Caves of Terror - Talbot Mundy - ebook

Caves of Terror ebook

Talbot Mundy

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A collection of crime fiction short stories featuring Mme. Rosika Storey and her resourceful assistant Bella Brickley. Mme. Storey unravels complex cases with thorough investigation and an understanding of human nature. These short stories are written through Bella Brickley’s point-of-view. She is Madame Storey, like Sherlock has fantastic powers of deduction and understanding of psychology, and her secretary is like Watson though she does’t have a degree in medicine. Also Ms. Brickley adds a realistic person’s fear to very dangerous situations. The short stories in this collection are: „"The Almost Perfect Murder"”, „"Murder in Masquerade"”, „"The Death Notice"”, „"Taken for a Ride"”, „"It Never Got Into The Papers"”.

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Liczba stron: 228

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Contents

I. THE GRAY MAHATMA

II. THE PALACE OF YASMINI

III. FEAR IS DEATH

IV. THE POOL OF TERRORS

V. FAR CITIES

VI. THE FIRE BATHERS

VII. MAGIC

VIII. THE RIVER OF DEATH

IX. THE EARTHQUAKE ELEPHANT

X. A DATE WITH DOOM

XI. “KILL! KILL!”

XII. THE CAVE OF BONES

I. THE GRAY MAHATMA

Meldrum Strange has “a way” with him. You need all your tact to get him past the quarreling point; but once that point is left behind there isn’t a finer business boss in the universe. He likes to put his ringer on a desk-bell and feel somebody jump in Tibet or Wei-hei-wei or Honolulu. That’s Meldrum Strange.

When he sent me from San Francisco, where I was enjoying a vacation, to New York, where he was enjoying business, I took the first train.

“You’ve been a long time on the way,” he remarked, as I walked into his office twenty minutes after the Chicago flyer reached Grand Central Station. “Look at this!” he growled, shoving into my hand a clipping from a Western newspaper.

“What about it?” I asked when I had finished reading.

“While you were wasting time on the West Coast this office has been busy,” he snorted, looking more like General Grant than ever as he pulled out a cigar and started chewing it. “We’ve taken this matter up with the British Government, and we’ve been retained to look into it.”

“You want me to go to Washington, I suppose.”

“You’ve got to go to India at once.”

“That clipping is two months old,” I answered. “Why didn’t you wire me when I was in Egypt to go on from there?”

“Look at this!” he answered, and shoved a letter across the desk.

It bore the address of a club in Simla.

Meldrum Strange, Esq., Messrs. Grim, Ramsden and Ross, New York. Dear Sir, Having recently resigned my commission in the British Indian army I am free to offer my services to your firm, provided you have a sufficiently responsible position here in India to offer me. My qualifications and record are known to the British Embassy in Washington, D. C., to whom I am permitted to refer you, and it is at the suggestion of – – (he gave the name of a British Cabinet Minister who is known the wide world over) that I am making this proposal; he was good enough to promise his endorsement to any application I might care to make. If this should interest you, please send me a cablegram, on receipt of which I will hold my services at your disposal until your letter has time to reach Simla, when, if your terms are satisfactory, I will cable my acceptance without further delay. Yours faithfully, Athelstan King, V.C., D.S.O., etc.

“Do you know who he is?” demanded Strange. “That’s the fellow who went to Khinjan Caves – the best secret service officer the British ever had. I cabled him, of course. Here’s his contract. You take it to him. Here’s the whole dope about this propaganda. Take the quickest route to India, sign up this man King, and go after them at that end for all the two of you are worth. That’s all.”

My passport being unexpired, I could make the Mauretania and did. Moreover I was merciless to the expense account. An aeroplane took me from Liverpool to London, another from London to Paris.

I don’t care how often you arrive in Bombay, the thrill increases. You steam in at dawn by Gharipuri just as the gun announces sunrise, and the dreamy bay glimmers like a prophet’s vision – temples, domes, minarets, palm-trees, roofs, towers, and masts.

Almost before the anchor had splashed into the spawn-skeined water off the Apollo Bunder a native boat drew alongside and a very well-dressed native climbed up the companion-ladder in quest of me. I had sent King a wireless, but his messenger was away in advance of even the bankers’ agents, who flock on board to tout for customs business.

He handed me a letter which simply said that the bearer, Gulab Lal Singh, would look after me and my belongings. So I paid attention to the man. He was a strapping fellow, handsome as the deuce, with a Roman nose, and the eye of a gentleman unafraid.

He said that Major King was in Bombay, but detained by urgent business. However, he invited me to Major King’s quarters for breakfast, so instead of waiting for the regular launch I got into the native sailboat with him. And he seemed to have some sort of talisman for charming officials, for on the quay an officer motioned us through without even examining my passport.

