“A gentleman to see you, doctor.”
From across the common a clock sounded the half hour.
“Ten-thirty!” I said. “A late visitor. Show him up, if you please.”
I pushed my writing aside and tilted the lamp shade as footsteps sounded on the landing. The next moment I had jumped to my feet, for a tall, lean man with his square-cut, clean-shaven face sun baked to the hue of coffee, entered and extended both hands with a cry:
“Good old Petrie! Didn’t expect me, I’ll swear!”
It was Nayland Smith, whom I had thought to be in Burma!
“Smith,” I said, and gripped his hands hard, “this is a delightful surprise! Whatever—however—”
“Excuse me, Petrie!” he broke in. “Don’t put it down to the sun!” And he put out the lamp, plunging the room into darkness.
I was too surprised to speak.
“No doubt you will think me mad,” he continued, and dimly I could see him at the window, peering out into the road, “but before you are many hours older you will know that I have good reason to be cautious. Ah, nothing suspicious! Perhaps I am first this time.” And stepping back to the writing table, he relighted the lamp.
“Mysterious enough for you?” he laughed, and glanced at my unfinished MS. “A story, eh? From which I gather that the district is beastly healthy—what, Petrie? Well, I can put some material in your way that, if sheer uncanny mystery is a marketable commodity, ought to make you independent of influenza and broken legs and shattered nerves and all the rest.”
I surveyed him doubtfully, but there was nothing in his appearance to justify me in supposing him to suffer from delusions. His eyes were too bright, certainly, and a hardness now had crept over his face. I got out the whisky and siphon, saying:
“You have taken your leave early?”
“I am not on leave,” he replied, and slowly filled his pipe. “I am on duty.”
“On duty!” I exclaimed. “What, are you moved to London, or something?”
“I have got a roving commission, Petrie, and it doesn’t rest with me where I am to-day, nor where I shall be to-morrow.”
There was something ominous in the words, and putting down my glass, I faced round and looked him squarely in the eyes.
“Out with it!” I said. “What is it all about?”
Smith suddenly stood up and stripped off his coat. Rolling hack his left shirt sleeve he revealed a wicked-looking wound in the fleshy part of the forearm. It was quite healed, hut curiously striated for an inch or so around.
“Ever seen one like it?” he asked.
“Not exactly,” I confessed. “It appears to have been deeply cauterized.”
“Right! Very deeply! A barb steeped in the venom of a hamadryad went in there!”
A shudder I could not repress ran through me at mention of that most deadly of all the reptiles of the East.
“There’s only one treatment.” he continued, rolling his sleeve down again, “and that’s with a sharp knife, a match, and a broken cartridge. I lay on my back raving for three days afterward in a forest that stank with malaria, but I should have been lying there now if I had hesitated. Here’s the point. It was not an accident!”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that it was a deliberate attempt on my life, and I am hard upon the tracks of the man who extracted that venom—patiently, drop by drop—from the poison glands of the snake, who prepared the arrow, and who caused it to he shot at me.”
“What fiend is this?”
“A fiend who, unless my calculations are at fault, is now in London, and who regularly wars with pleasant weapons of that kind. Petrie, I have traveled from Burma not in the interests of the British Government merely, but in the interests of the entire white race, and I honestly believe—though I pray I may be wrong—that its survival depends largely upon the success of my mission.”
To say that I was perplexed conveys no idea of the mental chaos created by these extraordinary statements, for into my humdrum suburban life Nayland Smith had brought fantasy of the wildest. I did not know what to think, what to believe.
“I am wasting precious time!” he rapped decisively, and, draining his glass, he stood up. “I came straight to you because you are the only man I dare to trust. Except the big chief at headquarters, you are the only person in England, I hope, who knows that Nayland Smith has quitted Burma. I must have some one with me, Petrie, all the time—it’s imperative! Can you put me up here, and spare a few days to the strangest business, I promise you, that ever was recorded in fact or fiction?”
I agreed readily enough, for, unfortunately, my professional duties were not onerous.
“Good man!” he cried, wringing my hand in his impetuous way. “We start now.”
“To-night! I had thought of turning in, I must admit. I have not dared to sleep for forty-eight hours, except in fifteen-minute stretches. But there is one move that must be made to-night and immediately. I must warn Sir Crichton Davey.”
