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Four brilliant men have died mysteriously -- and the only clue is the carved tail of a golden scorpion, left beside their bodies. The man behind the horror calls himself "The Scorpion," and he clearly is a man of superior cunning. When the finest detectives of France and England join forces to stop "The Scorpion" before he can add a fifth victim to his list, the twisting trail takes them through the haunts of London's underworld to the seamy opium dens of Chinatown -- and from there into "the Lair of the Scorpion."
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Copyright © 2016 by Sax Rohmer
Published by Endymion Press
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
I. THE DANCER OF MONTMARTRE
II. “LE BALAFRE”
THE COWLED MAN
THE SHADOW OF A COWL
Keppel Stuart, M.D., F. R. S., awoke with a start and discovered himself to be bathed in cold perspiration. The moonlight shone in at his window, but did not touch the bed, therefore his awakening could not be due to this cause. He lay for some time listening for any unfamiliar noise which might account for the sudden disturbance of his usually sound slumbers. In the house below nothing stirred. His windows were widely open and he could detect that vague drumming which is characteristic of midnight London; sometimes, too, the clashing of buffers upon some siding of the Brighton railway where shunting was in progress and occasional siren notes from the Thames. Otherwise—nothing.
He glanced at the luminous disk of his watch. The hour was half-past two. Dawn was not far off. The night seemed to have become almost intolerably hot, and to this heat Stuart felt disposed to ascribe both his awakening and also a feeling of uncomfortable tension of which he now became aware. He continued to listen, and, listening and hearing nothing, recognized with anger that he was frightened. A sense of some presence oppressed him. Someone or something evil was near him—perhaps in the room, veiled by the shadows. This uncanny sensation grew more and more marked.
Stuart sat up in bed, slowly and cautiously, looking all about him. He remembered to have awakened once thus in India—and to have found a great cobra coiled at his feet. His inspection revealed the presence of nothing unfamiliar, and he stepped out on to the floor.
A faint clicking sound reached his ears. He stood quite still. The clicking was repeated.
“There is someone downstairs in my study!” muttered Stuart.
He became aware that the fear which held him was such that unless he acted and acted swiftly he should become incapable of action, but he remembered that whereas the moonlight poured into the bedroom, the staircase would be in complete darkness. He walked barefooted across to the dressing-table and took up an electric torch which lay there. He had not used it for some time, and he pressed the button to learn if the torch was charged. A beam of white light shone out across the room, and at the same instant came another sound.
If it came from below or above, from the adjoining room or from
Outside in the road, Stuart knew not. But following hard upon the mysterious disturbance which had aroused him it seemed to pour ice into his veins, it added the complementary touch to his panic. For it was a kind of low wail—a ghostly minor wail in falling cadences—unlike any sound he had heard. It was so excessively horrible that it produced a curious effect.
Discovering from the dancing of the torch-ray that his hand was trembling, Stuart concluded that he had awakened from a nightmare and that this fiendish wailing was no more than an unusually delayed aftermath of the imaginary horrors which had bathed him in cold perspiration.
He walked resolutely to the door, threw it open and cast the beam of light on to the staircase. Softly he began to descend. Before the study door he paused. There was no sound. He threw open the door, directing the torch-ray into the room.
Cutting a white lane through the blackness, it shone fully upon his writing-table, which was a rather fine Jacobean piece having a sort of quaint bureau superstructure containing cabinets and drawers. He could detect nothing unusual in the appearance of the littered table. A tobacco jar stood there, a pipe resting in the lid. Papers and books were scattered untidily as he had left them, surrounding a tray full of pipe and cigarette ash. Then, suddenly, he saw something else.
One of the bureau drawers was half opened.
Stuart stood quite still, staring at the table. There was no sound in the room. He crossed slowly, moving the light from right to left. His papers had been overhauled methodically. The drawers had been replaced, but he felt assured that all had been examined. The light switch was immediately beside the outer door, and Stuart walked over to it and switched on both lamps. Turning, he surveyed the brilliantly illuminated room. Save for himself, it was empty. He looked out into the hallway again. There was no one there. No sound broke the stillness. But that consciousness of some near presence asserted itself persistently and uncannily.
