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Although best known as the creator of the Fu-Manchu series of mystery novels, British author Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (who usually wrote under the pseudonym Sax Rohmer) also penned a number of science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural novels. Long himself associated with the occult, Rohmer brings captivating depth and detail to his story of a dabbler in the supernatural whose dark interests spin out of control — with tragic results.
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Brood of the Witch-Queen
Robert Cairn looked out across the quadrangle. The moon had just arisen, and it softened the beauty of the old college buildings, mellowed the harshness of time, casting shadow pools beneath the cloisteresque arches to the west and setting out the ivy in stronger relief upon the ancient walls. The barred shadow on the lichened stones beyond the elm was cast by the hidden gate; and straight ahead, where, between a quaint chimney-stack and a bartizan, a triangular patch of blue showed like spangled velvet, lay the Thames. It was from there the cooling breeze came.
But Cairn's gaze was set upon a window almost directly ahead, and west below the chimneys. Within the room to which it belonged a lambent light played.
Cairn turned to his companion, a ruddy and athletic looking man, somewhat bovine in type, who at the moment was busily tracing out sections on a human skull and checking his calculations from Ross's Diseases of the Nervous System.
"Sime," he said, "what does Ferrara always have a fire in his rooms for at this time of the year?"
Sime glanced up irritably at the speaker. Cairn was a tall, thin Scotsman, clean-shaven, square jawed, and with the crisp light hair and grey eyes which often bespeak unusual virility.
"Aren't you going to do any work?" he inquired pathetically. "I thought you'd come to give me a hand with my basal ganglia. I shall go down on that; and there you've been stuck staring out of the window!"
"Wilson, in the end house, has got a most unusual brain," said Cairn, with apparent irrelevance.
"Has he!" snapped Sime.
"Yes, in a bottle. His governor is at Bart's; he sent it up yesterday. You ought to see it."
"Nobody will ever want to put your brain in a bottle," predicted the scowling Sime, and resumed his studies.
Cairn relighted his pipe, staring across the quadrangle again. Then--
"You've never been in Ferrara's rooms, have you?" he inquired.
Followed a muffled curse, crash, and the skull went rolling across the floor.
"Look here, Cairn," cried Sime, "I've only got a week or so now, and my nervous system is frantically rocky; I shall go all to pieces on my nervous system. If you want to talk, go ahead. When you're finished, I can begin work."
"Right-oh," said Cairn calmly, and tossed his pouch across. "I want to talk to you about Ferrara."
"Go ahead then. What is the matter with Ferrara?"
"Well," replied Cairn, "he's queer."
"That's no news," said Sime, filling his pipe; "we all know he's a queer chap. But he's popular with women. He'd make a fortune as a nerve specialist."
"He doesn't have to; he inherits a fortune when Sir Michael dies."
"There's a pretty cousin, too, isn't there?" inquired Sime slyly.
"There is," replied Cairn. "Of course," he continued, "my governor and Sir Michael are bosom friends, and although I've never seen much of young Ferrara, at the same time I've got nothing against him. But--" he hesitated.
"Spit it out," urged Sime, watching him oddly.
"Well, it's silly, I suppose, but what does he want with a fire on a blazing night like this?"
"Perhaps he's a throw-back," he suggested lightly. "The Ferraras, although they're counted Scotch--aren't they?--must have been Italian originally--"
"Spanish," corrected Cairn. "They date from the son of Andrea Ferrara, the sword-maker, who was a Spaniard. Cæsar Ferrara came with the Armada in 1588 as armourer. His ship was wrecked up in the Bay of Tobermory and he got ashore--and stopped."
"Married a Scotch lassie?"
"Exactly. But the genealogy of the family doesn't account for Antony's habits."
"Well, look." Cairn waved in the direction of the open window. "What does he do in the dark all night, with a fire going?"
"Nonsense! You've never been in his rooms, have you?"
"No. Very few men have. But as I said before, he's popular with the women."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean there have been complaints. Any other man would have been sent down."
"You think he has influence--"
"Influence of some sort, undoubtedly."
"Well, I can see you have serious doubts about the man, as I have myself, so I can unburden my mind. You recall that sudden thunderstorm on Thursday?"
"Rather; quite upset me for work."
"I was out in it. I was lying in a punt in the backwater--you know, our backwater."
