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I was not the only passenger aboard the s.s. Mandalay who perceived the disturbance and wondered what it might portend and from whence proceed. A goodly number of passengers were joining the ship at Port Said. I was lounging against the rail, pipe in mouth, lazily wondering, with a large vagueness...
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Copyright © 2016 by Sax Rohmer
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Distribution by Pronoun
THE PHANTOM SCIMITAR
I WAS NOT THE only passenger aboard the S.S. Mandalay who perceived the disturbance and wondered what it might portend and from whence proceed. A goodly number of passengers were joining the ship at Port Said. I was lounging against the rail, pipe in mouth, lazily wondering, with a large vagueness.
What a heterogeneous rabble it was!—a brightly coloured rabble, but the colours all were dirty, like the town and the canal. Only the sky was clean; the sky and the hard, merciless sunlight which spared nothing of the uncleanness, and defied one even to think of the term dear to tourists, “picturesque.” I was in that kind of mood. All the natives appeared to be pockmarked; all the Europeans greasy with perspiration.
But what was the stir about?
I turned to the dark, bespectacled young man who leaned upon the rail beside me. From the first I had taken to Mr. Ahmad Ahmadeen.
“There is some kind of undercurrent of excitement among the natives,” I said, “a sort of subdued Greek chorus is audible. What’s it all about?”
Mr. Ahmadeen smiled. After a gaunt fashion, he was a handsome man and had a pleasant smile.
“Probably,” he replied, “some local celebrity is joining the ship.”
I stared at him curiously.
“Any idea who he is?” (The soul of the copyhunter is a restless soul.)
A group of men dressed in semi-European fashion—that is, in European fashion save for their turbans, which were green—passed close to us along the deck.
Ahmadeen appeared not to have heard the question.
The disturbance, which could only be defined as a subdued uproar, but could be traced to no particular individual or group, grew momentarily louder—and died away. It was only when it had completely ceased that one realized how pronounced it had been—how altogether peculiar, secret; like that incomprehensible murmuring in a bazaar when, unknown to the insular visitor, a reputed saint is present.
Then it happened; the inexplicable incident which, though I knew it not, heralded the coming of strange things, and the dawn of a new power; which should set up its secret standards in England, which should flood Europe and the civilized world with wonder.
A shrill scream marked the overture—a scream of fear and of pain, which dropped to a groan, and moaned out into the silence of which it was the cause.
“My God! what’s that?”
I started forward. There was a general crowding rush, and a darkly tanned and bearded man came on board, carrying a brown leather case. Behind him surged those who bore the victim.
“It’s one of the lascars!”
“It was a porter—?”
“What is it—?”
“Someone been stabbed!”
“Where’s the doctor?”
“Stand away there, if you please!”
That was a ship’s officer; and the voice of authority served to quell the disturbance. Through a lane walled with craning heads they bore the insensible man. Ahmadeen was at my elbow.
“A Copt,” he said softly. “Poor devil!” I turned to him. There was a queer expression on his lean, clean-shaven, bronze face.
“Good God!” I said. “His hand has been cut off!”
That was the fact of the matter. And no one knew who was responsible for the atrocity. And no one knew what had become of the severed hand! I wasted not a moment in linking up the story. The pressman within me acted automatically.
“The gentleman just come aboard, sir,” said a steward, “is Professor Deeping. The poor beggar who was assaulted was carrying some of the Professor’s baggage.” The whole incident struck me as most odd. There was an idea lurking in my mind that something else—something more—lay behind all this. With impatience I awaited the time when the injured man, having received medical attention, was conveyed ashore, and Professor Deeping reappeared. To the celebrated traveller and Oriental scholar I introduced myself.
He was singularly reticent.
“I was unable to see what took place, Mr. Cavanagh,” he said. “The poor fellow was behind me, for I had stepped from the boat ahead of him. I had just taken a bag from his hand, but he was carrying another, heavier one. It is a clean cut, like that of a scimitar. I have seen very similar wounds in the cases of men who have suffered the old Moslem penalty for theft.”
Nothing further had come to light when the Mandalay left, but I found new matter for curiosity in the behaviour of the Moslem party who had come on board at Port Said.