“My nerves are out of order!” he muttered. “No one has touched my papers. I must have left the drawer open myself.”
He switched off the light and walked across to the door. He had actually passed out intending to return to his room, when he became aware of a slight draught. He stopped.
Someone or something, evil and watchful, seemed to be very near again. Stuart turned and found himself gazing fearfully in the direction of the open study door. He became persuaded anew that someone was hiding there, and snatching up an ash stick which lay upon a chair in the hall he returned to the door. One step into the room he took and paused—palsied with a sudden fear which exceeded anything he had known.
A white casement curtain was drawn across the French windows … and outlined upon this moon-bright screen he saw a tall figure. It was that of a cowled man!
Such an apparition would have been sufficiently alarming had the cowl been that of a monk, but the outline of this phantom being suggested that of one of the Misericordia brethren or the costume worn of old by the familiars of the Inquisition!
His heart leapt wildly, and seemed to grow still. He sought to cry out in his terror, but only emitted a dry gasping sound.
The psychology of panic is obscure and has been but imperfectly explored. The presence of the terrible cowled figure afforded a confirmation of Stuart’s theory that he was the victim of a species of waking nightmare.
Even as he looked, the shadow of the cowled man moved—and was gone.
Stuart ran across the room, jerked open the curtains and stared out across the moon-bathed lawn, its prospect terminated by high privet hedges. One of the French windows was wide open. There was no one on the lawn; there was no sound.
“Mrs. M’Gregor swears that I always forget to shut these windows at night!” he muttered.
He closed and bolted the window, stood for a moment looking out across the empty lawn, then turned and went out of the room.
THE PIBROCH OF THE M’GREGORS
Dr. Stuart awoke in the morning and tried to recall what had occurred during the night. He consulted his watch and found the hour to be six a. m. No one was stirring in the house, and he rose and put on a bath robe. He felt perfectly well and could detect no symptoms of nervous disorder. Bright sunlight was streaming into the room, and he went out on to the landing, fastening the cord of his gown as he descended the stairs.
His study door was locked, with the key outside. He remembered having locked it. Opening it, he entered and looked about him. He was vaguely disappointed. Save for the untidy litter of papers upon the table, the study was as he had left it on retiring. If he could believe the evidence of his senses, nothing had been disturbed.
Not content with a casual inspection, he particularly examined those papers which, in his dream adventure, he had believed to have been submitted to mysterious inspection. They showed no signs of having been touched. The casement curtains were drawn across the recess formed by the French windows, and sunlight streamed in where, silhouetted against the pallid illumination of the moon, he had seen the man in the cowl. Drawing back the curtains, he examined the window fastenings. They were secure. If the window had really been open in the night, he must have left it so himself.
“Well,” muttered Stuart—"of all the amazing nightmares!”
He determined, immediately he had bathed and completed his toilet, to write an account of the dream for the Psychical Research Society, in whose work he was interested. Half an hour later, as the movements of an awakened household began to proclaim themselves, he sat down at his writing-table and commenced to write.
Keppel Stuart was a dark, good-looking man of about thirty-two, an easy-going bachelor who, whilst not over ambitious, was nevertheless a brilliant physician. He had worked for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and had spent several years in India studying snake poisons. His purchase of this humdrum suburban practice had been dictated by a desire to make a home for a girl who at the eleventh hour had declined to share it. Two years had elapsed since then, but the shadow still lay upon Stuart’s life, its influence being revealed in a certain apathy, almost indifference, which characterised his professional conduct.
His account of the dream completed, he put the paper into a pigeon-hole and forgot all about the matter. That day seemed to be more than usually dull and the hours to drag wearily on. He was conscious of a sort of suspense. He was waiting for something, or for someone. He did not choose to analyse this mental condition. Had he done so, the explanation was simple—and one that he dared not face.
At about ten o’clock that night, having been called out to a case, he returned to his house, walking straight into the study as was his custom and casting a light Burberry with a soft hat upon the sofa beside his stick and bag. The lamps were lighted, and the book-lined room, indicative of a studious and not over-wealthy bachelor, looked cheerful enough with the firelight dancing on the furniture.