"To tell you the truth, I was trying to make up my mind whether I should abandon bones and take the post on the Planet which has been offered me."
"Pills for the pen--Harley for Fleet? Did you decide?"
"Not then; something happened which quite changed my line of reflection."
The room was becoming cloudy with tobacco smoke.
"It was delightfully still," Cairn resumed. "A water rat rose within a foot of me and a kingfisher was busy on a twig almost at my elbow. Twilight was just creeping along, and I could hear nothing but faint creakings of sculls from the river and sometimes the drip of a punt-pole. I thought the river seemed to become suddenly deserted; it grew quite abnormally quiet--and abnormally dark. But I was so deep in reflection that it never occurred to me to move.
"Then the flotilla of swans came round the bend, with Apollo--you know Apollo, the king-swan?--at their head. By this time it had grown tremendously dark, but it never occurred to me to ask myself why. The swans, gliding along so noiselessly, might have been phantoms. A hush, a perfect hush, settled down. Sime, that hush was the prelude to a strange thing--an unholy thing!"
Cairn rose excitedly and strode across to the table, kicking the skull out of his way.
"It was the storm gathering," snapped Sime.
"It was something else gathering! Listen! It got yet darker, but for some inexplicable reason, although I must have heard the thunder muttering, I couldn't take my eyes off the swans. Then it happened--the thing I came here to tell you about; I must tell somebody--the thing that I am not going to forget in a hurry."
He began to knock out the ash from his pipe.
"Go on," directed Sime tersely.
"The big swan--Apollo--was within ten feet of me; he swam in open water, clear of the others; no living thing touched him. Suddenly, uttering a cry that chilled my very blood, a cry that I never heard from a swan in my life, he rose in the air, his huge wings extended--like a tortured phantom, Sime; I can never forget it--six feet clear of the water. The uncanny wail became a stifled hiss, and sending up a perfect fountain of water--I was deluged--the poor old king-swan fell, beat the surface with his wings--and was still."
"The other swans glided off like ghosts. Several heavy raindrops pattered on the leaves above. I admit I was scared. Apollo lay with one wing right in the punt. I was standing up; I had jumped to my feet when the thing occurred. I stooped and touched the wing. The bird was quite dead! Sime, I pulled the swan's head out of the water, and--his neck was broken; no fewer than three vertebrae fractured!"
A cloud of tobacco smoke was wafted towards the open window.
"It isn't one in a million who could wring the neck of a bird like Apollo, Sime; but it was done before my eyes without the visible agency of God or man! As I dropped him and took to the pole, the storm burst. A clap of thunder spoke with the voice of a thousand cannon, and I poled for bare life from that haunted backwater. I was drenched to the skin when I got in, and I ran up all the way from the stage."
"Well?" rapped the other again, as Cairn paused to refill his pipe.
"It was seeing the firelight flickering at Ferrara's window that led me to do it. I don't often call on him; but I thought that a rub down before the fire and a glass of toddy would put me right. The storm had abated as I got to the foot of his stair--only a distant rolling of thunder.
"Then, out of the shadows--it was quite dark--into the flickering light of the lamp came somebody all muffled up. I started horribly. It was a girl, quite a pretty girl, too, but very pale, and with over-bright eyes. She gave one quick glance up into my face, muttered something, an apology, I think, and drew back again into her hiding-place."
"He's been warned," growled Sime. "It will be notice to quit next time."
"I ran upstairs and banged on Ferrara's door. He didn't open at first, but shouted out to know who was knocking. When I told him, he let me in, and closed the door very quickly. As I went in, a pungent cloud met me--incense."
"His rooms smelt like a joss-house; I told him so. He said he was experimenting with Kyphi--the ancient Egyptian stuff used in the temples. It was all dark and hot; phew! like a furnace. Ferrara's rooms always were odd, but since the long vacation I hadn't been in. Good lord, they're disgusting!"
"How? Ferrara spent vacation in Egypt; I suppose he's brought things back?"
"Things--yes! Unholy things! But that brings me to something too. I ought to know more about the chap than anybody; Sir Michael Ferrara and the governor have been friends for thirty years; but my father is oddly reticent--quite singularly reticent--regarding Antony. Anyway, have you heard about him, in Egypt?"