In conversation with Mr. Bell, the chief officer, I learned that the supposed leader of the party was one, Mr. Azraeel. “Obviously,” said Bell, “not his real name or not all it. I don’t suppose they’ll show themselves on deck; they’ve got their own servants with them, and seem to be people of consequence.”
This conversation was interrupted, but I found my unseen fellow voyagers peculiarly interesting and pursued inquiries in other directions. I saw members of the distinguished travellers’ retinue going about their duties, but never obtained a glimpse of Mr. Azraeel nor of any of his green-turbaned companions.
“Who is Mr. Azraeel?” I asked Ahmadeen.
“I cannot say,” replied the Egyptian, and abruptly changed the subject.
Some curious aroma of mystery floated about the ship. Ahmadeen conveyed to me the idea that he was concealing something. Then, one night, Mr. Bell invited me to step forward with him.
“Listen,” he said.
From somewhere in the fo’c’sle proceeded low chanting.
“Yes. What the devil is it?”
“It’s the lascars,” said Bell. “They have been behaving in a most unusual manner ever since the mysterious Mr. Azraeel joined us. I may be wrong in associating the two things, but I shan’t be sorry to see the last of our mysterious passengers.”
The next happening on board the Mandalay which I have to record was the attempt to break open the door of Professor Deeping’s stateroom. Except when he was actually within, the Professor left his room door religiously locked.
He made light of the affair, but later took me aside and told me a curious story of an apparition which had appeared to him.
“It was a crescent of light,” he said, “and it glittered through the darkness there to the left as I lay in my berth.”
“A reflection from something on the deck?”
Deeping smiled, uneasily.
“Possibly,” he replied; “but it was very sharply defined. Like the blade of a scimitar,” he added.
I stared at him, my curiosity keenly aroused. “Does any explanation suggest itself to you?” I said.
“Well,” he confessed, “I have a theory, I will admit; but it is rather going back to the Middle Ages. You see, I have lived in the East a lot; perhaps I have assimilated some of their superstitions.”
He was oddly reticent, as ever. I felt convinced that he was keeping something back. I could not stifle the impression that the clue to these mysteries lay somewhere around the invisible Mohammedan party.
“Do you know,” said Bell to me, one morning, “this trip’s giving me the creeps. I believe the damned ship’s haunted! Three bells in the middle watch last night, I’ll swear I saw some black animal crawling along the deck, in the direction of the forward companion-way.”
“Cat?” I suggested.
“Nothing like it,” said Mr. Bell. “Mr. Cavanagh, it was some uncanny thing! I’m afraid I can’t explain quite what I mean, but it was something I wanted to shoot!”
“Where did it go?”
The chief officer shrugged his shoulders. “Just vanished,” he said. “I hope I don’t see it again.”
At Tilbury the Mohammedan party went ashore in a body. Among them were veiled women. They contrived so to surround a central figure that I entirely failed to get a glimpse of the mysterious Mr. Azraeel. Ahmadeen was standing close by the companion-way, and I had a momentary impression that one of the women slipped something into his hand. Certainly, he started; and his dusky face seemed to pale.
Then a deck steward came out of Deeping’s stateroom, carrying the brown bag which the Professor had brought aboard at Port Said. Deeping’s voice came:
“Hi, my man! Let me take that bag!”
The bag changed hands. Five minutes later, as I was preparing to go ashore, arose a horrid scream above the berthing clamour. Those passengers yet aboard made in the direction from which the scream had proceeded.
A steward—the one to whom Professor Deeping had spoken—lay writhing at the foot of the stairs leading to the saloon-deck. His right hand had been severed above the wrist!
THE GIRL WITH THE VIOLET EYES
DURING THE NEXT DAY or two my mind constantly reverted to the incidents of the voyage home. I was perfectly convinced that the curtain had been partially raised upon some fantasy in which Professor Deeping figured.
But I had seen no more of Deeping nor had I heard from him, when abruptly I found myself plunged again into the very vortex of his troubled affairs. I was half way through a long article, I remember, upon the mystery of the outrage at the docks. The poor steward whose hand had been severed lay in a precarious condition, but the police had utterly failed to trace the culprit.
