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"What's that!" cried the inspector, quite startled out of his usual
deferential manner.

Footsteps sounded in the corridor. Came a rap at the door.

"Come in," said the Assistant Commissioner.

The door was thrown open and Nicol Brinn entered. One who knew him well
would have said that he had aged ten years. Even to the eye of Wessex he
looked an older man. He wore a shoddy suit and a rough tweed cap and his
left arm was bandaged.

"Gentlemen," he said, without other greeting, "I'm here to make a
statement. I desire that a shorthand-writer attend to take it down."

He dropped weakly into a chair which Wessex placed for him. The
Assistant Commissioner, doubtless stimulated by the manner of his
extraordinary visitor, who now extracted a cigar from the breast pocket
of his ill-fitting jacket and nonchalantly lighted it, successfully
resumed his well-known tired manner, and, pressing a bell:

"One shall attend, Mr. Brinn," he said.

A knock came at the door and a sergeant entered.

"Send Ferris," directed the Assistant Commissioner. "Quickly."

Two minutes later a man came in carrying a note book and fountain pen.
The Assistant Commissioner motioned him to a chair, and:

"Pray proceed, Mr. Brinn," he said.



CHAPTER XXX. NICOL BRINN'S STORY OF THE CITY OF FIRE

"The statement which I have to make, gentlemen, will almost certainly
appear incredible to you. However, when it has been transcribed I will
sign it. And I am going to say here and now that there are points in the
narrative which I am in a position to substantiate. What I can't prove
you must take my word for. But I warn you that the story is tough.

"I have a certain reputation for recklessness. I don't say it may not be
inherent; but if you care to look the matter up, you will find that the
craziest phase of my life is that covering the last seven years. The
reason why I have courted death during that period I am now about to
explain.

"Although my father was no traveller, I think I was born with the
wanderlust. I started to explore the world in my Harvard vacations, and
when college days were over I set about the business whole-heartedly.
Where I went and what I did, up to the time that my travels led me to
India, is of no interest to you or to anybody else, because in India
I found heaven and hell - a discovery enough to satisfy the most
adventurous man alive.

"At this present time, gentlemen, I am not going to load you with
geographical details. The exact spot at which my life ended, in a sense
which I presently hope to make clear, can be located at leisure by the
proper authorities, to whom I will supply a detailed map which I have in
my possession. I am even prepared to guide the expedition, if the Indian
Government considers an expedition necessary and cares to accept
my services. It's good enough for you to know that pig-sticking and
tiger-hunting having begun to pall upon me somewhat, I broke away from
Anglo-Indian hospitality, and headed up country, where the Himalayas
beckoned. I had figured on crossing at a point where no man has crossed
yet, but that project was interrupted, and I'm here to tell you why.

"Up there in the northwest provinces they told me I was crazy when I
outlined, one night in a mess, of which I was a guest at the time, my
scheme for heading northeast toward a tributary of the Ganges which
would bring me to the neighbourhood of Khatmandu, right under the shadow
of Everest.

"'Once you leave Khatmandu,' said the mess president, 'you are outside
the pale as far as British influence is concerned. I suppose you
understand that?'

"I told him I quite understood it.

"'You can't reach Tibet that way,' he said.

"'Never mind, sir,' I answered. 'I can try, if I feel like it.'

"Three days later I set out. I am not superstitious, and if I take a
long time to make a plan, once I've made it I generally stick to it. But
right at the very beginning of my expedition I had a warning, if ever a
man had one. The country through which my route lay is of very curious
formation. If you can imagine a section of your own west country viewed
through a giant magnifying glass, you have some sort of picture of the
territory in which I found myself.

"Gigantic rocks stand up like monstrous tors, or towers, sometimes
offering sheer precipices of many hundreds of feet in height. On
those sides of these giant tors, however, which are less precipitous,
miniature forests are sometimes found, and absolutely impassable
jungles.

"Bordering an independent state, this territory is not at all well
known, but I had secured as a guide a man named Vadi - or that was the
name he gave me whom I knew to be a high-caste Brahmin of good family.
He had been with me for some time, and I thought I could trust
him. Therefore, once clear of British territory, I took him into my
confidence respecting the real object of my journey.