"I've heard he got into trouble. For his age, he has a devil of a queer reputation; there's no disguising it."
"What sort of trouble?"
"I've no idea. Nobody seems to know. But I heard from young Ashby that Ferrara was asked to leave."
"There's some tale about Kitchener--"
"By Kitchener, Ashby says; but I don't believe it."
"Well--Ferrara lighted a lamp, an elaborate silver thing, and I found myself in a kind of nightmare museum. There was an unwrapped mummy there, the mummy of a woman--I can't possibly describe it. He had pictures, too--photographs. I shan't try to tell you what they represented. I'm not thin-skinned; but there are some subjects that no man anxious to avoid Bedlam would willingly investigate. On the table by the lamp stood a number of objects such as I had never seen in my life before, evidently of great age. He swept them into a cupboard before I had time to look long. Then he went off to get a bath towel, slippers, and so forth. As he passed the fire he threw something in. A hissing tongue of flame leapt up--and died down again."
"What did he throw in?"
"I am not absolutely certain; so I won't say what I think it was, at the moment. Then he began to help me shed my saturated flannels, and he set a kettle on the fire, and so forth. You know the personal charm of the man? But there was an unpleasant sense of something--what shall I say?--sinister. Ferrara's ivory face was more pale than usual, and he conveyed the idea that he was chewed up--exhausted. Beads of perspiration were on his forehead."
"Heat of his rooms?"
"No," said Cairn shortly. "It wasn't that. I had a rub down and borrowed some slacks. Ferrara brewed grog and pretended to make me welcome. Now I come to something which I can't forget; it may be a mere coincidence, but--. He has a number of photographs in his rooms, good ones, which he has taken himself. I'm not speaking now of the monstrosities, the outrages; I mean views, and girls--particularly girls. Well, standing on a queer little easel right under the lamp was a fine picture of Apollo, the swan, lord of the backwater."
Sime stared dully through the smoke haze.
"It gave me a sort of shock," continued Cairn. "It made me think, harder than ever, of the thing he had thrown in the fire. Then, in his photographic zenana, was a picture of a girl whom I am almost sure was the one I had met at the bottom of the stair. Another was of Myra Duquesne."
"Yes. I felt like tearing it from the wall. In fact, the moment I saw it, I stood up to go. I wanted to run to my rooms and strip the man's clothes off my back! It was a struggle to be civil any longer. Sime, if you had seen that swan die--"
Sime walked over to the window.
"I have a glimmering of your monstrous suspicions," he said slowly. "The last man to be kicked out of an English varsity for this sort of thing, so far as I know, was Dr. Dee of St. John's, Cambridge, and that's going back to the sixteenth century."
"I know; it's utterly preposterous, of course. But I had to confide in somebody. I'll shift off now, Sime."
Sime nodded, staring from the open window. As Cairn was about to close the outer door:
"Cairn," cried Sime, "since you are now a man of letters and leisure, you might drop in and borrow Wilson's brains for me."
"All right," shouted Cairn.
Down in the quadrangle he stood for a moment, reflecting; then, acting upon a sudden resolution, he strode over towards the gate and ascended Ferrara's stair.
For some time he knocked at the door in vain, but he persisted in his clamouring, arousing the ancient echoes. Finally, the door was opened.
Antony Ferrara faced him. He wore a silver-grey dressing gown, trimmed with white swansdown, above which his ivory throat rose statuesque. The almond-shaped eyes, black as night, gleamed strangely beneath the low, smooth brow. The lank black hair appeared lustreless by comparison. His lips were very red. In his whole appearance there was something repellently effeminate.
"Can I come in?" demanded Cairn abruptly.
"Is it--something important?" Ferrara's voice was husky but not unmusical.
"Why, are you busy?"
"Well--er--" Ferrara smiled oddly.
"Oh, a visitor?" snapped Cairn.
"Not at all."
"Accounts for your delay in opening," said Cairn, and turned on his heel. "Mistook me for the proctor, in person, I suppose. Good-night."
Ferrara made no reply. But, although he never once glanced back, Cairn knew that Ferrara, leaning over the rail, above, was looking after him; it was as though elemental heat were beating down upon his head.
THE PHANTOM HANDS
A week later Robert Cairn quitted Oxford to take up the newspaper appointment offered to him in London. It may have been due to some mysterious design of a hidden providence that Sime 'phoned him early in the week about an unusual case in one of the hospitals.