“Sir Crichton Davey—of the India—”
“Petrie, he is a doomed man! Unless he follows my instructions without question, without hesitation—before Heaven, nothing can save him! I do not know when the blow will fall, how it will fall, nor from whence, but I know that my first duty is to warn him. Let us walk down to the corner of the common and get a taxi.”
“What’s this?” muttered my friend hoarsely.
Constables were moving on a little crowd of curious idlers who pressed about the steps of Sir Crichton Davey’s house and sought to peer in at the open door. Without waiting for the cab to draw up to the curb, Nayland Smith recklessly leaped out, and I followed closely at his heels.
“What has happened?” he demanded breathlessly of a constable.
The latter glanced at him doubtfully, but something in his voice and bearing commanded respect.
“Sir Crichton Davey has been killed, sir.”
Smith lurched back as though he had received a physical blow, and clutched my shoulder convulsively. Beneath the heavy tan his face had blanched, and his eyes were set in a stare of horror.
“My God!” he whispered. “Just too late!”
With clenched fists he turned and, pressing through the group of loungers, bounded up the steps. In the hall a man who unmistakably was a Scotland Yard official stood talking to a footman. Other members of the household were moving about, more or less aimlessly, and the chilly hand of King Fear had touched one and all, for, as they came and went, they glanced ever over their shoulders, as if each shadow cloaked a menace, and listened, as it seemed, for some sound which they dreaded to hear.
Smith strode up to the detective and showed him a card, upon glancing at which the Scotland Yard man said something in a low voice, and, nodding, touched his hat to Smith in a respectful manner.
A few brief questions and answers, and, in gloomy silence, we followed the detective up the heavily carpeted stair, along a corridor lined with pictures and busts, and into a large library. A group of people were in this room, and one, in whom I recognized Chalmers Cleeve of Harley Street, was bending over a motionless form stretched upon a couch. Another door communicated with a small study, and through the opening I could see a man on all fours examining the carpet. The uncomfortable sense of hush, the group about the physician, the bizarre figure crawling, beetlelike, across the inner room, and the grim hub, around which all this ominous activity turned, made up a scene that etched itself indelibly on my mind.
As we entered, Dr. Cleeve straightened himself, frowning thoughtfully.
“Frankly, I do not care to venture any opinion at present regarding the immediate cause of death,” he said. “Sir Crichton was addicted to cocaine, but there are indications which are not in accordance with cocaine poisoning. I fear that only a post-mortem can establish the facts—if” he added, “we ever arrive at them. A most mysterious case!”
Smith stepping forward and engaging the famous pathologist in conversation, I seized the opportunity to examine Sir Crichton’s body.
The dead man was in evening dress, but wore an old smoking jacket. He had been of spare but hardy build, with thin, aquiline features, which now were oddly puffy, as were his clenched hands. I pushed back his sleeve and saw the marks of the hypodermic syringe upon his left arm. Quite mechanically I turned my attention to the right arm. It was unscarred, but on the back of the hand was a faint red mark, not unlike the imprint of painted lips. I examined it closely, and even tried to rub it off, but it evidently was caused by some morbid process of local inflammation if it were not a birthmark.
Turning to a pale young man whom I had understood to be Sir Crichton’s private secretary, I drew his attention to this mark and inquired if it were constitutional.
“It is not, sir,” answered Dr. Cleeve, overhearing my question. “I have already made that inquiry. Does it suggest anything to your mind? I must confess that it afforded me no assistance.”
“Nothing,” I replied. “It is most curious.”
“Excuse me. Mr. Burboyne.” said Smith, now turning to the secretary, “but Inspector Weymouth will tell you that I act with authority. I understand that Sir Crichton was—seized with illness in his study?”
“Yes, at half-past ten. I was working here in the library and he inside, as was our custom.”
“The communicating door was kept closed?”
“Yes, always. It was open for a minute or less about ten-twenty-five, when a message came for Sir Crichton. I took it in to him, and he then seemed in his usual health.”
“What was the message?”
“I could not say. It was brought by a district messenger, and he placed it beside him on the table. It is there now, no doubt.”
“And at half-past ten?”
“Sir Crichton suddenly burst open the door and threw himself, with a scream, into the library. I ran to him but he waved me back. His eyes were glaring horribly. I had just reached his side when he fell, writhing, upon the floor. He seemed past speech, but as I raised him and laid him upon the couch he gasped something that sounded like ‘The red hand!’ Before I could get to the bell or telephone he was dead!”