I had laid down my pen to relight my pipe (the hour was about ten at night) when a faint sound from the direction of the outside door attracted my attention. Something had been thrust through the letter-box.
“A circular,” I thought, when the bell rang loudly, imperatively.
I went to the door. A square envelope lay upon the mat—a curious envelope, pale amethyst in colour. Picking it up, I found it to bear my name—written simply—
Tearing it open I glanced at the contents. I threw open the door. No one was visible upon the landing, but when I leaned over the banister a white-clad figure was crossing the hall, below.
Without hesitation, hatless, I raced down the stairs. As I crossed the dimly lighted hall and came out into the peaceful twilight of the court, my elusive visitor glided under the archway opposite.
Just where the dark and narrow passage opened on to Fleet Street I overtook her—a girl closely veiled and wrapped in a long coat of white ermine.
“Madam,” I said.
She turned affrightedly.
“Please do not detain me!” Her accent was puzzling, but pleasing. She glanced apprehensively about her.
You have seen the moon through a mist?—and known it for what it was in spite of its veiling? So, now, through the cloudy folds of the veil, I saw the stranger’s eyes, and knew them for the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen, had ever dreamt of.
“But you must explain the meaning of your note!”
“I cannot! I cannot! Please do not ask me!”
She was breathless from her flight and seemed to be trembling. From behind the cloud her eyes shone brilliantly, mysteriously.
I was sorely puzzled. The whole incident was bizarre—indeed, it had in it something of the uncanny. Yet I could not detain the girl against her will. That she went in apprehension of something, of someone, was evident.
Past the head of the passage surged the noisy realities of Fleet Street. There were men there in quest of news; men who would have given much for such a story as this in which I was becoming entangled. Yet a story more tantalizingly incomplete could not well be imagined.
I knew that I stood upon the margin of an arena wherein strange adversaries warred to a strange end. But a mist was over all. Here, beside me, was one who could disperse the mist—and would not. Her one anxiety seemed to be to escape.
Suddenly she raised her veil; and I looked fully into the only really violet eyes I had ever beheld. Mentally, I started. For the face framed in the snowy fur was the most bewitchingly lovely imaginable. One rebellious lock of wonderful hair swept across the white brow. It was brown hair, with an incomprehensible sheen in the high lights that suggested the heart of a blood-red rose.
“Oh,” she cried, “promise me that you will never breathe a word to any one about my visit!”
“I promise willingly,” I said; “but can you give me no hint?”
“Honestly, truly, I cannot, dare not, say more! Only promise that you will do as I ask!”
Since I could perceive no alternative—
“I will do so,” I replied.
“Thank you—oh, thank you!” she said; and dropping her veil again she walked rapidly away from me, whispering, “I rely upon you. Do not fail me. Good-bye!”
Her conspicuous white figure joined the hurrying throngs upon the pavement beyond. My curiosity brooked no restraint. I hurried to the end of the courtway. She was crossing the road. From the shadows where he had lurked, a man came forward to meet her. A vehicle obstructed the view ere I could confirm my impression; and when it had passed, neither my lovely visitor nor her companion were anywhere in sight.
But, unless some accident of light and shade had deceived me, the man who had waited was Ahmad Ahmadeen!
It seemed that some astral sluice-gate was raised; a dreadful sense of foreboding for the first time flooded my mind. Whilst the girl had stood before me it had been different—the mysterious charm of her personality had swamped all else. But now, the messenger gone, it was the purport of her message which assumed supreme significance.
Written in odd, square handwriting upon the pale amethyst paper, this was the message—
Prevail upon Professor Deeping to place what he has in the brown case in the porch of his house to-night. If he fails to do so, no power on earth can save him from the Scimitar of Hassan.
“HASSAN OF ALEPPO”
PROFESSOR DEEPING’S NUMBER WAS in the telephone directory, therefore, on returning to my room, where there still lingered the faint perfume of my late visitor’s presence, I asked for his number. He proved to be at home.
“Strange you should ring me up, Cavanagh,” he said; “for I was about to ring you up.”
“First,” I replied, “listen to the contents of an anonymous letter which I have received.”