"Walton is junior house-surgeon there," he said, "and he can arrange for you to see the case. She (the patient) undoubtedly died from some rare nervous affection. I have a theory," etc.; the conversation became technical.
Cairn went to the hospital, and by courtesy of Walton, whom he had known at Oxford, was permitted to view the body.
"The symptoms which Sime has got to hear about," explained the surgeon, raising the sheet from the dead woman's face, "are--"
He broke off. Cairn had suddenly exhibited a ghastly pallor; he clutched at Walton for support.
Cairn, still holding on to the other, stooped over the discoloured face. It had been a pretty face when warm life had tinted its curves; now it was congested--awful; two heavy discolorations showed, one on either side of the region of the larynx.
"What on earth is wrong with you?" demanded Walton.
"I thought," gasped Cairn, "for a moment, that I knew--"
"Really! I wish you did! We can't find out anything about her. Have a good look."
"No," said Cairn, mastering himself with an effort--"a chance resemblance, that's all." He wiped the beads of perspiration from his forehead.
"You look jolly shaky," commented Walton. "Is she like someone you know very well?"
"No, not at all, now that I come to consider the features; but it was a shock at first. What on earth caused death?"
"Asphyxia," answered Walton shortly. "Can't you see?"
"Someone strangled her, and she was brought here too late?"
"Not at all, my dear chap; nobody strangled her. She was brought here in a critical state four or five days ago by one of the slum priests who keep us so busy. We diagnosed it as exhaustion from lack of food--with other complications. But the case was doing quite well up to last night; she was recovering strength. Then, at about one o'clock, she sprang up in bed, and fell back choking. By the time the nurse got to her it was all over."
"But the marks on her throat?"
Walton shrugged his shoulders.
"There they are! Our men are keenly interested. It's absolutely unique. Young Shaw, who has a mania for the nervous system, sent a long account up to Sime, who suffers from a similar form of aberration."
"Yes; Sime 'phoned me."
"It's nothing to do with nerves," said Walton contemptuously. "Don't ask me to explain it, but it's certainly no nerve case."
"One of the other patients--"
"My dear chap, the other patients were all fast asleep! The nurse was at her table in the corner, and in full view of the bed the whole time. I tell you no one touched her!"
"How long elapsed before the nurse got to her?"
"Possibly half a minute. But there is no means of learning when the paroxysm commenced. The leaping up in bed probably marked the end and not the beginning of the attack."
Cairn experienced a longing for the fresh air; it was as though some evil cloud hovered around and about the poor unknown. Strange ideas, horrible ideas, conjectures based upon imaginings all but insane, flooded his mind darkly.
Leaving the hospital, which harboured a grim secret, he stood at the gate for a moment, undecided what to do. His father, Dr. Cairn, was out of London, or he would certainly have sought him in this hour of sore perplexity.
"What in Heaven's name is behind it all!" he asked himself.
For he knew beyond doubt that the girl who lay in the hospital was the same that he had seen one night at Oxford, was the girl whose photograph he had found in Antony Ferrara's rooms!
He formed a sudden resolution. A taxi-cab was passing at that moment, and he hailed it, giving Sir Michael Ferrara's address. He could scarcely trust himself to think, but frightful possibilities presented themselves to him, repel them how he might. London seemed to grow dark, overshadowed, as once he had seen a Thames backwater grow. He shuddered, as though from a physical chill.
The house of the famous Egyptian scholar, dull white behind its rampart of trees, presented no unusual appearances to his anxious scrutiny. What he feared he scarcely knew; what he suspected he could not have defined.
Sir Michael, said the servant, was unwell and could see no one. That did not surprise Cairn; Sir Michael had not enjoyed good health since malaria had laid him low in Syria. But Miss Duquesne was at home.
