for a time under an opiate, Eva was sitting beside him with loving care when she heard the noise below of the arrival of the car from Doctor Shaw's sanitarium. At once she was in wild alarm. Nor was Locke off his guard. While Zita tried to reassure Eva, Locke met the men.
There were four of them, and as the first passed, Locke halted him. The parley gave another a chance to push past, while Locke held three at bay.
A moment later there was a scream from Eva, who had hurried from her father's room at the sound of the high voices. The emissary had seized her.
It was a signal for the other three, who leaped on Locke all at once. With almost superhuman strength Locke seized one of them and flung him over his head for a fall down the whole flight of steps as he fought the other two single-handed.
Even then the third came back to the attack and Locke was forced to give back step by step down the stairs.
Another scream from Eva.
In the heat of the fray Locke caught a glimpse of her battling on the landing above with the first emissary. It gave him redoubled strength.
Flinging the two men off and eluding the third, he leaped to the chandelier in the hall and with a giant swing wrapped his legs about the fellow struggling with Eva. Literally throttling him, he pulled him backward over the balcony railing for a fall clear to the lower hall.
At the moment when Locke was actually subduing all of his assailants the door to the cellar suddenly opened and the huge figure of the Automaton strode out.
With one blow of his steel fist the monster struck Locke senseless, then turned and began ascending the grand staircase.
Almost paralyzed with fear, Eva screamed again and fled through the nearest door, locking it. On strode the Automaton, crashing down the door as if it had been a mere shell.
Meanwhile the emissaries had seized Locke, still unconscious and unable to resist. Feverishly they began to bind him in the strait-jacket which they had taken from the ambulance. Then they carried him and flung him roughly on the floor of the library.
Still screaming, Eva fled to the next room, again bolting the door and piling furniture frantically to barricade it. Again the Automaton rained blow after blow on the door. It splintered, and his powerful fist began breaking and overturning the barricade which the unfortunate girl had improvised.
Wildly she looked about. Only a closet now offered refuge. The door was splintered through. She could see the terrible face of the monster.
In the library, Locke, recovering by this time, began flopping and twisting, spurred by the muffled screams from above-stairs as he worked with miraculous dexterity to release himself from the strait-jacket.
Locke struggled with superhuman effort to release himself from the strait-jacket in which he was held prisoner. The throat-straps pressed against the neck muscles and the strain on the straps could be heard like pistol-shots as the leather stretched under his prodigous efforts.
With every nerve keyed up and his reflexes answering his keen brain, he swayed backward and forward, rolled from side to side until his shoulder-blades were thrown completely out of joint. The pain was intense, but he summoned every ounce of strength at his command and finally succeeded in getting one of his arms free by gradually working his body toward a settee, where, with his elbow on the seat, he pushed his disjointed arm over his head.
Agony was written all over his face as at last with a final effort he extricated his arms and was in a position to loosen the straps which bound them, with his teeth.
Nor was his labor over now. The canvas jacket cut into his flesh and the buckles bruised his muscles. His body ached with weariness, yet he clung to his task. Like a thing incarnate he toiled as he realized the danger that confronted Eva.
Up-stairs, the monster was pursuing Eva. The heavy oaken doors were as straws to him, and he plunged through them as a mad elephant dashes through a canebrake. Destruction lay in his wake as he crashed through the improvised barriers which Eva had constructed to delay his onslaught. A crouching, desolate figure, she waited for what she knew to be her end. There was only one barrier left between her and this engine of destruction. It was only a moment now when she would be a crushed, mangled mass. With terror in her heart she waited for the thing to crash through the last remaining barrier, and even now she could hear his ponderous step as he crossed the room toward the door which would only momentarily stay his progress. Her lips moved in prayer as she waited and the dread moments seemed eons to her.
Suddenly she heard a crash, and she could see the panels of sturdy oak in the door give way as though they were egg-shells. The gigantic fist of the monster crashed through and she could discern the dim outline of the enormous head, and the glaring eyes of fire looking toward her. With a shrill shriek she raised her arms above her head and fell swooning to the floor just as a pistol-shot rang out.
Locke, disheveled and weak, had released himself from the strait-jacket, and with the speed of a panther had ascended the stairs. He saw the monster crashing through the last remaining barrier, and without hesitation he fired at the thing as he closed in. His one thought was to delay it or make it swerve in its course momentarily, with the hope that by some chance Eva might have time to escape. Could he only accomplish this, he thought his mission successful, regardless of the outcome as far as he himself was concerned.
He pulled the trigger of his automatic again and again as he rushed forward. By some strange trick of fate the figure reeled for a second and one of its arms dropped swinging to its side. The bullet had entered a joint. Had it in some way deranged the mechanism, causing the Automaton to turn in its tracks and confront Locke as he charged forward? Or was some human being concealed in the armored creature and wounded?
Eva, in her semi-conscious state, saw the mass of metal charge toward Locke, and closed her eyes so as not to be a witness to his end. She waited, dumb and helpless with fright, and before her surged the meaning of this man's great sacrifice for her. In the brief interval she realized that men of his ilk were few. She realized that her interest in the young chemist was more than a passing fancy and the truth was driven home to her in his hour of peril. She closed her eyes and all before her went blank.