Mr. Burboyne’s voice shook as he spoke the words, and Smith seemed to find this evidence confusing.
“You do not think he referred to the mark on his hand?”
“I think not. From the direction of his last glance I feel sure he referred to something in the study.”
“What did you do?”
“Having summoned the servants, I ran into the study. But there was nothing unusual to be seen. The windows were closed and fastened. He worked with closed windows in the hottest weather. There is no other door, for the study occupies the end of a narrow wing, so that no one could possibly have gained access to it while I was in the library unseen by me. Had some one concealed himself in the study earlier in the evening—and I am convinced that it offers no hiding place—he could only have come out again by passing through here.”
Nayland Smith tugged at the lobe of his left ear, as was his habit when meditating.
“You had been at work here in this way for some time?”
“Yes. Sir Crichton was preparing an important book.”
“Had anything unusual occurred prior to this evening?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Burboyne with evident perplexity, “though I attached no importance to it at the time. Three nights ago Sir Crichton came out to me and appeared very nervous; but at times his nerves—you know? Well, on this occasion he asked me to search the study. He had an idea that something was concealed there.”
“Something or some one?”
“‘Something’ was the word he used. I searched, but fruitlessly, and he seemed quite satisfied and returned to his work.”
“Thank you, Mr. Burboyne. My friend and I would like a few minutes’ private investigation in the study.”
Sir Crichton Davey’s study was a small one, and a glance sufficed to show that, as the secretary had said, it offered no hiding place. It was heavily carpeted, and overfull of Burmese and Chinese ornaments and curios, and upon the mantelpiece stood several framed photographs which showed this to be the sanctum of a wealthy bachelor who was no misogynist. A map of the Indian Empire occupied the larger part of one wall. The grate was empty, for the weather was extremely warm, and a green-shaded lamp on the littered writing table afforded the only light. The air was stale, for both windows were closed and fastened.
Smith immediately pounced upon a large, square envelope that lay beside the blotting pad Sir Crichton had not even troubled to open it, but my friend did so. It contained a blank sheet of paper!
“Smell!” he directed, handing the letter to me.
I raised it to my nostrils. It was scented with some pungent perfume.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It is a rather rare essential oil,” was the reply, “which I have met with before, though never in Europe. I begin to understand, Petrie.”
He tilted the lamp shade and made a close examination of the scraps of paper, matches, and other débris that lay in the grate and on the hearth. I took up a copper vase from the mantelpiece, and was examining it curiously when he turned, a strange expression on his face.
“Put that back, old man,” he said quietly. Much surprised, I did as he directed.
“Don’t touch anything in the room. It may be dangerous.”
Something in the tone of his voice chilled me, and I hastily replaced the vase and stood by the door of the study, watching him search methodically every inch of the room—behind the books, in all the ornaments, in table drawers, in cupboards, on shelves.
“That will do,” he said at last. “There is nothing here and I have no time to search further.”
We returned to the library.
“Inspector Weymouth,” said my friend, “I have a particular reason for asking that Sir Crichton’s body be removed from this room at once and the library locked. Let no one be admitted on any pretense whatever until you hear from me.”
It spoke volumes for the mysterious credentials borne by my friend that the man from Scotland Yard accepted his orders without demur, and, after a brief chat with Mr. Burboyne, Smith passed briskly downstairs. In the hall a man who looked like a groom out of livery was waiting.
“Are you Wills?” asked Smith.
“It was you who heard a cry of some kind at the rear of the house about the time of Sir Crichton’s death?”
“Yes, sir. I was locking the garage door, and, happening to look up at the window of Sir Crichton’s study, I saw him jump out of his chair. Where he used to sit at his writing, sir, you could see his shadow on the blind. Next minute I heard a call out in the lane.”
“What kind of call?”
The man whom the uncanny happening clearly had frightened seemed puzzled for a suitable description.
“A sort of wail, sir,” he said at last. “I never heard anything like it before and don’t want to again.”
“Like this?” inquired Smith, and he uttered a low, wailing cry, impossible to describe.
“The same, sir, I think,” Wills said, “but much louder.”
“That will do,” said Smith, and I thought I detected a note of triumph in his voice. “But stay! Take us through to the back of the house.”
The man bowed and led the way, so that shortly we found ourselves in a small, paved courtyard. It was a perfect summer’s night, and the deep blue vault above was jeweled with myriads of starry points.