Cairn was shown into the long, low-ceiled room which contained so many priceless relics of a past civilisation. Upon the bookcase stood the stately ranks of volumes which had carried the fame of Europe's foremost Egyptologist to every corner of the civilised world. This queerly furnished room held many memories for Robert Cairn, who had known it from childhood, but latterly it had always appeared to him in his daydreams as the setting for a dainty figure. It was here that he had first met Myra Duquesne, Sir Michael's niece, when, fresh from a Norman convent, she had come to shed light and gladness upon the somewhat, sombre household of the scholar. He often thought of that day; he could recall every detail of the meeting--
Myra Duquesne came in, pulling aside the heavy curtains that hung in the arched entrance. With a granite Osiris flanking her slim figure on one side and a gilded sarcophagus on the other, she burst upon the visitor, a radiant vision in white. The light gleamed through her soft, brown hair forming a halo for a face that Robert Cairn knew for the sweetest in the world.
"Why, Mr. Cairn," she said, and blushed entrancingly--"we thought you had forgotten us."
"That's not a little bit likely," he replied, taking her proffered hand, and there was that in his voice and in his look which made her lower her frank grey eyes. "I have only been in London a few days, and I find that Press work is more exacting than I had anticipated!"
"Did you want to see my uncle very particularly?" asked Myra.
"In a way, yes. I suppose he could not manage to see me--"
Myra shook her head. Now that the flush of excitement had left her face, Cairn was concerned to see how pale she was and what dark shadows lurked beneath her eyes.
"Sir Michael is not seriously ill?" he asked quickly. "Only one of the visual attacks--"
"Yes--at least it began with one."
She hesitated, and Cairn saw to his consternation that her eyes became filled with tears. The real loneliness of her position, now that her guardian was ill, the absence of a friend in whom she could confide her fears, suddenly grew apparent to the man who sat watching her.
"You are tired out," he said gently. "You have been nursing him?"
She nodded and tried to smile.
"Who is attending?"
"Sir Elwin Groves, but--"
"Shall I wire for my father?"
"We wired for him yesterday!"
"What! to Paris?"
"Yes, at my uncle's wish."
"Then--he thinks he is seriously ill, himself?"
"I cannot say," answered the girl wearily. "His behaviour is--queer. He will allow no one in his room, and barely consents to see Sir Elwin. Then, twice recently, he has awakened in the night and made a singular request."
"What is that?"
"He has asked me to send for his solicitor in the morning, speaking harshly and almost as though--he hated me...."
"I don't understand. Have you complied?"
"Yes, and on each occasion he has refused to see the solicitor when he has arrived!"
"I gather that you have been acting as night-attendant?"
"I remain in an adjoining room; he is always worse at night. Perhaps it is telling on my nerves, but last night--"
Again she hesitated, as though doubting the wisdom of further speech; but a brief scrutiny of Cairn's face, with deep anxiety to be read in his eyes, determined her to proceed.
"I had been asleep, and I must have been dreaming, for I thought that a voice was chanting, quite near to me."
"Yes--it was horrible, in some way. Then a sensation of intense coldness came; it was as though some icily cold creature fanned me with its wings! I cannot describe it, but it was numbing; I think I must have felt as those poor travellers do who succumb to the temptation to sleep in the snow."
Cairn surveyed her anxiously, for in its essentials this might be a symptom of a dreadful ailment.
"I aroused myself, however," she continued, "but experienced an unaccountable dread of entering my uncle's room. I could hear him muttering strangely, and--I forced myself to enter! I saw--oh, how can I tell you! You will think me mad!"
She raised her hands to her face; she was trembling. Robert Cairn took them in his own, forcing her to look up.
"Tell me," he said quietly.
"The curtains were drawn back; I distinctly remembered having closed them, but they were drawn back; and the moonlight was shining on to the bed."
"Bad; he was dreaming."
"But was I dreaming? Mr. Cairn, two hands were stretched out over my uncle, two hands that swayed slowly up and down in the moonlight!"
Cairn leapt to his feet, passing his hand over his forehead.
"Go on," he said.
"I--I cried out, but not loudly--I think I was very near to swooning. The hands were withdrawn into the shadow, and my uncle awoke and sat up. He asked, in a low voice, if I were there, and I ran to him."
"He ordered me, very coldly, to 'phone for his solicitor at nine o'clock this morning, and then fell back, and was asleep again almost immediately. The solicitor came, and was with him for nearly an hour. He sent for one of his clerks, and they both went away at half-past ten. Uncle has been in a sort of dazed condition ever since; in fact he has only once aroused himself, to ask for Dr. Cairn. I had a telegram sent immediately."
"The governor will be here to-night," said Cairn confidently. "Tell me, the hands which you thought you saw: was there anything peculiar about them?"