We drew up finally in front of a neat little bungalow in a long street of similar buildings intended for British officials. Gulab Lal Singh took me straight into the dining room and carried in breakfast with his own hands, standing behind my chair in silence while I ate.

Without much effort I could see his face in the mirror to my right, and when I thought he wasn’t noticing I studied him carefully.

“Is there anything further that the sahib would care for?” he asked when the meal was finished.

“Yes,” I said, pulling out an envelope. “Here’s your contract, Major King. If you’re agreeable we may as well get that signed and mailed to New York.”

I expected to see him look surprised, but he simply sat down at the table, read the contract over, and signed it.

Then we went out on to a veranda that was shut off from the street by brown kaskas tatties.

“How long does it take you to grow a beard?” was his first, rather surprising question.

It was not long before I learned how differently he could treat different individuals. He had simply chosen his extraordinary way of receiving me as the best means of getting a real line on me without much loss of time. He did not compliment me on having seen through his disguise, or apologize for his own failure to keep up the deception. He sat opposite and studied me as he might the morning newspaper, and I returned the compliment.

“You see,” he said suddenly, as if a previous conversation had been interrupted, “since the war, governments have lost their grip, so I resigned from the army. You look to me like a kind of God-send. Is Meldrum Strange as wealthy as they say?”

I nodded.

“Is he playing for power?”

“He’s out to do the world good, but he enjoys the feel of it. He is absolutely on the level.”

“I have a letter from Strange, in which he says you’ve hunted and prospected all over the world. Does that include India?”

I nodded.

“Know any of the languages?”

“Enough Hindustani to deceive a foreigner.”

“Punjabi?”

I nodded.

Mind you, I was supposed to be this fellow’s boss.

“I think we’ll be able to work together,” he said after another long look at me.

“Are you familiar with the facts?” he asked me.

“I’ve the dossier with me. Studied it on the ship of course.”

“You understand then: The Princess Yasmini and the Gray Mahatma are the two keys. The Government daren’t arrest either, because it would inflame mob- passion. There’s too much of that already. I’m not in position to play this game alone – can’t afford to. I’ve joined the firm to get backing for what I want to do; I’d like that point clear. As long as we’re in harness together I’ll take you into confidence. But I expect absolutely free rein.”

“All right,” I said. And for two hours he unfolded to me a sort of panorama of Indian intrigue, including dozens of statements of sheer fact that not one person in a million would believe if set down in cold print.

“So you see,” he said at last, “there’s something needed in the way of unobtrusive inspection if the rest of the world is to have any kind of breathing spell. If you’ve no objection we’ll leave Bombay to-night and get to work.”

*     *

*

Athelstan King and I arrived, after certain hot days and choking nights, at a city in the Punjab that has had nine names in the course of history. It lies by a winding wide river, whose floods have changed the land-marks every year since men took to fighting for the common heritage.

The tremendous wall, along whose base the river sucks and sweeps for more than a third of the city’s whole circumference, has to be kept repaired by endless labor, but there are compensations. The fierce current guards and gives privacy to a score of palaces and temples, as well as a burning ghat.

The city has been very little altered by the vandal hand of progress. There is a red steel railway bridge, but the same framework carries a bullock-road.

From the bridge’s northern end as far as the bazaar the main street goes winding roughly parallel with the waterfront. Trees arch over it like a cathedral roof, and through the huge branches the sun turns everything beneath to gold, so that even the impious sacred monkeys achieve vicarious beauty, and the scavenger mongrel dogs scratch, sleep, and are miserable in an aureole.

There are modern signs, as for instance, a post office, some telegraph wires on which birds of a thousand colors perch with an air of perpetual surprise, and – tucked away in the city’s busiest maze not four hundred yards from the western wall – the office of the Sikh apothecary Mulji Singh.

Mulji Singh takes life seriously, which is a laborious thing to do, and being an apostle of simple sanitation is looked at askance by the populace, but he persists.

King’s specialty is making use of unconsidered trifles and misunderstood babus.

*     *

*

King was attired as a native, when we sought out Mulji Singh together and found him in a back street with a hundred-yard-long waiting list of low-caste and altogether casteless cripples.

And of course Mulji Singh had all the gossip of the city at his fingers’ ends. When he closed his office at last, and we came inside to sit with him, he loosed his tongue and would have told us everything he knew if King had not steered the flow of information between channels.