As the Automaton faced Locke voices could be heard in the hall, and the gardener of Brent Rock, who had summoned aid, came to Locke's assistance. Armed with clubs and garden tools, the men charged the monster. Like a lion at bay, the thing turned from its task of destroying Locke to face its new enemies. En masse they attacked the Automaton, but it shook them off, one by one, as a terrier would rats, and made its way toward the grand staircase. Some of the gardener's aids suffered broken bones, while others were left unconscious as a result of the conflict.
Locke picked himself up and rushed to Eva's side. He took the prostrate form in his arms and looked down into her beautiful face. The room was in ruins, and Eva slowly opened her eyes and looked up at him. Her hand went out in a momentary caress, but as she fully recovered consciousness she moved her hand away lest he really know. She looked up at him gratefully, and Locke, a little confused, took his arm from around her waist. With boyish bashfulness he hung his head and asked her if she was all right. The sound of his own voice amid the ruins brought back his composure.
"We must see about father. Perhaps something has happened to him," said Eva, as she started toward the door.
Locke looked after the girl, then followed her.
Propped up in bed, Peter Brent presented a pitiable sight. His glassy stare and shrill laugh like a coyote baying at the moon sent cold chills down Eva's back as she entered the room. This man, at one time a power in the business world, was only a shell of his former self, and his inhuman laughter caused even Locke to shudder a little as he entered the room.
Eva walked over to her father and put her hand to his brow, looking wistfully in his eyes for some sign of recognition.
She kissed him on the forehead and called him, but he still stared blankly ahead of him, unconscious of even her presence. Locke felt the pulse of the patient and looked at the dilated pupils.
"There must be some antidote for this Madagascar madness, and I shall move everything to find it," he said, as he looked at Eva with determination.
She turned toward him eagerly as he spoke and his words gave her a little cheer. Eva continued her caresses, but the demented man showed no signs of recognizing even his own daughter.
From another room the shrill laughter of Flint could be heard as he raved in delirium. Bereft of reason, he fought an unseen enemy.
"Q did it, I tell you—it's Q," he raved and shrieked in his insane way as he rocked back and forth in bed. He was fighting his own conscience, and kept pushing some unseen thing from him as he shook in a paroxysm of fright.
The front-door bell rang and Balcom entered. He was suave in manner, but this time he seemed a little excited as he gave his hat and stick to the butler.
"Tell Miss Brent I must see her at once," he ordered.
As the butler turned to mount the stairs, Balcom reached his hand up and rubbed his shoulder as though he were in pain. Perhaps the gesture meant nothing, but a keen observer would have noticed that his arm did not move with the freedom that one would expect of a man of his frame and build. As he rubbed his shoulder his eyes followed the butler up the stairs and his lips tightened. He watched him until he was out of sight, then turned and entered the library.
As Balcom entered the library the door-bell rang and the three ambulance men who had been overpowered by the emissaries of the Automaton entered. Balcom approached them and hasty explanations were forthcoming. In his suave manner he quieted the most noisy of the trio, who by this time had found the strait-jacket from which Locke had just released himself.
"This looks like a put-up job to me," growled the driver, as he confronted Balcom, holding the strait-jacket toward him. "And I believe you know something about it."
"My dear man, I am the person who telephoned for you to come for my stricken partner," said Balcom, "and I still insist that he is in dire need of treatment."
As he spoke Eva entered the library in time to hear him. She was followed by Locke.
"My father shall not be taken from this house," she cried, in reply to Balcom's orders to the attendants.
As she spoke she turned toward Locke and looked at him for his acquiescence. He quietly nodded toward her in an assuring manner, and as he did so one might have noticed Balcom's face cloud up with evil purpose. He was thinking of this young whipper-snapper and his interference with his plans. As he stood meditating he noticed that Locke was looking at him, so he turned toward the young chemist and his whole expression changed. A bland smile crept across his face as he spoke.
"I was only suggesting that my partner be taken to an institution, because I believed that he would receive better treatment there." He addressed Locke, but looked toward Eva as he did so. "Miss Brent should have trust in me. I have only her interest at heart."
"It would be better for Mr. Brent to stay here," said Locke. "The treatment his daughter can give will be better than that of an outsider."
As he spoke he sauntered away with an air of finality, while Balcom shrugged his shoulders and gave orders to the ambulance men to go.
Locke walked toward the dining-room, and there amid the candle drippings and the wreckage of the night before espied the miniature automaton. He picked it up and examined it minutely as Balcom strolled in.
Balcom's quick gaze caught what Locke was looking at, and he approached the young chemist and sauvely said:
"It seems almost unbelievable, Mr. Locke, that a giant form like that could be endowed with a human brain."
As he spoke he pointed toward the miniature automaton in Locke's hands. Locke turned and faced him, his jaw tightening with a snap.
"Not unbelievable, but impossible, Mr. Balcom," he said. "I believe that there is some one in this thing that attacks us and calls himself Q."
He eyed Balcom as he spoke, to see the effects of his words. But if Balcom knew anything, he cunningly concealed it. Locke walked to the table and closely examined the candles and other stuff strewn about. He was looking for some clue to what had caused the madness of Brent and Flint. The crumpled anatomy chart lay on the floor, and as Locke stooped to pick it up Eva entered and came toward him. She shuddered slightly as she passed the miniature of the monster, and Balcom, with an air of satisfaction, noticed her fear. He turned and was about to go out, when the butler entered with the duplicate candlestick in his hands.