Mrs. M’Gregor, a grey-haired Scotch lady, attired with scrupulous neatness, was tending the fire at the moment, and hearing Stuart come in she turned and glanced at him.
“A fire is rather superfluous to-night, Mrs. M’Gregor,” he said. “I found it unpleasantly warm walking.”
“May is a fearsome treacherous month, Mr. Keppel,” replied the old housekeeper, who from long association with the struggling practitioner had come to regard him as a son. “An’ a wheen o’ dry logs is worth a barrel o’ pheesic. To which I would add that if ye’re hintin’ it’s time ye shed ye’re woolsies for ye’re summer wear, all I have to reply is that I hope sincerely ye’re patients are more prudent than yoursel’.”
She placed his slippers in the fender and took up the hat, stick and coat from the sofa. Stuart laughed.
“Most of the neighbors exhibit their wisdom by refraining from becoming patients of mine, Mrs. M’Gregor.”
“That’s no weesdom; it’s just preejudice.”
“Prejudice!” cried Stuart, dropping down upon the sofa.
“Aye,” replied Mrs. M’Gregor firmly—"preejudice! They’re no’ that daft but they’re well aware o’ who’s the cleverest physeecian in the deestrict, an’ they come to nane other than Dr. Keppel Stuart when they’re sair sick and think they’re dying; but ye’ll never establish the practice you desairve, Mr. Keppel—never—until—”
“Until when, Mrs. M’Gregor?”
“Until ye take heed of an auld wife’s advice and find a new housekeeper.”
“Mrs. M’Gregor!” exclaimed Stuart with concern. “You don’t mean that you want to desert me? After—let me see—how many years is it, Mrs. M’Gregor?”
“Thirty years come last Shrove Tuesday; I dandled ye on my knee, and eh! but ye were bonny! God forbid, but I’d like to see ye thriving as ye desairve, and that ye’ll never do whilst ye’re a bachelor.”
“Oh!” cried Stuart, laughing again—"oh, that’s it, is it? So you would like me to find some poor inoffensive girl to share my struggles?”
Mrs. M’Gregor nodded wisely. “She’d have nane so many to share. I know ye think I’m old-fashioned, Mr. Keppel and it may be I am; but I do assure you I would be sair harassed, if stricken to my bed—which, please God, I won’t be—to receive the veesits of a pairsonable young bachelor—”
“Er—Mrs. M’Gregor!” interrupted Stuart, coughing in mock rebuke—"quite so! I fancy we have discussed this point before, and as you say your ideas are a wee bit, just a wee bit, behind the times. On this particular point I mean. But I am very grateful to you, very sincerely grateful, for your disinterested kindness; and if ever I should follow your advice——”
Mrs. M’Gregor interrupted him, pointing to his boots. “Ye’re no’ that daft as to sit in wet boots?”
“Really they are perfectly dry. Except for a light shower this evening, there has been no rain for several days. However, I may as well, since I shall not be going out again.”
He began to unlace his boots as Mrs. M’Gregor pulled the white casement curtains across the windows and then prepared to retire. Her hand upon the door knob, she turned again to Stuart.
“The foreign lady called half an hour since, Mr. Keppel.”
Stuart desisted from unlacing his boots and looked up with lively interest. “Mlle. Dorian! Did she leave any message?”
“She obsairved that she might repeat her veesit later,” replied Mrs. M’Gregor, and, after a moment’s hesitation; “she awaited ye’re return with exemplary patience.”
“Really, I am sorry I was detained,” declared Stuart, replacing his boot. “How long has she been gone, then?”
“Just the now. No more than two or three minutes. I trust she is no worse.”
“The lass seemed o’er anxious to see you.”
“Well, you know, Mrs. M’Gregor, she comes a considerable distance.”
“So I am given to understand, Mr. Keppel,” replied the old lady; “and in a grand luxurious car.”
Stuart assumed an expression of perplexity to hide his embarrassment. “Mrs. M’Gregor,” he said rather ruefully, “you watch over me as tenderly as my own mother would have done. I have observed a certain restraint in your manner whenever you have had occasion to refer to Mlle. Dorian. In what way does she differ from my other lady patients?” And even as he spoke the words he knew in his heart that she differed from every other woman in the world.