"In the moonlight they seemed to be of a dull white colour. There was a ring on one finger--a green ring. Oh!" she shuddered. "I can see it now."
"You would know it again?"
"Actually, there was no one in the room, of course?"
"No one. It was some awful illusion; but I can never forget it."
THE RING OF THOTH
Half-Moon Street was very still; midnight had sounded nearly half-an-hour; but still Robert Cairn paced up and down his father's library. He was very pale, and many times he glanced at a book which lay open upon the table. Finally he paused before it and read once again certain passages.
"In the year 1571," it recorded, "the notorious Trois Echelles was executed in the Place de Grève. He confessed before the king, Charles IX.... that he performed marvels.... Admiral de Coligny, who also was present, recollected ... the death of two gentlemen.... He added that they were found black and swollen."
He turned over the page, with a hand none too steady.
"The famous Maréchal d'Ancre, Concini Concini," he read, "was killed by a pistol shot on the drawbridge of the Louvre by Vitry, Captain of the Bodyguard, on the 24th of April, 1617.... It was proved that the Maréchal and his wife made use of wax images, which they kept in coffins...."
Cairn shut the book hastily and began to pace the room again.
"Oh, it is utterly, fantastically incredible!" he groaned. "Yet, with my own eyes I saw--"
He stepped to a bookshelf and began to look for a book which, so far as his slight knowledge of the subject bore him, would possibly throw light upon the darkness. But he failed to find it. Despite the heat of the weather, the library seemed to have grown chilly. He pressed the bell.
"Marston," he said to the man who presently came, "you must be very tired, but Dr. Cairn will be here within an hour. Tell him that I have gone to Sir Michael Ferrara's."
"But it's after twelve o'clock, sir!"
"I know it is; nevertheless I am going."
"Very good, sir. You will wait there for the Doctor?"
"Exactly, Marston. Good-night!"
Robert Cairn went out into Half-Moon Street. The night was perfect, and the cloudless sky lavishly gemmed with stars. He walked on heedlessly, scarce noting in which direction. An awful conviction was with him, growing stronger each moment, that some mysterious menace, some danger unclassifiable, threatened Myra Duquesne. What did he suspect? He could give it no name. How should he act? He had no idea.
Sir Elwin Groves, whom he had seen that evening, had hinted broadly at mental trouble as the solution of Sir Michael Ferrara's peculiar symptoms. Although Sir Michael had had certain transactions with his solicitor during the early morning, he had apparently forgotten all about the matter, according to the celebrated physician.
"Between ourselves, Cairn," Sir Elwin had confided, "I believe he altered his will."
The inquiry of a taxi driver interrupted Cairn's meditations. He entered the vehicle, giving Sir Michael Ferrara's address.
His thoughts persistently turned to Myra Duquesne, who at that moment would be lying listening for the slightest sound from the sick-room; who would be fighting down fear, that she might do her duty to her guardian--fear of the waving phantom hands. The cab sped through the almost empty streets, and at last, rounding a corner, rolled up the tree-lined avenue, past three or four houses lighted only by the glitter of the moon, and came to a stop before that of Sir Michael Ferrara.
Lights shone from the many windows. The front door was open, and light streamed out into the porch.
"My God!" cried Cairn, leaping from the cab. "My God! what has happened?"
A thousand fears, a thousand reproaches, flooded his brain with frenzy. He went racing up to the steps and almost threw himself upon the man who stood half-dressed in the doorway.
"Felton, Felton!" he whispered hoarsely. "What has happened? Who--"
"Sir Michael, sir," answered the man. "I thought"--his voice broke--"you were the doctor, sir?"
"She fainted away, sir. Mrs. Hume is with her in the library, now."
Cairn thrust past the servant and ran into the library. The housekeeper and a trembling maid were bending over Myra Duquesne, who lay fully dressed, white and still, upon a Chesterfield. Cairn unceremoniously grasped her wrist, dropped upon his knees and placed his ear to the still breast.
"Thank God!" he said. "It is only a swoon. Look after her, Mrs. Hume."
The housekeeper, with set face, lowered her head, but did not trust herself to speak. Cairn went out into the hall and tapped Felton on the shoulder. The man turned with a great start.
"What happened?" he demanded. "Is Sir Michael--?"