(I remembered, and only just in time, my promise to the veiled messenger.)
“To me,” I added, having read him the note, “it seems to mean nothing. I take it that you understand better than I do.”
“I understand very well, Cavanagh!” he replied. “You will recall my story of the scimitar which flashed before me in the darkness of my stateroom on the Mandalay? Well, I have seen it again! I am not an imaginative man: I had always believed myself to possess the scientific mind; but I can no longer doubt that I am the object of a pursuit which commenced in Mecca! The happenings on the steamer prepared me for this, in a degree. When the man lost his hand at Port Said I doubted. I had supposed the days of such things past. The attempt to break into my stateroom even left me still uncertain. But the outrage upon the steward at the docks removed all further doubt. I perceived that the contents of a certain brown leather case were the objective of the crimes.”
I listened in growing wonder.
“It was not necessary in order to further the plan of stealing the bag that the hands were severed,” resumed the Professor. “In fact, as was rendered evident by the case of the steward, this was a penalty visited upon any one who touched it! You are thinking of my own immunity?”
“This is attributable to two things. Those who sought to recover what I had in the case feared that my death en route might result in its being lost to them for ever. They awaited a suitable opportunity. They had designed to take it at Port Said certainly, I think; but the bag was too large to be readily concealed, and, after the outrage, might have led to the discovery of the culprit. In the second place, they are uncertain of my faith. I have long passed for a true Believer in the East! As a Moslem I visited Mecca—”
“You visited Mecca!”
“I had just returned from the hadj when I joined the Mandalay at Port Said! My death, however, has been determined upon, whether I be Moslem or Christian!”
“Because,” came the Professor’s harsh voice over the telephone, “of the contents of the brown leather case! I will not divulge to you now the nature of these contents; to know might endanger you. But the case is locked in my safe here, and the key, together with a full statement of the true facts of the matter, is hidden behind the first edition copy of my book ‘Assyrian Mythology,’ in the smaller bookcase—”
“Why do you tell me all this?” I interrupted.
He laughed harshly.
“The identity of my pursuer has just dawned upon me,” he said. “I know that my life is in real danger. I would give up what is demanded of me, but I believe its possession to be my strongest safeguard.”
Mystery upon mystery! I seemed to be getting no nearer to the heart of this maze. What in heaven’s name did it all mean? Suddenly an idea struck me.
“Is our late fellow passenger, Mr. Ahmadeen, connected with the matter?” I asked.
“In no way,” replied Deeping earnestly. “Mr. Ahmadeen is, I believe, a person of some consequence in the Moslem world; but I have nothing to fear from him.”
“What steps have you taken to protect yourself?”
Again the short laugh reached my ears.
“I’m afraid long residence in the East has rendered me something of a fatalist, Cavanagh! Beyond keeping my door locked, I have taken no steps whatever. I fear I am quite accessible!”
A while longer we talked; and with every word the conviction was more strongly borne in upon me that some uncanny menace threatened the peace, perhaps the life, of Professor Deeping.
I had hung up the receiver scarce a moment when, acting upon a sudden determination, I called up New Scotland Yard, and asked for Detective-Inspector Bristol, whom I knew well. A few words were sufficient keenly to arouse his curiosity, and he announced his intention of calling upon me immediately. He was in charge of the case of the severed hand.
I made no attempt to resume work in the interval preceding his arrival. I had not long to wait, however, ere Bristol was ringing my bell; and I hurried to the door, only too glad to confide in one so well equipped to analyze my doubts and fears. For Bristol is no ordinary policeman, but a trained observer, who, when I first made his acquaintance, completely upset my ideas upon the mental limitations of the official detective force.
In appearance Bristol suggests an Anglo-Indian officer, and at the time of which I write he had recently returned from Jamaica and his face was as bronzed as a sailor’s. One would never take Bristol for a detective. As he seated himself in the armchair, without preamble I plunged into my story. He listened gravely.
“What sort of house is Professor Deeping’s?” he asked suddenly.
“I have no idea,” I replied, “beyond the fact that it is somewhere in Dulwich.”
“May I use your telephone?”