Mrs. M’Gregor sniffed. “Do your other lady patients wear furs that your airnings for six months could never pay for, Mr. Keppel?” she inquired.
“No, unfortunately they pin their faith, for the most part, to gaily coloured shawls. All the more reason why I should bless the accident which led Mlle. Dorian to my door.”
Mrs. M’Gregor, betraying, in her interest, real suspicion, murmured sotto voce: “Then she is a patient?”
“What’s that?” asked Stuart, regarding her surprisedly. “A patient?
Certainly. She suffers from insomnia.”
“I’m no’ surprised to hear it.”
“What do you mean, Mrs. M’Gregor?”
“Now, Mr. Keppel, laddie, ye’re angry with me, and like enough I am a meddlesome auld woman. But I know what a man will do for shining een and a winsome face—nane better to my sorrow—and twa times have I heard the Warning.”
Stuart stood up in real perplexity. “Pardon my density, Mrs.
M’Gregor, but—er—the Warning? To what ‘warning’ do you refer?”
Seating herself in the chair before the writing-table, Mrs. M’Gregor shook her head pensively. “What would it be,” she said softly, “but the Pibroch o’ the M’Gregors?”
Stuart came across and leaned upon a corner of the table. “The
Pibroch of the M’Gregors?” he repeated.
“Nane other. ‘Tis said to be Rob Roy’s ain piper that gives warning when danger threatens ane o’ the M’Gregors or any they love.”
Stuart restrained a smile, and, “A well-meaning but melancholy retainer!” he commented.
“As well as I hear you now, laddie, I heard the pibroch on the day a certain woman first crossed my threshold, nigh thirty years ago, in Inverary. And as plainly as I heard it wailing then, I heard it the first evening that Miss Dorian came to this house!”
Torn between good-humoured amusement and real interest, “If I remember rightly,” said Stuart, “Mlle. Dorian first called here just a week ago, and immediately before I returned from an Infirmary case?”
“Your memory is guid, Mr. Keppel.”
“And when, exactly, did you hear this Warning?”
“Twa minutes before you entered the house; and I heard it again the now.”
“What! you heard it to-night?”
“I heard it again just the now and I lookit out the window.”
“Did you obtain a glimpse of Rob Roy’s piper?”
“Ye’re laughing at an old wife, laddie. No, but I saw Miss Dorian away in her car and twa minutes later I saw yourself coming round the corner.”
“If she had only waited another two minutes,” murmured Stuart. “No matter; she may return. And are these the only occasions upon which you have heard this mysterious sound, Mrs. M’Gregor?”
“No, Master Keppel, they are not. I assure ye something threatens. It wakened me up in the wee sma’ hours last night—the piping—an’ I lay awake shaking for long eno’.”
“How extraordinary. Are you sure your imagination is not playing you tricks?”
“Ah, you’re no’ takin’ me seriously, laddie.”
“Mrs. M’Gregor"—he leaned across the table and rested his hands upon her shoulders—"you are a second mother to me, your care makes me feel like a boy again; and in these grey days it’s good to feel like a boy again. You think I am laughing at you, but I’m not. The strange tradition of your family is associated with a tragedy in your life; therefore I respect it. But have no fear with regard to Mlle. Dorian. In the first place she is a patient; in the second—I am merely a penniless suburban practitioner. Good-night, Mrs. M’Gregor. Don’t think of waiting up. Tell Mary to show Mademoiselle in here directly she arrives—that is if she really returns.”
Mrs. M’Gregor stood up and walked slowly to the door. “I’ll show
Mademoiselle in mysel’, Mr. Keppel,” she said,—"and show her out.”
She closed the door very quietly.
THE SCORPION’S TAIL
Seating himself at the writing-table, Stuart began mechanically to arrange his papers. Then from the tobacco jar he loaded his pipe, but his manner remained abstracted. Yet he was not thinking of the phantom piper but of Mlle. Dorian.