“Up yonder are the study windows, sir. Over that wall on your left is the back lane from which the cry came, and beyond is Regent’s Park.”
“Are the study windows visible from there?”
“Oh, yes, sir.”
“Who occupies the adjoining house?”
“Major General Platt-Houston, sir, but the family is out of town.”
“Those iron stairs are a means of communication between the domestic offices and the servants’ quarters, I take it?”
“Then send some one to make my business known to the Major General’s housekeeper; I want to examine those stairs.”
Singular though my friend’s proceedings appeared to me, I had ceased to wonder at anything. Since Nayland Smith’s arrival at my rooms I seemed to have been moving through the fitful phases of a nightmare. My friend’s account of how he came by the wound in his arm; the scene on our arrival at the house of Sir Crichton Davey; the secretary’s story of the dying man’s cry, “The red hand!”; the hidden perils of the study; the wail in the lane—all were fitter incidents of delirium than of sane reality. So, when a white-faced butler made us known to a nervous old lady who proved to be the housekeeper of the next-door residence, I was not surprised at Smith’s saying:
“Lounge up and down outside. Petrie. Everyone has cleared off now. It is getting late. Keep your eyes open and be on your guard. I thought I had the start, but he is here before me, and, what is worse, he probably knows by now that I am here, too.”
With which he entered the house and left me out in the square, with leisure to think, to try to understand.
The crowd which usually haunts the scene of a sensational crime had been cleared away, and it had been circulated that Sir Crichton had died from natural causes. The intense heat having driven most of the residents out of town, practically I had the square to myself, and I gave myself up to a brief consideration of the mystery in which I so suddenly had found myself involved.
By what agency had Sir Crichton met his death? Did Nayland Smith know? I rather suspected that he did. What was the hidden significance of the perfumed envelope? Who was that mysterious personage whom Smith so evidently dreaded, who had attempted his life, who presumably had murdered Sir Crichton? Sir Crichton Davey, during the time that he had held office in India and during his long term of service at home, had earned the good will of all. British and native alike. Who was his secret enemy?
Something touched me lightly on the shoulder.
I turned, with my heart fluttering like a child’s. This night’s work had imposed a severe strain even upon my callous nerves.
A girl wrapped in a hooded opera cloak stood at my elbow, and, as she glanced up at me, I thought that I never had seen a face so seductively lovely nor of so unusual a type. With the skin of a perfect blonde, she had eyes and lashes as black as a Creole’s, which, together with her full red lips, told me that this beautiful stranger, whose touch had so startled me, was not a child of our northern shores.
“Forgive me,” she said, speaking with an odd, pretty accent, and laying a slim hand with jeweled fingers confidingly upon my arm, “if I startled you. But—is it true that Sir Crichton Davey has been murdered?”
I looked into her big, questioning eyes, a harsh suspicion laboring in my mind, but could read nothing in their mysterious depths—only I wondered anew at my questioner’s beauty. The grotesque idea momentarily possessed me that, were the bloom of her red lips due to art and not to nature, their kiss would leave—though not indelibly—just such a mark as I had seen upon the dead man’s hand. But I dismissed the fantastic notion as bred of the night’s horrors, and worthy only of a medieval legend. No doubt she was some friend or acquaintance of Sir Crichton’s who lived close by.
“I cannot say that he has been murdered,” I replied, acting upon the latter supposition and seeking to tell her what she asked as gently as possible. “But he is—”
She closed her eyes and uttered a low, moaning sound, swaying dizzily. Thinking she was about to swoon. I threw my arm round her shoulders to support her, but she smiled sadly and pushed me gently away.
“I am quite well, thank you,” she said.
“You are certain? Let me walk with you until you feel quite sure of yourself.”
She shook her head, flashed a rapid glance at me with her beautiful eyes, and looked away in a sort of sorrowful embarrassment, for which I was entirely at a loss to account. Suddenly she resumed:
“I cannot let my name be mentioned in this dreadful matter, but—I think I have some information—for the police. Will you give this to—whomever you think proper?”
She handed me a sealed envelope, again met my eyes with one of her dazzling glances, and hurried away. She had gone no more than ten or twelve yards, and I still was standing bewildered, watching her graceful, retreating figure, when she turned abruptly and came back. Without looking directly at me, but alternately glancing toward a distant corner of the square and toward the house of Major General Platt-Houston, she made the following extraordinary request:
“If you would do me a very great service, for which I always would be grateful”—she glanced at me with passionate intentness—”when you have given my message to the proper person, leave him and do not go near him any more to-night!”