"This was not primarily to scale a peak of the Himalayas, nor even to
visit Khatmandu, but to endeavour to obtain a glimpse of the Temple of
Fire!

"That has excited your curiosity, gentlemen. I don't suppose any one
here has ever heard of the Temple of Fire.

"By some it is regarded as a sort of native legend but it is more than a
legend. It is a fact. For seven years I have known it to be a fact, but
my tongue has been tied. Listen. Even down in Bombay, the coming of the
next great Master is awaited by certain of the natives; and for more
than ten years now it has been whispered from end to end of India that
he was about to proclaim himself, that disciples moved secretly among
the people of every province, and that the unknown teacher in person
awaited his hour in a secret temple up near the Tibetan frontier.

"A golden key opens many doors, gentlemen, and at the time of which I am
speaking I had obtained more information respecting this secret religion
or cult than any other member of the white races had ever collected,
or so I thought at the time. I had definite evidence to show that the
existence of this man, or demi-god - for by some he was said to possess
superhuman powers - was no myth, but an actual fact.

"The collecting of this data was extremely perilous, and one of my
informants, with whom I had come in contact while passing through the
central provinces, died mysteriously the night before I left Nagpur. I
wondered very much on my way north why I was not molested, for I did not
fail to see that the death of the man in Nagpur was connected with the
fact that he had divulged to me some of the secrets of the religion of
Fire-Tongue. Indeed, it was from him that I first learned the name of
the high priest of the cult of Fire. Why I was not molested I learned
later.

"But to return to Vadi, my Brahmin guide. We had camped for the night
in the shadow of one of those giant tors which I have mentioned. The
bearers were seated around their fire at some little distance from us,
and Vadi and I were consulting respecting our route in the morning, when
I decided to take him into my confidence. Accordingly:

"'Vadi,' I said, 'I know for a positive fact that we are within ten
miles of the secret Temple of Fire.'

"I shall never forget the look in his eyes, with the reflection of the
firelight dancing in them; but he never moved a muscle.

"'The sahib is wise,' he replied.

"'So is Vadi,' said I. 'Therefore he knows how happy a thousand pounds
of English money would make him. It is his in return for a sight of the
Temple.'

"Still as a carven image, he squatted there watching me, unmoving,
expressionless. Then:

"'A man may die for nothing,' he returned, softly. 'Why should the sahib
pay a thousand pounds?'

"'Why should the sahib die?' said I.

"'It is forbidden for any to see the Temple, even from a distance.'

"'But if no one ever knows that I have seen it?'

"'Fire-Tongue knows everything,' he replied, and as he pronounced the
name, he performed a curious salutation, touching his forefinger with
the tip of his tongue, and then laying his hand upon his brow, upon
his lips, and upon his breast, at the same time bowing deeply. 'His
vengeance is swift and terrible. He wills a man to die, and the man is
dead. None save those who have passed through the tests may set eyes
upon his temple, nor even speak his name.'

"This conversation took place, as I have already mentioned, in the
shadow of one of those strange stone hillocks which abounded here, and
it was at this point that I received a warning which might have deterred
many men, since it was inexplicable and strangely awesome.

"My attention was drawn to the phenomenon by a sudden cessation of
chatter amongst the bearers seated around their fire. I became aware
that an absolute stillness had fallen, and in the eyes of the Brahmin
who sat facing me I saw a look of exaltation, of wild fanaticism.

"I jerked my head around, looking back over my shoulder, and what I saw
I shall never forget, nor to this day have I been able to explain the
means by which the illusion was produced.

"Moving downward toward me through the jungle darkness, slowly, evenly,
but at a height above the ground of what I judged to be about fifteen
feet, was a sort of torch or flambeau, visible because it was faintly
luminous; and surmounting it was a darting tongue of blue flame!

"At the moment that I set eyes upon this apparently supernatural
spectacle the bearers, crying some word in Hindustani which I did not
understand, rose and fled in a body.