Until he had met this bewilderingly pretty woman he had thought that his heart was for evermore proof against the glances of bright eyes. Mademoiselle had disillusioned him. She was the most fragrantly lovely creature he had ever met, and never for one waking moment since her first visit, had he succeeded in driving her bewitching image from his mind. He had tried to laugh at his own folly, then had grown angry with himself, but finally had settled down to a dismayed acceptance of a wild infatuation.
He had no idea who Mlle. Dorian was; he did not even know her exact nationality, but he strongly suspected there was a strain of Eastern blood in her veins. Although she was quite young, apparently little more than twenty years of age, she dressed like a woman of unlimited means, and although all her visits had been at night he had had glimpses of the big car which had aroused Mrs. M’Gregor’s displeasure.
Yes—so ran his musings, as, pipe in mouth, he rested his chin in his hands and stared grimly into the fire—she had always come at night and always alone. He had supposed her to be a Frenchwoman, but an unmarried French girl of good family does not make late calls, even upon a medical man, unattended. Had he perchance unwittingly made himself a party to the escapade of some unruly member of a noble family? From the first he had shrewdly suspected the ailments of Mlle. Dorian to be imaginary—Mlle. Dorian? It was an odd name.
“I shall be imagining she is a disguised princess if I wonder about her any more!” he muttered angrily.
Detecting himself in the act of heaving a weary sigh, he coughed in self-reproval and reached into a pigeon-hole for the MS. of his unfinished paper on “Snake Poisons and Their Antidotes.” By chance he pulled out the brief account, written the same morning, of his uncanny experience during the night. He read it through reflectively.
It was incomplete. A certain mental haziness which he had noted upon awakening had in some way obscured the facts. His memory of the dream had been imperfect. Even now, whilst recognizing that some feature of the experience was missing from his written account, he could not identify the omission. But one memory arose starkly before him—that of the cowled man who had stood behind the curtains. It had power to chill him yet. The old incredulity returned and methodically he re-examined the contents of some of the table drawers. Ere long, however, he desisted impatiently.
“What the devil could a penniless doctor have hidden in his desk that was worth stealing!” he said aloud. “I must avoid cold salmon and cucumber in future.”
He tossed the statement aside and turned to his scientific paper.
There came knock at the door.
“Come in!” snapped Stuart irritably; but the next moment he had turned, eager-eyed to the servant who had entered.
“Inspector Dunbar has called, sir.”
“Oh, all right,” said Stuart, repressing another sigh. “Show him in here.”
There entered, shortly, a man of unusual height, a man gaunt and square both of figure and of face. He wore his clothes and his hair untidily. He was iron grey and a grim mouth was ill concealed by the wiry moustache. The most notable features of a striking face were the tawny leonine eyes, which could be fierce, which could be pensive and which were often kindly.
“Good evening, doctor,” he said—and his voice was pleasant and unexpectedly light in tome. “Hope I don’t intrude.”
“Not at all, Inspector,” Stuart assured him.
“Make yourself comfortable in the armchair and fill your pipe.”
“Thanks,” said Dunbar. “I will.” He took out his pipe and reached out a long arm for the tobacco jar. “I came to see if you could give me a tip on a matter that has cropped up.”
“Something in my line?” asked Stuart, a keen professional look coming momentarily into his eyes.
“It’s supposed to be a poison case, although I can’t see it myself,” answered the detective—to whom Keppel Stuart’s unusual knowledge of poisons had been of service in the past; “but if what I suspect is true, it’s a very big case all the same.”
Laying down his pipe, which he had filled but not lighted, Inspector Dunbar pulled out from the inside pocket of his tweed coat a bulging note-book and extracted therefrom some small object wrapped up in tissue paper. Unwrapping this object, he laid it upon the table.
“Tell me what that is, doctor,” he said, “and I shall be obliged.”
Stuart peered closely at that which lay before him. It was a piece of curiously shaped gold, cunningly engraved in a most unusual way. Rather less than an inch in length, it formed a crescent made up of six oval segments joined one to another, the sixth terminating in a curled point. The first and largest segment ended jaggedly where it had evidently been snapped off from the rest of the ornament—if the thing had formed part of an ornament. Stuart looked up, frowning in a puzzled way.
“It is a most curious fragment of jewellery—possibly of Indian origin,” he said.