Before I could find words to reply she gathered up her cloak and ran. Before I could determine whether or not to follow her (for her words had aroused anew all my worst suspicions) she had disappeared! I heard the whirr of a restarted motor at no great distance, and in the instant that Nayland Smith came running down the steps I knew that I had nodded at my post.
“Smith!” I cried as he joined me, “tell me what we must do!”
And rapidly I acquainted him with the incident.
My friend looked very grave; then a grim smile crept round his lips.
“She was a big card to play,” he said; “but he did not know that I held one to beat it.”
“What! You know this girl? Who is she?”
“She is one of the finest weapons in the enemy’s armory, Petrie. But a woman is a two-edged sword, and treacherous. To our great good fortune, she has formed a sudden predilection, characteristically Oriental, for yourself. Oh, you may smile, but it is evident. She was employed to get this letter placed in my hands. Give it to me.”
I did so.
“She has succeeded. Smell.”
He held the envelope under my nose, and, with a sudden sense of nausea, I recognized the strange perfume.
“You know what this presaged in Sir Crichton’s case? Can you doubt any longer? She did not want you to share my fate, Petrie.”
“Smith,” I said unsteadily, “I have followed your lead blindly in this horrible business and have not pressed for an explanation, but I must insist before I go one step farther upon knowing what it all means.”
“Just a few steps farther,” he rejoined. “As far as a cab. We are hardly safe here. Oh, you need not fear shot or knives. The man whose servants are watching us now scorns to employ such clumsy, telltale weapons.”
“Pull up the window on your side, Petrie, and look out behind. Good! We’ve started.”
The cab moved off with a metallic jerk, and I turned and looked back through the little window in the rear.
“Some one has got into another cab. It is following ours, I think.”
Nayland Smith lay back and laughed unmirthfully.
“Petrie,” he said, “if I escape alive from this business I shall know that I bear a charmed life.”
I made no reply as he pulled out the dilapidated pouch and filled his pipe.
“You have asked me to explain matters,” he continued, “and I will do so to the best of my ability. You no doubt wonder why a servant of the British Government, lately stationed in Burma, suddenly appears in London in the character of a detective. I am here, Petrie—and I bear credentials from the very highest sources—because, quite by accident, I came upon a clue. Following it up in the ordinary course of routine, I obtained evidence of the existence and malignant activity of a certain man. At the present stage of the case I should not be justified in terming him the emissary of an Eastern power, but I may say that representations are shortly to be made to that power’s ambassador in London.”
He paused and glanced back toward the pursuing cab.
“There is little to fear until we arrive home,” he said calmly. “Afterward there is much. To continue: This man, whether a fanatic or a duly appointed agent, is, unquestionably, the most malign and formidable personality existing in the known world to-day. He is a linguist who speaks with almost equal facility in any of the civilized languages and in most of the barbaric. He is an adept in all the arts and sciences which a great university could teach him. He also is an adept in certain obscure arts and sciences which no university of to-day can teach. He has the brains of any three men of genius. Petrie, he is a mental giant.”
“You amaze me!” I said.
“As to his mission among men. Why did M. Jules Furneaux fall dead in a Paris opera house? Because of heart failure? No! Because his last speech had shown that he held the key to the secret of Tongking. What became of the Grand Duke Stanislaus? Elopement? Suicide? Nothing of the kind. He alone was fully alive to Russia’s growing peril. He alone knew the truth about Mongolia. Why was Sir Crichton Davey murdered? Because had the work he was engaged upon ever seen the light, it would have shown him to be the only living Englishman who understood the importance of the Tibetan frontiers. Is there a man who would arouse the West to a sense of the awakening of the East, that the millions only await their leader? He will die. And this is only one phase of the devilish campaign. The others I can merely surmise.”
“But, Smith, this is almost incredible! What perverted genius controls this awful secret movement?”
“Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present. Imagine that awful being and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”
I sank into an armchair in my rooms and gulped down a strong peg of brandy.
“We have been followed here,” I said. “Why did you make no attempt to throw the pursuers off the track, to have them intercepted?”
“Useless, in the first place. Wherever we went he would find us. And of what use to arrest his creatures? We could prove nothing against them. Further, it is evident that an attempt is to be made upon my life to-night—and by the same means that proved so successful in the case, of poor Sir Crichton.”