"Mr. Locke, in cleaning the hall I found this behind the portieres at the entrance to below-stairs," he announced. "I was quite puzzled for a moment, for I knew the master had taken it into the dining-room with him last evening."
As he spoke he handed the candlestick to Locke, who quickly compared it with the one on the dining-room table which contained the burnt candles.
In appearance the candelabra were identical. Locke with great care examined every feature of them, looking for a clue. He took one of the whole candles from the candlestick which the butler had brought in and scraped the wax from in with his penknife. He examined the particles carefully, then approached the candlestick which stood on the table the fatal night, and very carefully removed the wax from the stumps of candles which were still in the sockets.
"The Madagascar madness came from that candlestick," he announced, with assurance, as he pointed toward the one on the table.
While he was so busily engaged Balcom was eying him cunningly. He watched his every move and was most intent in seeing just how the young man would prove his contention.
"Good morning, every one!" came the clear voice of Paul as he entered the room and crossed over to the side of his fiancee. He was particular to ignore Locke in his greeting, and as he approached Eva he bent over her hand and kissed it.
A close observer would have noticed that the girl rather drew her hand back from his caress.
"I am so sorry about your father, Eva," whispered Paul. "I trust the ailment is but temporary."
As he spoke Eva thanked him mechanically for his solicitations, while Balcom glanced at his son in admiration.
Locke, who was still engaged in looking at the candle drippings through his pocket magnifying-glass, paid slight attention to Paul, but glanced up in time to see that there was a look of insincerity on his face.
Could it be that this young scion of the Balcom fortune could in any way be connected with the Automaton? Could this man, this suave, polished gentleman, have any motive for seeking the ruin or death of his fiancee? Locke seemed to be busily engaged in his task, but he was making mental notes on the conduct of young Balcom. He looked up finally and turned to Eva.
"Miss Brent, I find minute particles of some foreign substance in the wax of these candles," he announced. "They seem to be of organic origin and I am certain that they contain the poison which has robbed your father of his mentality. I am going to take them to a chemical laboratory where there will be proper facilities to have them analyzed. Perhaps there is an antidote that will restore your father's sanity."
As Locke spoke he carefully wrapped up the particles of drippings in a piece of paper and put them in his pocket. As he did so, both Balcom and Paul exchanged hurried glances, and Balcom left the group and started toward the hall.
During all this procedure Zita, clad in a sumptuous morning frock hardly befitting a secretary, was standing behind the portieres in the hall and listening intently to all she could hear within the dining-room. As she heard Balcom's footsteps she hurriedly turned and seemed to be going up the hall. He looked after her and then called.
She came toward Balcom with a nod of understanding, and, as she approached, he led her to a corner of the hall and whispered to her.
"It is imperative that we get Flint out of the house to-night. I can trust you to take care of this if I arrange the details?"
Zita quickly nodded acquiescence, looking furtively over her shoulder to see if they were observed.
"I will get him to your apartment," she hurriedly said, as she looked up at him for further instructions.
Balcom turned quickly from her, got his own hat and sack, and departed, just as Locke came into the hall, bound for the chemist's shop. He looked after the disappearing form of Balcom, and then turned and noticed that he was being watched by Zita. Zita in turn hastily entered the library, without looking over her shoulder.
"I wonder what her real position in this house can be," mused Locke, as he took his hat and went toward the front door.
In the dining-room Paul was now standing close to Eva and had taken her hand.
"You know it was your father's wish that we be married," he was saying, "and I know that he would be happy if we had the ceremony performed at once."
His eyes narrowed as he said this, but Eva was too preoccupied to see it. With a shudder, ever so slight, she looked up at his handsome face and spoke.
"I will not even speak of marriage until my father recovers, Paul, and I don't know how you can ask me to at such a time."
She was not thinking so much of her father as of a certain young chemist who had risked his life for her. Why had fate thrown him in her way, she wondered. What was there about Quentin Locke that compelled her attention—that made her feel secure when he was about? What was the difference between the young chemist and Paul that she felt perfect trust in the one whom she had known only a short time and distrust and uncertainty in the other to whom she was about to be married?
She hung her head and went into the drawing-room, leaving Paul standing there. He looked after her, and a slight smile crossed his face as he thought of what a fool she was to think that he cared for her. His self-assurance led him to believe that the reason that Eva was not consenting to his proposal was indeed because of her father's condition, for he little dreamed, nor would his egotism permit him to believe, that anything else could be the case.
His mouth hardened in a subtle smile as he sauntered after Eva to bid her farewell. He remembered that De Luxe Dora was waiting outside for him in her speedster.
He had made this paramour of his take him to the very door of his fiancee's home, and there wait until he had paid his respects to the moneyed lady who would make happiness possible by supplying him with the funds to pursue his pleasures and insure his father's hold on the International Patents, Incorporated.
Paul looked at his watch, then, after a few words of condolence which would hardly sound sincere from any one less gifted, made a hurried departure toward the corner where the speedster was waiting.