Inspector Dunbar lighted his pipe and tossed the match-end into the fire. “But what does it represent?” he asked.
“Oh, as to that—I said a curious fragment advisedly, because I cannot imagine any woman wearing such a beastly thing. It is the tail of a scorpion.“
“Ah!” cried Dunbar, the tawny eyes glittering with excitement. “The tail of a scorpion! I thought so! And Sowerby would have it that it represented the stem of a Cactus or Prickly Pear!”
“Not so bad a guess,” replied Stuart. “There are resemblances—not in the originals but in such a miniature reproduction as this. He was wrong, however. May I ask where you obtained the fragment?”
“I’m here to tell you, doctor, for now that I know it’s a scorpion’s tail I know that I’m out of my depth as well. You’ve travelled in the East and lived in the East—two very different things. Now, while you were out there, in India, China, Burma, and so on, did you ever come across a religion or a cult that worshipped scorpions?”
Stuart frowned thoughtfully, rubbing his chin with the mouthpiece of his pipe. Dunbar watched him expectantly.
“Help yourself to whiskey-and-soda, Inspector,” said Stuart absently.
“You’ll find everything on the side-table yonder. I’m thinking.”
Inspector Dunbar nodded, stood up and crossed the room, where he busied himself with syphon and decanter. Presently he returned, carrying two full glasses, one of which he set before Stuart. “What’s the answer, doctor?” he asked.
“The answer is no. I am not acquainted with any sect of scorpion-worshippers, Inspector. But I once met with a curious experience at Su-Chow in China, which I have never been able to explain, but which may interest you. It wanted but a few minutes to sunset, and I was anxious to get back to my quarters before dusk fell. Therefore I hurried up my boy, who was drawing the rickshaw, telling him to cross the Canal by the Wu-men Bridge. He ran fleetly in that direction, and we were actually come to the steep acclivity of the bridge, when suddenly the boy dropped the shafts and fell down on his knees, hiding his face in his hands.
“‘Shut your eyes tightly, master!’ he whispered. ‘The Scorpion is coming!’
“I stared down at him in amazement, as was natural, and not a little angrily; for his sudden action had almost pitched me on my head. But there he crouched, immovable, and staring up the slope I say that it was entirely deserted except for one strange figure at that moment crossing the crown of the bridge and approaching. It was the figure of a tall and dignified Chinaman, or of one who wore the dress of a Chinaman. For the extra-ordinary thing about the stranger’s appearance was this; he also wore a thick green veil!”
“Covering his face?”
“So as to cover his face completely. I was staring at him in wonder, when the boy, seeming to divine the other’s approach, whispered, ‘Turn your head away! Turn your head away!”
“He was referring to the man with the veil?”
“Undoubtedly. Of course I did nothing of the kind, but it was impossible to discern the stranger’s features through the thick gauze, although he passed quite close to me. He had not proceeded another three paces, I should think, before my boy had snatched up the shafts and darted across the bridge as though all hell were after him! Here’s the odd thing, though; I could never induce him to speak a word on the subject afterwards! I bullied him and bribed him, but all to no purpose. And although I must have asked more than a hundred Chinamen in every station of society from mandarin to mendicant, ‘Who or what is The Scorpion?‘ one and all looked stupid, blandly assuring me that they did not know what I meant.”
“H’m!” said Dunbar, “it’s a queer yarn, certainly. How long ago would that be, doctor?”
“It sounds as though it might belong to the case. Some months back, early in the winter, we received instructions at the Yard to look out everywhere in the press, in buffets, theatres, but particularly in criminal quarters, for any reference (of any kind whatever) to a scorpion. I was so puzzled that I saw the Commissioner about it, and he could tell me next to nothing. He said the word had come through from Paris, but that Paris seemed to know no more about it than we did. It was associated in some way with the sudden deaths of several notable public men about that time; but as there was no evidence of foul play in any of the cases, I couldn’t see what it meant at all. Then, six weeks ago, Sir Frank Narcombe, the surgeon, fell dead in the foyer of a West-End theatre—you remember?”
The telephone bell rang.
Stuart reached across for the instrument and raised the receiver. “Yes,” he said—"Dr. Stuart speaking. Inspector Dunbar is here. Hold on.”