His square jaw grew truculently prominent, and he leaped stormily to his feet, shaking his clenched fists toward the window.
“The villain!” he cried. “The fiendishly clever villain! I suspected that Sir Crichton was next, and I was right. But I came too late, Petrie! That hits me hard, old man. To think that I knew and yet failed to save him!”
He resumed his seat, smoking hard.
“Fu-Manchu has made the blunder common to all men of unusual genius,” he said. “He has underrated his adversary. He has not given me credit for perceiving the meaning of the scented messages. He has thrown away one powerful weapon—to get such a message into my hands—and he thinks that, once safe within doors, I shall sleep, unsuspecting, and die as Sir Crichton died. But without the indiscretion of your charming friend I should have known what to expect when I received her ‘information,’ which, by the way, consists of a blank sheet of paper.”
“Smith,” I broke in, “who is she?”
“She is either Fu-Manchu’s daughter, his wife, or his slave. I am inclined to believe the latter, for she has no will but his will, except”—with a quizzical glance—”in a certain instance.”
“How can you jest with some awful thing—Heaven knows what—hanging over your head? What is the meaning of these perfumed envelopes? How did Sir Crichton die?”
He died of the Zayat Kiss. Ask me what that is and I reply ‘I do not know.’ The zayats are the Burmese caravansaries, or rest houses. Along a certain route—upon which I set eyes for the first and only time upon Dr. Fu-Manchu—travelers who use them sometimes die as Sir Crichton died, with nothing to show the cause of death but a little mark upon the neck, face, or limb, which has earned in those parts the title of the ‘Zayat Kiss.’ The rest houses along that route are shunned now. I have my theory, and I hope to prove it to-night if I live. This was my principal reason for not enlightening Dr. Cleeve. Even walls have ears where Fu-Manchu is concerned. I wanted an opportunity to study the Zayat Kiss in operation, and I shall have one.”
“But the scented envelopes?”
“In the swampy forests of the district I have referred to a rare species of orchid, almost green and with a peculiar scent, is sometimes met with. I recognized the heavy perfume at once. I take it that the thing which kills the travelers is attracted by this orchid. You will notice that the perfume clings to whatever it touches. I doubt if it can be washed off in the ordinary way. After at least one unsuccessful attempt to kill Sir Crichton—you recall that he thought there was something concealed in his study on a previous occasion?—Fu-Manchu hit upon the perfumed envelopes. He may have a supply of these green orchids in his possession—possibly to feed the creature.”
“What creature? How could any creature have got into Sir Crichton’s room to-night?”
“You no doubt observed that I examined the grate of the study. I found a fair quantity of fallen soot. I at once assumed, since it appeared to be the only means of entrance, that something had been dropped down: and I took it for granted that the thing, whatever it was, must still be concealed either in the study or in the library. But when I had obtained the evidence of the groom, Wills, I perceived that the cry from the lane or from the park was a signal. I noted that the movements of anyone seated at the study table were visible, in shadow, on the blind, and that the study occupied the corner of a two-storied wing and, therefore, had a short chimney. What did the signal mean? That Sir Crichton had leaped up from his chair and either had received the Zayat Kiss or had seen the thing which some one on the roof had lowered down the straight chimney, It was the signal to withdraw that deadly thing. By means of the iron stairway at the rear of Major General Platt-Houston’s I quite easily gained access to the roof above Sir Crichton’s study and I found this.”
Out from his pocket Nayland Smith drew a tangled piece of silk, mixed up with which were a brass ring and a number of unusually large-sized split shot, nipped on in the manner usual on a fishing line.
“My theory proven,” he resumed. “Not anticipating a search on the roof, they had been careless. This was to weight the line and to prevent the creature’s clinging to the walls of the chimney. Directly it had dropped in the grate, however, by means of this ring I assume that the weighted line was withdrawn, and the thing was only held by a slender thread, which sufficed, though, to draw it back again when it had done its work. It might have got tangled, of course, but they reckoned on its making straight up the carved leg of the writing table for the prepared envelope. From there to the hand of Sir Crichton—which, from having touched the envelope, would also be scented with the perfume—was a certain move.”
“My God! How horrible!” I exclaimed, and glanced apprehensively into the dusky shadows of the room. “What is your theory respecting this creature—what shape, what color?”