"Who was the funny gink that hurried by a little while ago?" queried Dora, in the vernacular of her calling. "He gave me the double O as though he had something on me."
"That's a fellow we've got to look out for, kid," answered Paul, in the same terms by which he was addressed, for, if nothing else, Paul could be as much at home in the underworld as in a mansion on the Drive. "Brent claimed that he was a chemist before he went 'bugs,'" continued Paul, "but I have my doubts; in fact, I'm very leery of him because I think he's a fly cop."
He took his place beside Dora, who started the car and headed down-town.
After Paul's departure Eva hurried to her father's room and tried to comfort him. He was seated in a chair, staring blankly ahead of him. He was quieter now, but his body twitched nervously from time to time.
The tears started to come to Eva's eyes as she saw her father's plight, and she knelt down beside him and took his hand in hers. She stroked it with her own hand and bent over and kissed it. As she knelt, crying softly, she sobbed half-aloud:
"Why can't I confide in you, father? Why can't you advise me? I don't love Paul Balcom and could never marry him. I know I love Quentin Locke—I do—I do—"
As she sobbed she bent over his hand and pressed it to her lips.
Peter Brent sat staring into space, staring like a graven image.
After her brief encounter with Balcom in the hallway Zita stealthily mounted to Flint's room.
Flint's condition was unchanged. He lay sprawled out in a huge arm-chair, his head swaying from side to side, as he muttered and mumbled incoherently, while his leering smile caused even Zita to shudder.
She was, however, alive to the importance of her mission. Steeling herself, she raised Flint from the chair and steadied him with one hand while she tried to smooth out the wrinkles of his clothing so that his mad condition would not be too apparent when they went outdoors. It was a hard task, but Zita soon accomplished it and, half supporting, she led him through a door on the farther side of the room. They crept down a back stairway and so away from the house.
At times Flint stumbled and almost fell, and once that insane laugh startled a passer-by, who started after them, then changed his mind and proceeded on his way. It was then that Zita's heart almost stopped beating. She realized that the situation would be unexplainable to a stranger and she urged the insane Flint on faster.
Renewed hope came to her with each step. She had almost relaxed her precautions when, suddenly, from a clump of bushes, several men leaped out. They seized Flint, who merely started babbling afresh. Zita, ignorant of what was really happening, struck out right and left in the hopeless encounter, until one of the men with a grin seized her wrist in his powerful grasp and twisted it until she screamed with pain. Then she realized for the first time that she had fallen into the hands of the emissaries of the Automaton. Had Balcom planned it, or had that mechanical monster taken advantage of what Balcom had ordered?
In the mean time, the other thugs, with Flint between them, made off hurriedly. With a last push that almost threw Zita to the ground, the last of them dashed into the shrubbery, and for several moments Zita dazedly stood there as he crashed through the underbrush, making good the escape and capture. Then she turned and ran back to Brent Rock.
Locke, in the mean time, had arrived at the laboratory of his old friend Hadwell, the chemist, where he was warmly welcomed.
It was the usual dusty workshop of one devoted to one idea—science—with no touches of comfort. Hadwell fairly lived amid retorts, Bunsen burners, and reagents.
He was a man of profound research, rather than the commercial chemist, and it was from him that Locke, in earlier days, had learned many lessons so well that now his career was watched with interest by many distinguished men of science.
Hadwell was delighted at the chance to examine the strange scrapings of wax which Locke had dug out of the sockets of the candlestick, the more so as they must contain some mysterious poison. First he studied them under a powerful lens, then by chemical reactions, until he made visible some peculiar crystals. Locke himself was amazed as his friend worked.
"You don't know it all—yet—my boy," smiled the aged professor. "There's still something the old teacher can add to your education, and I'm glad, Quentin, very glad, for it will draw you closer to me again. I need you to carry on my work when I must lay it down. I'm not positive," he continued, "but I believe these crystals to be those of Dhatura stramonium, and, as you say speed's the thing, we'll begin by noting the effect of the stuff as a gas on that guinea-pig over there."
"Have you masks?" asked Locke, with true scientific caution.
"Yes—on the shelf. You're keen, Quentin. These fumes can penetrate the tiniest aperture and, if my guess is right, without a mask, you would quickly laugh yourself to death."
"Don't, Professor, don't joke, for there is no joy in that mad laughter. It is horrible, maddening, even to the hearer. Let us get to work. The father of the girl I love may even now be sinking to his death. We must determine the nature of this deadly stuff, and then find an antidote."
The chemist brought out the cage in which the guinea-pig was placidly munching a lettuce leaf, and placed it in a convenient spot on the table. Then, after Locke, as well as the professor, had carefully adjusted the masks, the latter lighted a Bunsen burner and applied the flame to the deadly crystals. A pungent fume was given off and collected in a rubber bag, or cone, from which a long tube protruded.
This tube the chemist introduced into the cage. For a moment there was no perceptible change in the animal's actions. Then it stopped eating, sniffed at the strange odor, and commenced to twitch violently. This twitching continued for several minutes, when the creature started to revolve in circles, like a Japanese dancing-mouse. Finally it became subject to spasms, and, although the professor withdrew the tube, these symptoms continued.
"I was right!" he cried. "It is an especially poisonous variety of that almost unknown Oriental drug, Dhatura stramonium. I think I can find an antidote to it, also. To work, my boy, to work!"