He passed the instrument to Dunbar, who had stood up on hearing his name mentioned. “Sergeant Sowerby at Scotland Yard wishes to speak to you, Inspector.”
“Hullo,” said Dunbar—"that you, Sowerby. Yes—but I arrived here only a short time ago. What’s that?—Max? Good God! what does it all mean! Are you sure of the number—49685? Poor chap—he should have worked with us instead of going off alone like that. But he was always given to that sort of thing. Wait for me. I’ll be with you in a few minutes. I can get a taxi. And, Sowerby—listen! It’s ‘The Scorpion’ case right enough. That bit of gold found on the dead man is not a cactus stem; it’s a scorpion’s tail!”
He put down the telephone and turned to Stuart, who had been listening to the words with growing concern. Dunbar struck his open palm down on to the table with a violent gesture.
“We have been asleep!” he exclaimed. “Gaston Max of the Paris Service has been at work in London for a month, and we didn’t know it!”
“Gaston Max!” cried Start—"then it must be a big case indeed.”
As a student of criminology the name of the celebrated Frenchman was familiar to him as that of the foremost criminal investigator in Europe, and he found himself staring at the fragment of gold with a new and keener interest.
“Poor chap,” continued Dunbar—"it was his last. The body brought in from Hanover Hole has been identified as his.”
“What! it is the body of Gaston Max!”
“Paris has just wired that Max’s reports ceased over a week ago. He was working on the case of Sir Frank Narcombe, it seems, and I never knew! But I predicted a long time ago that Max would play the lone-hand game once too often. They sent particulars. The identification disk is his. Oh! there’s no doubt about it, unfortunately. The dead man’s face is unrecognizable, but it’s not likely there are two disks of that sort bearing the initials G.M. and the number 49685. I’m going along now. Should you care to come, doctor?”
“I am expecting a patient, Inspector,” replied Stuart—"er—a special case. But I hope you will keep me in touch with this affair?”
“Well, I shouldn’t have suggested your coming to the Yard if I hadn’t wanted to do that. As a matter of fact, this scorpion job seems to resolve itself into a case of elaborate assassination by means of some unknown poison; and although I should have come to see you in any event, because you have helped me more than once, I came to-night at the suggestion of the Commissioner. He instructed me to retain your services if they were available.”
“I am honoured,” replied Stuart. “But after all, Inspector, I am merely an ordinary suburban practitioner. My reputation has yet to be made. What’s the matter with Halesowen of Upper Wimpole Street? He’s the big man.”
“And if Sir Frank Narcombe was really poisoned—as Paris seems to think he was—he’s also a big fool.” retorted Dunbar bluntly. “He agreed that death was due to heart trouble.”
“I know he did; unsuspected ulcerative endocarditis. Perhaps he was right.”
“If he was right,” said Dunbar, taking up the piece of gold from the table, “what was Gaston Max doing with this thing in his possession?”
“There may be no earthly connection between Max’s inquiries and the death of Sir Frank.”
“On the other hand—there may! Leaving Dr. Halesowen out of the question, are you open to act as expert adviser in this case?”
“Your fee is your own affair, doctor. I will communicate with you later, if you wish, or call again in the morning.”
Dunbar wrapped up the scorpion’s tail in the piece of tissue paper and was about to replace it in his note-case. Then:
“I’ll leave this with you, doctor,” he said. “I know it will be safe enough, and you might like to examine it at greater leisure.”
“Very well,” replied Stuart. “Some of the engraving is very minute.
I will have a look at it through a glass later.”
He took the fragment from Dunbar, who had again unwrapped it, and, opening a drawer of the writing-table in which he kept his cheque-book and some few other personal valuables, he placed the curious piece of gold-work within and relocked the drawer.
“I will walk as far as the cab-rank with you,” he said, finding himself to be possessed of a spirit of unrest. Whereupon the two went out of the room, Stuart extinguishing the lamps as he came to the door.
They had not left the study for more than two minutes ere a car drew up outside the house, and Mrs. M’Gregor ushered a lady into the room but lately quitted by Stuart and Dunbar, turning up the lights as she entered.