"Five minutes before you came, sir." His voice was hoarse with emotion. "Miss Myra came out of her room. She thought someone called her. She rapped on Mrs. Hume's door, and Mrs. Hume, who was just retiring, opened it. She also thought she had heard someone calling Miss Myra out on the stairhead."
"There was no one there, sir. Everyone was in bed; I was just undressing, myself. But there was a sort of faint perfume--something like a church, only disgusting, sir--"
"How--disgusting! Did you smell it?"
"No, sir, never. Mrs. Hume and Miss Myra have noticed it in the house on other nights, and one of the maids, too. It was very strong, I'm told, last night. Well, sir, as they stood by the door they heard a horrid kind of choking scream. They both rushed to Sir Michael's room, and--"
"He was lying half out of bed, sir--"
"Seemed like he'd been strangled, they told me, and--"
"Who is with him now?"
The man grew even paler.
"No one, Mr. Cairn, sir. Miss Myra screamed out that there were two hands just unfastening from his throat as she and Mrs. Hume got to the door, and there was no living soul in the room, sir. I might as well out with it! We're all afraid to go in!"
Cairn turned and ran up the stairs. The upper landing was in darkness and the door of the room which he knew to be Sir Michael's stood wide open. As he entered, a faint scent came to his nostrils. It brought him up short at the threshold, with a chill of supernatural dread.
The bed was placed between the windows, and one curtain had been pulled aside, admitting a flood, of moonlight. Cairn remembered that Myra had mentioned this circumstance in connection with the disturbance of the previous night.
"Who, in God's name, opened that curtain!" he muttered.
Fully in the cold white light lay Sir Michael Ferrara, his silver hair gleaming and his strong, angular face upturned to the intruding rays. His glazed eyes were starting from their sockets; his face was nearly black; and his fingers were clutching the sheets in a death grip. Cairn had need of all his courage to touch him.
He was quite dead.
Someone was running up the stairs. Cairn turned, half dazed, anticipating the entrance of a local medical man. Into the room ran his father, switching on the light as he did so. A greyish tinge showed through his ruddy complexion. He scarcely noticed his son.
"Ferrara!" he cried, coming up to the bed. "Ferrara!"
He dropped on his knees beside the dead man.
"Ferrara, old fellow--"
His cry ended in something like a sob. Robert Cairn turned, choking, and went downstairs.
In the hall stood Felton and some other servants.
"She has recovered, sir. Mrs. Hume has taken her to another bedroom."
Cairn hesitated, then walked into the deserted library, where a light was burning. He began to pace up and down, clenching and unclenching his fists. Presently Felton knocked and entered. Clearly the man was glad of the chance to talk to someone.
"Mr. Antony has been 'phoned at Oxford, sir. I thought you might like to know. He is motoring down, sir, and will be here at four o'clock."
"Thank you," said Cairn shortly.
Ten minutes later his father joined him. He was a slim, well-preserved man, alert-eyed and active, yet he had aged five years in his son's eyes. His face was unusually pale, but he exhibited no other signs of emotion.
"Well, Rob," he said, tersely. "I can see you have something to tell me. I am listening."
Robert Cairn leant back against a bookshelf.
"I have something to tell you, sir, and something to ask you."
"Tell your story, first; then ask your question."
"My story begins in a Thames backwater--"
Dr. Cairn stared, squaring his jaw, but his son proceeded to relate, with some detail, the circumstances attendant upon the death of the king-swan. He went on to recount what took place in Antony Ferrara's rooms, and at the point where something had been taken from the table and thrown in the fire--
"Stop!" said Dr. Cairn. "What did he throw in the fire?"
The doctor's nostrils quivered, and his eyes were ablaze with some hardly repressed emotion.
"I cannot swear to it, sir--"
"Never mind. What do you think he threw in the fire?"
"A little image, of wax or something similar--an image of--a swan."
At that, despite his self-control, Dr. Cairn became so pale that his son leapt forward.
"All right, Rob," his father waved him away, and turning, walked slowly down the room.
"Go on," he said, rather huskily.
Robert Cairn continued his story up to the time that he visited the hospital where the dead girl lay.
"You can swear that she was the original of the photograph in Antony's rooms and the same who was waiting at the foot of the stair?"
"I can, sir."