Very quickly Bristol got into communication with the superintendent of P Division. A brief delay, and the man came to the telephone whose beat included the road wherein Professor Deeping’s house was situated.
“Why!” said Bristol, hanging up the receiver after making a number of inquiries, “it’s a sort of rambling cottage in extensive grounds. There’s only one servant, a manservant, and he sleeps in a detached lodge. If the Professor is really in danger of attack he could not well have chosen a more likely residence for the purpose!”
“What shall you do? What do you make of it all?”
“As I see the case,” he said slowly, “it stands something like this: Professor Deeping has...”
The telephone bell began to ring.
I took up the receiver.
“Cavanagh!—is that Cavanagh?”
“Yes! yes! who is that?”
“Deeping! I have rung up the police, and they are sending some one. But I wish...”
His voice trailed off. The sound of a confused and singular uproar came to me.
“Hullo!” I cried. “Hullo!”
A shriek—a deathful, horrifying cry—and a distant babbling alone answered me. There was a crash. Clearly, Deeping had dropped the receiver. I suppose my face blanched.
“What is it?” asked Bristol anxiously.
“God knows what it is!” I said. “Deeping has met with some mishap—”
When, over the wires—
“Hassan of Aleppo!” came a dying whisper. “Hassan ... of Aleppo...”
THE OBLONG BOX
“You had better wait for us,” said Bristol to the taxi-man.
“Very good, sir. But I shan’t be able to take you further back than the Brixton Garage. You can get another cab there, though.”
A clock chimed out—an old-world chime in keeping with the loneliness, the curiously remote loneliness, of the locality. Less than five miles from St. Paul’s are spots whereto, with the persistence of Damascus attar, clings the aroma of former days. This iron gateway fronting the old chapel was such a spot.
Just within stood a plain-clothes man, who saluted my companion respectfully.
“Professor Deeping,” I began.
The man, with a simple gesture, conveyed the dreadful news.
“Dead! dead!” I cried incredulously.
He glanced at Bristol.
“The most mysterious case I have ever had anything to do with, sir,” he said.
The power of speech seemed to desert me. It was unthinkable that Deeping, with whom I had been speaking less than an hour ago, should now be no more; that some malign agency should thus murderously have thrust him into the great borderland.
In that kind of silence which seems to be peopled with whispering spirits we strode forward along the elm avenue. It was very dark where the moon failed to penetrate. The house, low and rambling, came into view, its facade bathed in silver light. Two of the visible windows were illuminated. A sort of loggia ran along one side.
On our left, as we made for this, lay a black ocean of shrubbery. It intruded, raggedly, upon the weed-grown path, for neglect was the keynote of the place.
We entered the cottage, crossed the tiny lobby, and came to the study. A man, evidently Deeping’s servant, was sitting in a chair by the door, his head sunken in his hands. He looked up, haggard-faced.
“My God! my God!” he groaned. “He was locked in, gentlemen! He was locked in; and yet something murdered him!”
“What do you mean?” said Bristol. “Where were you?”
“I was away on an errand, sir. When I returned, the police were knocking the door down. He was locked in!”
We passed him, entering the study.
It was a museum-like room, lighted by a lamp on the littered table. At first glance it looked as though some wild thing had run amok there. The disorder was indescribable.
“Touched nothing, of course?” asked Bristol sharply of the officer on duty.
“Nothing, sir. It’s just as we found it when we forced the door.”
“Why did you force the door?”
“He rung us up at the station and said that something or somebody had got into the house. It was evident the poor gentleman’s nerve had broken down, sir. He said he was locked in his study. When we arrived it was all in darkness—but we thought we heard sounds in here.”
“What sort of sounds?”
“Something crawling about!”
“Key is in the lock on the inside of the door,” he said. “Is that where you found it?”
He looked across to where the brass knob of a safe gleamed dully.
Professor Deeping lay half under the table, a spectacle so ghastly that I shall not attempt to describe it.
“Merciful heavens!” whispered Bristol. “He’s nearly decapitated!”
I clutched dizzily at the mantelpiece. It was all so utterly, incredibly horrible. How had Deeping met his death? The windows both were latched and the door had been locked from within!