“The doctor has gone out but just now, Miss Dorian,” she said stiffly. “I am sorry that ye are so unfortunate in your veesits. But I know he’ll be no more than a few minutes.”
The girl addressed was of a type fully to account for the misgivings of the shrewd old Scotswoman. She had the slim beauty of the East allied to the elegance of the West. Her features, whilst cast in a charming European mould, at the same time suggested in some subtle way the Oriental. She had the long, almond-shaped eyes of the Egyptian, and her hair, which she wore unconventionally in a picturesque fashion reminiscent of the harem, was inclined to be “fuzzy,” but gleamed with coppery tints where the light touched its waves.
She wore a cloak of purple velvet having a hooded collar of white fox fur; it fastened with golden cords. Beneath it was a white and gold robe, cut with classic simplicity of line and confined at the waist by an ornate Eastern girdle. White stockings and dull gold shoes exhibited to advantage her charming little feet and slim ankles, and she carried a handbag of Indian beadwork. Mlle. Dorian was a figure calculated to fire the imagination of any man and to linger long and sweetly in the memory.
Mrs. M’Gregor, palpably ill at ease, conducted her to an armchair.
“You are very good,” said the visitor, speaking with a certain hesitancy and with a slight accent most musical and fascinating. “I wait a while if I may.”
“Dear, dear,” muttered Mrs. M’Gregor, beginning to poke the fire, “he has let the fire down, of course! Is it out? No … I see a wee sparkie!”
She set the poker upright before the nearly extinguished fire and turned triumphantly to Mlle. Dorian, who was watching her with a slight smile.
“That will be a comforting blaze in a few minutes, Miss Dorian,” she said, and went towards the door.
“If you please,” called the girl, detaining her—"do you permit me to speak on the telephone a moment? As Dr. Stuart is not at home, I must explain that I wait for him.”
“Certainly, Miss Dorian,” replied Mrs. M’Gregor; “use the telephone by all means. But I think the doctor will be back any moment now.”
“Thank you so much.”
Mrs. M’Gregor went out, not without a final backward glance at the elegant figure in the armchair. Mlle. Dorian was seated, her chin resting in her hand and her elbow upon the arm of the chair, gazing into the smoke arising from the nearly extinguished ember of the fire. The door closed, and Mrs. M’Gregor’s footsteps could be heard receding along the corridor.
Mlle. Dorian sprang from the chair and took out of her handbag a number of small keys attached to a ring. Furtively she crossed the room, all the time listening intently, and cast her cloak over the back of the chair which was placed before the writing-table. Her robe of white and gold clung to her shapely figure as she bent over the table and tried three of the keys in the lock of the drawer which contained Stuart’s cheque-book and in which he had recently placed the mysterious gold ornament. The third key fitted the lock, and Mlle. Dorian pulled open the drawer. She discovered first the cheque-book and next a private account-book; then from under the latter she drew out a foolscap envelope sealed with red wax and bearing, in Stuart’s handwriting, the address:
Lost Property Office,
New Scotland Yard, S. W. I.
She uttered a subdued exclamation; then, as a spark of light gleamed within the open drawer, she gazed as if stupefied at the little ornament which she had suddenly perceived lying near the cheque-book. She picked it up and stared at it aghast. A moment she hesitated; then, laying down the fragment of gold and also the long envelope upon the table, she took up the telephone. Keeping her eyes fixed upon the closed door of the study, she asked for the number East 89512, and whilst she waited for the connection continued that nervous watching and listening. Suddenly she began to speak, in a low voice.
“Yes! … Miska speaks. Listen! One of the new keys—it fits. I have the envelope. But, also in the same drawer, I find a part of a broken gold ‘agrab (scorpion). Yes, it is broken. It must be they find it, on him.” Her manner grew more and more agitated. “Shall I bring it? The envelope it is very large. I do not know if——”
From somewhere outside the house came a low, wailing cry—a cry which Stuart, if he had heard it, must have recognized to be identical with that which he had heard in the night—but which he had forgotten to record in his written account.
“Ah!” whispered the girl—"there is the signal! It is the doctor who returns.” She listened eagerly, fearfully, to the voice which spoke over the wires. “Yes—yes!”
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