One experiment after another resulted in failure, however, and it was while they were so engaged that the telephone bell rang and a feminine voice inquired for Locke.
It was an excited Eva who called. "Quentin," she burst forth, breathlessly, "what do you think has happened? The strangest thing! Flint has escaped. Tell me what to do. Can't you come to me at once? I need you."
Locke needed no further urging. Important though the work of finding the antidote was, Eva's call was more imperative to him. He reassured her as best he could over the wire, for he had no idea what had really happened. Zita, as might have been expected, on her return to Brent Rock had been far too clever to disclose the exact truth that Flint had been abducted, and that while in her own charge.
When she arrived at Brent Rock she had mounted by the same stairway by which she and Flint had departed. Entering Flint's room, she had raised the alarm and had acted her part so well that Eva thought that she had discovered Flint's absence at the precise moment at which Zita had cried out and she had come running in answer to her call.
Locke gave Hadwell a brief outline of what had just occurred at Brent Rock.
"Professor," he pleaded, "for Heaven's sake don't fail me. Try as you never tried before to find the antidote for this strange combination of poisons. Telephone me when you have it."
Locke seized his hat, and Hadwell redoubled his efforts to fathom the toxic secret.
At Brent Rock, in the mean time, everything was in confusion, Eva was almost distracted, and, to add to her discomfort, Paul took occasion to call.
In the past few days her distrust of him, for she could call it by no other name, had grown, and the furtive glances which he exchanged with Zita, little trouble-maker, were not reassuring. But when Eva's maid, motioning her aside, told her that she had been a witness to the departure of Zita and Flint, Eva's suspicions from a vague misgiving became a stern reality. She longed for Locke's return and protection from the very man to whom she was engaged.
As Locke left the chemist's he noticed a light runabout across the street, half hidden in the shadows. But he failed to notice the evil face of De Luxe Dora peering at him from beneath the rim of a well-pulled-down hat.
"Huh!" she muttered. "We'll get his number and here's where I go after it."
Locke hailed a passing taxicab, gave a hurried direction to the chauffeur, and jumped in. The taxi snorted, cut out open, and jumped forward as the driver clumsily shifted the worn gears. But out of the shadows there glided a low-hung runabout with a purling motor that without effort kept Locke's taxi just in sight without seeming to be following.
At the time that the emissaries abducted Flint he had been roughly handled and some of his clothing had been torn. But as he had been incapable of the slightest degree of real self-defense, the thugs had soon desisted beating him up, with the result that he had escaped bodily injury except for a few slight scratches.
The emissaries of the Automaton led him by devious winding paths down to the shore, and, half walking, half running, pressing close to the high cliffs, they urged him forward.
Soon they came to a cleft in the rock, and, with one hand using a well-hooded electric torch to light the way, they dragged the poor unfortunate into the cave entrance to the den.
This cave was a marvel of nature, hewn out of the solid rock by countless tides, its dome lost in the darkness. It gave an impression of immensity, while in many directions passageways gave off from what might be called a main chamber.
Flint was roughly thrown on a rock, where, head in hands, he swayed backward and forward, now moaning, now chuckling, now laughing outright. The echo of that laugh resounded hollowly in the dismal place and must have notified the supreme master of this underground world that his domain had been invaded.
A metallic clanging in the distance, as of struck anvils, a crunching, as the smaller rocks broke in twain under the enormous weight of the iron monster, then far, far down the passageway two points of fire—the eyes of the thing—and with arms swinging like flails, from out the passageway there stalked—the Automaton.
Even the emissaries, slaves to this monster through fear, and seeing it often, fell back in awe and consternation, so terrible was its menace.
It strode over to Flint and, pushing him backward, glared at him with burning eyes that seemed to search his soul. The monster then turned to one of the emissaries and, with a sweeping gesture, gave a command.
The emissary understood and immediately ran up one of the passageways, returning in a few moments with a bottle which contained a purplish mixture. At another sign from the Automaton the emissary took a drinking-glass and poured out a portion of the purple fluid. Then he forced the draught between Flint's clenched teeth.
A violent trembling shook Flint from head to foot, a shudder of so exhausting a nature that after the spasm Flint, weakened, reclined against the cold wall of the cave, his body in a clammy perspiration. But gradually there came a change in his dazed, mad eyes. The iris contracted and became more normal. Even the leaden hue of his face slowly passed away. The face muscles relaxed and gradually the light of reason appeared in his eyes.
In a questioning manner Flint gazed about him. He saw the cave with its scintillating points of fire, as the man with the torch gesticulated. He saw the emissaries, and the realization that his position was perilous came to him. But it was only when he saw the towering form of the Automaton that his blood froze with horror and he made a frantic effort to escape the very thing which he had feared existed in Madagascar and had attempted to betray to Brent on the fatal night.
It was useless. He was soon borne down by the thugs, who stationed two of their number to guard him. Seeing the utter hopelessness of any attempt to escape, Flint sat quietly, while his crafty mind schemed for some other plan. Suddenly he saw the bottle, the contents of which had restored his reason. Reaching out slyly, he turned it around until he could read the label, and then, even in his predicament, he exulted over his discovery. It was the antidote. Like a flash came to him a shrewd scheme to use the knowledge.