Again the younger man resumed his story, relating what he had learnt from Myra Duquesne; what she had told him about the phantom hands; what Felton had told him about the strange perfume perceptible in the house.
"The ring," interrupted Dr. Cairn--"she would recognise it again?"
"She says so."
"Only that if some of your books are to be believed, sir, Trois Echelle, D'Ancre and others have gone to the stake for such things in a less enlightened age!"
"Less enlightened, boy!" Dr. Cairn turned his blazing eyes upon him. "More enlightened where the powers of hell were concerned!"
"Then you think--"
"Think! Have I spent half my life in such studies in vain? Did I labour with poor Michael Ferrara in Egypt and learn nothing? Just God! what an end to his labour! What a reward for mine!"
He buried his face in quivering hands.
"I cannot tell exactly what you mean by that, sir," said Robert Cairn; "but it brings me to my question."
Dr. Cairn did not speak, did not move.
"Who is Antony Ferrara?"
The doctor looked up at that; and it was a haggard face he raised from his hands.
"You have tried to ask me that before."
"I ask now, sir, with better prospect of receiving an answer."
"Yet I can give you none, Rob."
"Why, sir? Are you bound to secrecy?"
"In a degree, yes. But the real reason is this--I don't know."
"You don't know!"
"I have said so."
"Good God, sir, you amaze me! I have always felt certain that he was really no Ferrara, but an adopted son; yet it had never entered my mind that you were ignorant of his origin."
"You have not studied the subjects which I have studied; nor do I wish that you should; therefore it is impossible, at any rate now, to pursue that matter further. But I may perhaps supplement your researches into the history of Trois Echelles and Concini Concini. I believe you told me that you were looking in my library for some work which you failed to find?"
"I was looking for M. Chabas' translation of the Papyrus Harris."
"What do you know of it?"
"I once saw a copy in Antony Ferrara's rooms."
Dr. Cairn started slightly.
"Indeed. It happens that my copy is here; I lent it quite recently to--Sir Michael. It is probably somewhere on the shelves."
He turned on more lights and began to scan the rows of books. Presently--
"Here it is," he said, and took down and opened the book on the table. "This passage may interest you." He laid his finger upon it.
His son bent over the book and read the following:--
"Hai, the evil man, was a shepherd. He had said: 'O, that I might have a book of spells that would give me resistless power!' He obtained a book of the Formulas.... By the divine powers of these he enchanted men. He obtained a deep vault furnished with implements. He made waxen images of men, and love-charms. And then he perpetrated all the horrors that his heart conceived."
"Flinders Petrie," said Dr. Cairn, "mentions the Book of Thoth as another magical work conferring similar powers."
"But surely, sir--after all, it's the twentieth century--this is mere superstition!"
"I thought so--once!" replied Dr. Cairn. "But I have lived to know that Egyptian magic was a real and a potent force. A great part of it was no more than a kind of hypnotism, but there were other branches. Our most learned modern works are as children's nursery rhymes beside such a writing as the Egyptian Ritual of the Dead! God forgive me! What have I done!"
"You cannot reproach yourself in any way, sir!"
"Can I not?" said Dr. Cairn hoarsely. "Ah, Rob, you don't know!"
There came a rap on the door, and a local practitioner entered.
"This is a singular case, Dr. Cairn," he began diffidently. "An autopsy--"
"Nonsense!" cried Dr. Cairn. "Sir Elwin Groves had foreseen it--so had I!"
"But there are distinct marks of pressure on either side of the windpipe--"
"Certainly. These marks are not uncommon in such cases. Sir Michael had resided in the East and had contracted a form of plague. Virtually he died from it. The thing is highly contagious, and it is almost impossible to rid the system of it. A girl died in one of the hospitals this week, having identical marks on the throat." He turned to his son. "You saw her, Rob?"
Robert Cairn nodded, and finally the local man withdrew, highly mystified, but unable to contradict so celebrated a physician as Dr. Bruce Cairn.
The latter seated himself in an armchair, and rested his chin in the palm of his left hand. Robert Cairn paced restlessly about the library. Both were waiting, expectantly. At half-past two Felton brought in a tray of refreshments, but neither of the men attempted to avail themselves of the hospitality.
"Miss Duquesne?" asked the younger.
"She has just gone to sleep, sir."
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