“You searched for the murderer, of course?” asked Bristol.
“You can see, sir,” replied the officer, “that there isn’t a spot in the room where a man could hide! And there was nobody in here when we forced the door!”
“Why!” cried my companion suddenly. “The Professor has a chisel in his hand!”
“Yes. I think he must have been trying to prise open that box yonder when he was attacked.”
Bristol and I looked, together, at an oblong box which lay upon the floor near the murdered man. It was a kind of small packing case, addressed to Professor Deeping, and evidently had not been opened.
“When did this arrive?” asked Bristol. Lester, the Professor’s man, who had entered the room, replied shakily—
“It came by carrier, sir, just before I went out.”
“Was he expecting it?”
“I don’t think so.”
Inspector Bristol and the officer dragged the box fully into the light. It was some three feet long by one foot square, and solidly constructed.
“It is perfectly evident,” remarked Bristol, “that the murderer stayed to search for—”
“The key of the safe!”
“Exactly. If the men really heard sounds here, it would appear that the assassin was still searching at that time.”
“I assure you,” the officer interrupted, “that there was no living thing in the room when we entered.”
Bristol and I looked at one another in horrified wonder.
“It’s incomprehensible!” he said.
“See if the key is in the place mentioned by the Professor, Mr. Cavanagh, whilst I break the box.”
I went to a great, open bookcase, which the frantic searcher seemed to have overlooked. Removing the bulky “Assyrian Mythology,” there, behind the volume, lay an envelope, containing a key, and a short letter. Not caring to approach more closely to the table and to that which lay beneath it, I was peering at the small writing, in the semi-gloom by the bookcase, when Bristol cried—
“This box is unopenable by ordinary means! I shall have to smash it!”
At his words, I joined him where he knelt on the floor. Mysteriously, the chest had defied all his efforts.
“There’s a pick-axe in the garden,” volunteered Lester. “Shall I bring it?”
The man ran off.
“I see the key is safe,” said Bristol. “Possibly the letter may throw some light upon all this.”
“Let us hope so,” I replied. “You might read it.”
He took the letter from my hand, stepped up to the table, and by the light of the lamp read as follows—
My Dear Cavanagh,—
It has now become apparent to me that my life is in imminent danger. You know of the inexplicable outrages which marked my homeward journey, and if this letter come to your hand it will be because these have culminated in my death.
The idea of a pursuing scimitar is not new to me. This phenomenon, which I have now witnessed three times, is fairly easy of explanation, but its significance is singular. It is said to be one of the devices whereby the Hashishin warn those whom they have marked down for destruction, and is called, in the East, “The Scimitar of Hassan.”
The Hashishin were the members of a Moslem secret society, founded in 1090 by one Hassan of Khorassan. There is a persistent tradition in parts of the Orient that this sect still flourishes in Assyria, under the rule of a certain Hassan of Aleppo, the Sheikh-al-jebal, or supreme lord of the Hashishin. My careful inquiries, however, at the time that I was preparing matter for my “Assyrian Mythology,” failed to discover any trace of such a person or such a group.
I accordingly assumed Hassan to be a myth—a first cousin to the ginn. I was wrong. He exists. And by my supremely rash act I have incurred his vengeance, for Hassan of Aleppo is the self-appointed guardian of the traditions and relics of Mohammed. And I have Stolen one of the holy slippers of the Prophet!
He, with some of his servants, has followed me from Mecca to England. My precautions have enabled me to retain the relic, but you have seen what fate befell all those others who even touched the receptacle containing it.
If I fall a victim to the Hashishin, I am uncertain how you, as my confidant, will fare. Therefore I have locked the slipper in my safe and to you entrust the key. I append particulars of the lock combination; but I warn you—do not open the safe. If their wrath be visited upon you, your possession of the key may prove a safeguard.
Take the copy of “Assyrian Mythology.” You will find in it all that I learned respecting the Hashishin. If I am doomed to be assassinated, it may aid you; if not in avenging me, in saving others from my fate. I fear I shall never see you again. A cloud of horror settles upon me like a pall. Do not touch the slipper, nor the case containing it.
“It is almost incredible!” I said hoarsely.
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