An emissary who seemed to be a leader came over to him.
"Flint," he snarled, "you get one chance—see? Beat it back to Brent Rock and see that you get that Brent girl to come to the place where we will turn you loose. Understand? If you fail it means death. Think it over."
Flint could only agree.
They bandaged his eyes and quickly led him back over the road by which they had come.
Brent Rock was brilliantly lighted against Locke's coming. At the foot of the great stairway a group of excited servants had gathered, as if for mutual protection.
"Not another day will I stay in this house," quavered the cook. "What with crazy laughing and the other carryings-on, I'm fair distracted."
"Take shame to yerself, Mary Dolan, for yer gab of quittin', with the master and Miss Eva in sore trouble," answered the second girl. "But as you say," she continued, shaking her head, "it's a gloomy old place, and if it wasn't for Miss Eva I'd not be long in going myself."
"'Ave you no loyalty?" asked the butler, turning on them both.
"Hould yer jaw, Johnny Bull," threatened the cook. "Indade no foreigner can tell Mary Dolan her duty."
So they wrangled back and forth, and the underlying cause of all the discord was the old one—fear.
Nor was Eva exempt from its baneful influence. She was here, there, everywhere, allaying one servant's apprehension, commanding another to perform some task in order to occupy that servant's mind—but, for herself, she knew that the strain would not lessen until Locke arrived. She ran up-stairs and to a window from which she could obtain a better view of the drive along which he must come.
In a very short time, which, nevertheless, seemed an age to her, Eva was rewarded, and she fairly flew down the stairs, out of the house, and far down the drive. Locke's taxi stopped, he leaped out, and, regardless of the chauffeur, took Eva's hand.
"Tell me quickly what has happened?" he inquired.
From a distance Dora was a witness, exulting.
"Paul stands a swell chance with her," she sneered.
"Oh, I'm so glad you're here," confided Eva, letting down just a bit of her restraint as, like a frightened child, she told of what she had learned about the disappearance of Flint.
Locke dismissed the driver, and together they walked slowly toward the house.
Not only Eva, but the entire household was relieved by Locke's presence. The cook rushed forward and, with a "God bless you, sir!" would have embraced him had he not stepped aside. Even the dignified old family butler tried to take his hand, an unheard-of liberty on his part. For, unknowingly, all had come suddenly to rely upon this quiet, unassuming young man.
Locke immediately asked to be shown to Flint's room in the hope that Flint might have left some clue behind. But, although they searched high and low, no success met their efforts.
It was then that they faced their darkest moment. Feeling, as they did, that they were encircled by hidden enemies, the very air they breathed became a menace. Every attempt to find the thread that might unravel the dark mystery proved futile. It was not to be wondered at that they despaired. Even the weird laughter of Eva's stricken father, echoing hollowly through the house, seemed to be mocking their efforts.
The Automaton's emissaries were anxious to do their job and return to the cave, for, like rats, they preferred the security best found underground. They did not lead Flint very far.
At the edge of the Brent estate there was an Italian marble fountain decorated with bronze dolphins and water-nymphs disporting themselves. It was at this fountain that the men halted Flint and, with a final warning, left him.
For a few moments, such was his fear, Flint did not remove the bandage from his eyes, but moved groping around until his hand came in contact with the edge of the fountain. For a moment he stood quietly, listening for sounds of the emissaries. Then, as he heard nothing, he tore the bandage from his eyes, gazed wonderingly around him until his mind grasped his exact location, then, with a bound, started to run toward Brent Rock.
Had he noticed the bestial face of an emissary peering from the shrubbery he would have been even more frightened. Retribution, he would have known, would be swift and sure had he disregarded their commands and moved in another direction.
As Flint left the fountain Balcom, suave and well groomed as usual, was just giving his hat and stick to the butler when Locke and Eva, returning from Flint's room, encountered him in the hallway.
"Oh, Mr. Balcom," exclaimed Eva, "Mr. Locke and I are at a loss to account for Mr. Flint's disappearance! I told the gardeners, and they have hunted for him all over the estate and beyond, but he has disappeared as completely as though the ground had swallowed him."
Balcom expressed his utmost astonishment and at once insisted on going to Flint's room to solve the mystery himself.
Eva and Locke went directly into the library, where Locke for the first time had an opportunity to tell Eva the result of his visit to the chemist. The fact that they had discovered the nature of the toxin was in itself encouraging, and Eva felt that, even now, she could see the glimmer of a silver lining to the clouds.
"If we can only locate Mr. Flint, Quentin," she murmured, "I feel that much would be explained."
Hardly had the words passed her lips when, breathless and disheveled, Flint staggered up the stairs from under the porte-cochere and into the hallway. Balcom, just descending from his brief inspection of Flint's room, hailed him.
"What has happened?" he demanded. "Don't go into the library."
"I've just escaped from the Automaton," shouted Flint, "and I've found the antidote!"
Before Balcom could stop him he rushed into the library, Balcom following in a towering rage. Eva gave a startled little cry at the wild intrusion and Locke moved closer to her.
"Is the antidote that will restore your father's reason worth ten thousand dollars to you?" demanded Flint; then, before Eva could reply, added: "Speak quick! I've got to get out of the country to-night."