“Aye, sahib, and this Mahatma, they say, is a very holy fellow, who works miracles. Sometimes he sits under a tree by the burning ghat, but at night he goes to the temple of the Tirthankers, where none dare follow him, although they sit in crowds outside to watch him enter and leave. The common rumor is that at night he leaves his body lifeless in a crypt in that Tirthanker temple and flies to heaven, where he fortifies himself with fresh magic. But I know where he goes by night. There comes to me with boils a one- legged sweeper who cleans a black panther’s cage. The panther took his other leg. He sleeps in a cage beside the panther’s, and it is a part of his duty to turn the panther loose on intruders. It is necessary that they warn this one-legged fellow whenever a stranger is expected by night, who should not be torn to pieces. Night after night he is warned. Night after night there comes this Mahatma to spend the hours in heaven! There are places less like heaven than her palace.”

“Is he your only informant?” King demanded.

“Aye, sahib, the only one on that count. But there is another, whose foot was caught between stone and stone when they lowered a trap-door once in that Tirthanker temple. He bade the Tirthankers heal his foot, but instead they threw him out for having too much knowledge of matters that they said do not concern him. And he says that the trap-door opens into a passage that leads under the wall into a chamber from which access is obtained by another trap-door to a building inside herpalace grounds within a stone-throw of that panther’s cage. And he, too, says that the Mahatma goes nightly to her palace.”

“Are there any stories of her?” King inquired.

“Thousands, sahib! But no two agree. It is known that she fell foul of the raj in some way, and they made her come to this place. I was here when she came. She has a household of a hundred women – maunds of furniture – maunds of it, sahib! She gave orders to her men-servants to be meek and inoffensive, so when they moved in there were not more than ten fights between them and the city-folk who thought they had as much right to the streets. There was a yellow-fanged northern devil who marshaled the serving-men, and it is he who keeps her palace gate. He keeps it well. None trespass.”

“What other visitors does she entertain besides the Mahatma?”

“Many, sahib, though few enter by the front gate. There are tales of men being drawn up by ropes from boats in the river.”

“Is there word of why they come?”

“Sahib, the little naked children weave stories of her doings. Each has a different tale. They call her empress of the hidden arts. They say that she knows all the secrets of the priests, and that there is nothing that she cannot do, because the gods love her and the Rakshasas (male evil spirits) and Apsaras (female evil spirits) do her bidding.”

“What about this Tirthanker temple? Who controls it?”

“None knows that, sahib. It is so richly endowed that its priests despise men’s gifts. None is encouraged to worship in that place. When those old Tirthankers stir abroad they have no dealings with folk in this city that any man knows of.”

“Are you sure they are Tirthankers?” asked King.

“I am sure of nothing, sahib. For aught I know they are devils!”

King gave him a small sum of money, and we walked away toward the burning ghat, where there was nothing but a mean smell and a few old men with rakes gathering up ashes. But outside the ghat, where a golden mohur tree cast a wide shadow across the road there was a large crowd sitting and standing in rings around an absolutely naked, ash-smeared religious fanatic.

The fanatic appeared to have the crowd bewildered, for he cursed and blessed on no comprehensible schedule, and gave extraordinary answers to the simplest questions, not acknowledging a question at all unless it suited him.

King and I had not been there a minute before some one asked him about the Princess Yasmini.

“Aha! Who stares at the fire burns his eyes! A burned eye is of less use than a raw one!”

Some laughed, but not many. Most of them seemed to think there was deep wisdom in his answer to be dug for meditatively, as no doubt there was. Then a man on the edge of the crowd a long way off from me, who wore the air of a humorist, asked him about me.

“Does the shadow of this foreigner offend your honor’s holiness?”

None glanced in my direction; that might have given the game away. It is considered an exquisite joke to discuss a white man to his face without his knowing it. The Gray Mahatma did not glance in my direction either.

“As a bird in the river – as a fish in the air – as a man in trouble is the foreigner in Hind!” he answered.

Then he suddenly began, declaiming, making his voice ring as if his throat were brass, yet without moving his body or shifting his head by a hair’s breadth.

“The universe was chaos. He said, let order prevail, and order came out of the chaos and prevailed. The universe was in darkness. He said, let there be light and let it prevail over darkness; and light came out of the womb of darkness and prevailed. He ordained the Kali-Yug – an age of darkness in which all Hind should lie at the feet of foreigners. And thus ye lie in the dust. But there is an end of night, and so there is an end to Kali-Yug. Bide ye the time, and watch!”

King drew me away, and we returned up-street between old temples and new iron-fronted stores toward Mulji Singh’s quarters where he had left the traveling bag that we shared between us.

“Is that Gray Mahatma linked up with propaganda in the U.S.A?” I asked, wondering.

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