“It is something that moves rapidly and silently. I have observed that the rear of this house is ivy covered right up to and above your bedroom. Let us make ostentatious preparations to retire, and I think we may rely upon Fu-Manchu’s servants to attempt my removal, at any rate—if not yours.”
“But, my dear fellow, it is a climb of thirty-five feet at the very least!”
“You remember the cry in the back lane? It suggested something to me, and I tested my idea—successfully. It was the cry of a dacoit. Oh, dacoity, though quiescent, is by no means extinct. Fu-Manchu has dacoits in his train, and probably it is one who operates the Zayat Kiss, since it was a dacoit who watched the window of the study this evening. To such a man an ivy-covered wall is a grand staircase.”
The clock across the common struck two.
Having removed all traces of the scent of the orchid from our hands with a solution of ammonia, Smith and I had followed the program laid down. It was an easy matter to reach the rear of the house, by simply climbing a fence, and we did not doubt that, seeing the light go out in the front, our unseen watcher would proceed to the back.
The room was a large one, and we had made up my camp bed at one end, stuffing odds and ends under the clothes to lend the appearance of a sleeper, which device we also had adopted in the case of the larger lied. The perfumed envelope lay upon a little coffee table in the center of the floor, and Smith, with an electric pocket lamp, a revolver, and a brassy beside him, sat on cushions in the shadow of the wardrobe. I occupied a post between the windows.
The distant clock struck a quarter-past two. A slight breeze stirred the ivy.
Something rose, inch by-inch, above the sill of the westerly window. I could see only its shadow, but a sharp, sibilant breath from Smith told me that he, from his post, could see the cause of the shadow.
Every nerve in my body seemed to be strung tensely. I was icily cold, expectant, and prepared for whatever horror was upon us.
The shadow became stationary. The dacoit was studying the interior of the room.
Then it suddenly lengthened, and, craning my neck to the left, I saw a lithe, black-clad form, surmounted by a yellow face, sketchy in the moonlight, pressed against the window panes!
One thin, brown hand appeared over the edge of the lowered sash, which it grasped, and then another. The man made absolutely no sound whatever. The second hand disappeared—and reappeared. It held a small square box.
There was a very faint click.
The dacoit swung himself below the window with the agility of an ape as, with a dull, sickening thud, something dropped upon the carpet!
“Stand still, for your life!” came Smith’s voice, high pitched.
A beam of white light leaped out across the room and played fully upon the coffee table in the center.
Prepared as I was for something horrible, I know that I paled at sight of the thing that was running round the edge of the envelope.
It was an insect, full six inches long, and of a vivid, venomous red color! It had something of the appearance of a great ant, with its long, quivering antennas and its febrile, horrible vitality; but it was proportionately longer of body and smaller of head, and had numberless rapidly moving legs. In short, it was a giant centipede, apparently of the Scolopendra group, but of a form quite new to me. These things I realized in one breathless instant: in the next—Smith had dashed the thing’s poisonous life out with one straight, true blow of the golf club!
I leaped to the window and threw it widely open, feeling a silk thread brush my hand as I did so. A black shape was dropping with incredible agility from branch to branch of the ivy, and without once offering a mark for a revolver shot, it merged into the shadows beneath the trees of the garden.
As I turned and switched on the light Nayland Smith dropped limply into a chair, leaning his head upon his hands. Even that grim courage had been tried sorely.
“Never mind the dacoit, Petrie,” he said. “Nemesis will know where to find him. We know now what causes the mark of the Zayat Kiss. Therefore science is richer for our first brush with the enemy, and the enemy is poorer—unless he has any more unclassified centipedes. I understand now something that has been puzzling me since I heard of it—Sir Crichton’s stifled cry. When we remember that he was almost past speech, it is reasonable to suppose that his cry was not ‘The red hand!’ but ‘The red ant!’ Petrie, to think that I failed by less than an hour to save him from such an end!”
“The body of a lascar, dressed in the manner usual on the P. & O. boats, was recovered from the Thames off Tilbury by the river police at 6 a. m. this morning. It is supposed that the man met with an accident in leaving his ship.”
Nayland Smith passed me the evening paper and pointed to the above paragraph.
“For ‘lascar’ read ‘dacoit.'” he said. “Our last night’s visitor, fortunately for us, failed to follow his instructions. Also, he lost the centipede and left a clue behind him. Dr. Fu-Manchu does not overlook such lapses.”