"Ten thousand!" gasped Eva. "Ten times ten thousand! Tell me what it is."
"Show me the money first," haggled Flint, "and remember I must have the hard cash."
"Just a moment, Eva," interrupted Locke. "Consider this thing well. We can deal with this fellow as a final resort."
Eva looked from Locke to Balcom, her mind in a turmoil, as the telephone-bell rang and Locke hurried to answer it.
In the room now there was a conflict of emotions and desires that fairly electrified the place. Eva ardently craved her father's recovery at all costs. Flint's avaricious mind wavered between a scheme nearing success and the possibility of failure and the fear of the Automaton. Balcom strained to hear the purport of the message that Locke was receiving.
At the sound of the chemist's voice Locke was tense with suppressed excitement.
"I've found the antidote," hastened to report the professor.
With a cordial word of thanks Locke turned from the telephone and faced the group in the room. As he made the announcement, Eva almost embraced him in the flood of relief at the thought of her father restored.
"Eva," growled Balcom, "you forget yourself. As Paul's father, I cannot countenance such actions."
"Mr. Balcom," interrupted Locke, "I am sure you will be kind in your criticism of Miss Brent. She has merely overrated my service to her."
"Paul shall hear of this," stormed Balcom.
"If your son cares to take the matter up with me," returned Locke, now on his dignity, "I am always to be found—here."
"Never mind," interposed Flint, who feared to see his chance slipping, "I've got to get out of the country. Mr. Locke, your antidote is probably valueless; mine is the certain one. Look at me, Miss Brent. Am I not cured?"
"You miserable sneak," scowled Locke, stepping over to him, "we don't need your assistance now."
"I'm dealing with Miss Brent," insisted Flint, insolently.
Eva, a bit nervous over Balcom's overbearing manner, interposed. "Mr. Locke," she said, with just a touch of dignity for effect on Balcom, "this is a matter of life and death, and I am not in favor of permitting a proven antidote to be taken out of the country by this—this man. I have every confidence in you, but suppose—just suppose—that your chemist friend is mistaken."
Flint immediately saw his advantage and pressed it home. "Are you going to let ten thousand dollars stand in the way of your father's recovery?" he insinuated. "Here," he added, taking pencil and paper from his pocket and writing hurriedly.
"Baker's dock," Eva read, as he handed her the paper, "until five o'clock."
Flint bowed decently enough to her, glanced upward, and, as he thought of Eva's father lying stricken with the Madagascar madness in the room above, an evil leer came over his fox-like face. As he left he completely ignored both Locke and Balcom, unless it was that the look in his eyes meant a sort of sinister triumph.
Locke followed him out of the library, and for a few moments Eva and Balcom were alone.
Balcom had been quick to realize that it would not further his plans if he continued to antagonize this high-spirited girl. He took another course. The kind and fatherly manner which he could assume so readily was now apparent.
"Eva, my dear child," he ingratiated, "I am really sorry for the hasty way in which I spoke, but, aside from our duty to International Patents, your marriage to my son has been my greatest hope and ambition."
"I can't see why you should wish a daughter-in-law of whose actions you disapprove," retorted Eva, pointedly.
It was a facer for Balcom and he quickly guided the conversation into less dangerous channels.
Eva's candid nature could not comprehend treachery of any kind in others, and yet, although she was unable to put a name to it, she had a vague feeling of insecurity in dealing with her father's partner. This feeling had been heightened by Balcom's actions. In speaking of the proposed marriage to Paul he had come quite close to her. She shuddered, for, out of the corner of her eye, only a few moments before, she remembered him in the same position when Flint had handed her the address, and she knew that Balcom had surreptitiously read it. Why had he taken that underhand method when, if he had only asked frankly to see the paper, she would have handed it to him without hesitation or suspicion.
Eva started to leave the library, but Balcom stopped her with a gesture. "My dear," he said, "your father is stricken with a deadly malady. His affairs are in your hands to protect his interests. I must urge that you marry Paul at the earliest possible moment."
Eva scarcely knew what to say. "I can't," she blurted out, then tried to cover her confusion and made it worse, "only—as a last resort—to save my father—Oh—good-by!" And she almost ran from the room.
Meanwhile, as Flint left Brent Rock, his fear of the Automaton returned to him with redoubled force. He had been false to his mission. Nor had he even succeeded in his treachery. A few minutes he had been certain that Eva would come to Baker's dock at the time set, but now doubts began to assail him. With her obvious faith in Locke, she might decide on the chemist's antidote, and there was always a possibility that it might restore Brent, in which case Flint realized that his life would be forfeit to the Automaton.
Nor were his fears unfounded. He had barely passed the fountain where, half an hour before, he had been set free, when an emissary came out from behind a neighboring tree and took up his trail.
De Luxe Dora also had waited only long enough to see Eva and Locke enter Brent Rock, when she turned her runabout around and drove rapidly back to Professor Hadwell's. She arrived there just in time to meet an automobile coming from the opposite direction and containing three emissaries of the Automaton.
In answer to an inquiry, Dora pointed out the chemist's house to them. They piled out, and their leader knocked at the door, while Dora drove off.
The chemist answered, and the leader produced a vial, glibly lying as he handed it over.
"The Williams Drug Company sent me to have this stuff analyzed," said the leader. "I'll wait."
As the professor admitted him he did not see the other two men pressed close to the wall on either side of the door. The moment the professor's back was turned they slinked after their leader into the house. In a dark corner of the hallway they crouched as their leader went into the laboratory with the chemist.
The professor sniffed at the vial, which contained nothing but pure water, and in surprise turned to the emissary for an explanation. But it was too late. The emissary dealt him a blow with a blunt instrument that stunned him and, as he reeled back and grasped at a table, the other thugs rushed from the hall and rained blow after blow on his venerable head and beat him to the floor. A convulsive shudder—a long-drawn-out sigh—and he lay still.
With barely a glance at him the emissaries set to work to smash all the paraphernalia of the place, sparing nothing in order to make sure that the antidote would be destroyed. Glass tubes, retorts, bottles, even furniture were smashed to bits in their orgy of ruin—and there, in the midst of the debris, his life's work finished, lay the old chemist, dead.
Tiring of their own efforts, the murderers at last desisted. One of them went to the street door and peered out, but in a moment was back with the others.
"Quick—that fellow Locke is coming."
He was right. Locke had immediately quit Brent Rock and had come directly to the chemist's in the hope of forestalling any further attempt by Flint to inveigle Eva into dealing with him.
The door had been left ajar and, although he thought it strange, Locke was without suspicion and entered the hallway. He called to his old friend, but the dead lips could not answer and the emissaries would not.
Greatly alarmed now, Locke strode to the laboratory. For a moment he stood as though petrified as the horrid scene burst upon his vision. He ran to the chemist and knelt beside his battered body.
With a rush the emissaries darted from their hiding-place and were upon him.
Although taken unawares, Locke was, in a measure, ready for them. One he grabbed in a clever jiu-jitsu hold and sent him hurtling through the air to crash in a heap in a far corner of the room. Leaping to his feet, he beat another to the floor. The third villain was of tougher fiber. Up and down the laboratory they battled, stumbling over broken furniture, now falling to the floor, where they rolled over and over, first one, then the other gaining the mastery, while the broken glass with which the floor was littered cut their clothing to ribbons and bit into their flesh.
Locke was slowly gaining the upper hand when the thug whom he had thrown over his head recovered. The brute took the situation in at a glance, saw his pal in trouble, and, sneaking treacherously behind Locke, dealt him a terrific blow with the butt of a revolver. Locke dropped to the floor as if pole-axed and lay still.
One of the thugs kicked him as he lay defenseless, and then, spying a row of coat-hooks in an inner hallway, with fiendish ingenuity directed the others who had joined him. They strung Locke up by his thumbs so that he hung, half suspended, with his toes just off the floor.
As one of them searched him Locke was still unconscious. They found nothing but a few bank-notes and the automatic revolver that Locke always carried.
Slowly Locke regained his senses. The agony of his strained thumbs was almost unbearable. But he was not the man to give up.
By this time two of the emissaries had gone, leaving one, who seated himself quite close to Locke, where he was examining the revolver. With the stoicism of an Indian, Locke manfully tried to evolve a plan by which he might escape. Like a flash it came to him, but it was a plan so fraught with the possibility of failure that he would not have decided on it except for the agony of the strain on his thumbs.
Directly opposite him and at a distance of four or five feet was a door leading to a back alley. This door the emissary now guarding him had locked as a precaution against surprise and had carefully placed the key in his vest pocket.
Locke weighed each detail of his plan and then, bracing his feet firmly against the wall, he suddenly shot his lower limbs forward and, like the closing of a pair of giant shears, he wrapped his legs about the neck of the emissary and immediately exerted enormous pressure with his knees.
The emissary, taken totally by surprise, struggled to break the hold, and Locke's thumbs were almost wrenched from their sockets. But he held on grimly. Soon the thug's struggles subsided, Locke released him, and he slipped to the floor.
Locke was wearing a low-cut shoe. Strange that a man's life may hinge on such a slight detail, but this fact enabled him to work off his right shoe and his sock. He extended his bare foot, and with his toes searched the pocket of the emissary for the key to the door. Finally he found it.
Locke held the key as firmly as he might between his toes and, projecting his body by a muscular effort far away from the wall, he managed to insert the key in the lock. He turned it. The door was unlocked now. A swift downward movement of his foot against the knob and the door swung open.
He braced himself against its edge and, with his back firmly pressed against the wall, relieved the strain on his thumbs. He rested a moment and then, as it were, walked up the edge of the door until his feet reached the top. Swinging one leg over the door, by patient effort he was enabled to release one swollen thumb, then the other. An instant later he dropped down and leaned exhaustedly against the wall.
While Locke was held in the room things had happened which would have set him nearly crazy with anxiety. Eva, having heard nothing from him, had become alarmed and had telephoned to the chemist. This was at quarter to five, and she had supposed that it was the chemist who answered her. In reality it had been an emissary, and he had told her that the final experiment to find an antidote for her father's malady had been really a failure and that Locke had left some time before.
After all that she had endured, this was almost the final blow to Eva. She thought of Flint and Baker's dock and five o'clock. There was no time to lose if she were to save her father. So she pulled herself together, seized her hat and cloak, and started for the door.