"I may say here that I never saw any of them again; although,
considering that they took nothing with them, how they regained the
nearest village is a mystery which I have never solved.

"Gentlemen, I know the East as few of my fellow-citizens know it. I know
something of the powers which are latent in some Orientals and active in
others. That my Brahmin guide was a hypnotist and an illusionist, I have
since thought.

"For, even as the pattering footsteps of the bearers grew faint in the
distance, the fiery torch disappeared as if by magic, and a silken cord
was about my throat!

"As I began a desperate fight for life, I realized that, whatever else
Vadi might be, he was certainly an expert thug. The jungle, the rocks,
seemed to swim around me as I crashed to the ground and felt the
Brahmin's knee in the small of my back."



CHAPTER XXXI. STORY OF THE CITY OF FIRE (CONTINUED)

"How I managed to think of any defense against such an attack, and
especially in the circumstances, is a matter I have often wondered
about since. How, having thought of it, I succeeded in putting it into
execution, is probably more wonderful still. But I will just state what
happened.

"You may observe that I have large hands. Their size and strength served
me well on this occasion. At the moment that the rope tightened about
my throat I reached up and grasped the Brahmin's left thumb. Desperation
gave me additional strength, and I snapped it like a stick of candy.

"Just in the nick of time I felt the cord relax, and, although the veins
in my head seemed to be bursting, I managed to get my fingers under that
damnable rope. To this very hour I can hear Vadi's shriek of pain as I
broke his thumb, and it brings the whole scene back to me.

"Clutching the rope with my left hand, I groaned and lay still. The
Brahmin slightly shifted his position, which was what I wanted him to
do. The brief respite had been sufficient. As he moved, I managed
to draw my knees up, very slightly, for he was a big, heavy man, but
sufficiently to enable me to throw him off and roll over.

"Then, gentlemen, I dealt with him as he had meant to deal with me; only
I used my bare hands and made a job of it.

"I stood up, breathing heavily, and looked down at him where he lay in
the shadows at my feet. Dusk had come with a million stars, and almost
above my head were flowering creepers festooned from bough to bough. The
two campfires danced up and cast their red light upon the jagged rocks
of the hillock, which started up from the very heart of the thicket, to
stand out like some giant pyramid against the newly risen moon.

"There were night things on the wing, and strange whispering sounds came
from the forests clothing the hills. Then came a distant, hollow booming
like the sound of artillery, which echoed down the mountain gorges and
seemed to roll away over the lowland swamps and die, inaudible, by the
remote river. Yet I stood still, looking down at the dead man at my
feet. For this strange, mysterious artillery was a phenomenon I had
already met with on this fateful march - weird enough and inexplicable,
but no novelty to me, for I had previously met with it in the Shan Hills
of Burma.

"I was thinking rapidly. It was clear enough now why I had hitherto
been unmolested. To Vadi the task had been allotted by the mysterious
organization of which he was a member, of removing me quietly and
decently, under circumstances which would lead to no official inquiry.
Although only animals, insects, and reptiles seemed to be awake about
me, yet I could not get rid of the idea that I was watched.

"I remembered the phantom light, and that memory was an unpleasant
one. For ten minutes or more I stood there watching and listening, but
nothing molested me, nothing human approached. With a rifle resting
across my knees, I sat down in the entrance to my tent to await the
dawn.

"Later in the night, those phantom guns boomed out again, and again
their booming died away in the far valleys. The fires burned lower and
lower, but I made no attempt to replenish them; and because I sat there
so silent, all kinds of jungle creatures crept furtively out of the
shadows and watched me with their glittering eyes. Once a snake crossed
almost at my feet, and once some large creature of the cat species,
possibly a puma, showed like a silhouette upon the rocky slopes above.

"So the night passed, and dawn found me still sitting there, the dead
man huddled on the ground not three paces from me. I am a man who as a
rule thinks slowly, but when the light came my mind was fully made up.

"From the man who had died in Nagpur I had learned more about the
location of the City of Fire than I had confided to Vadi. In fact, I
thought I could undertake to find the way. Upon the most important point
of all, however, I had no information: that is to say, I had no idea how
to obtain entrance to the place; for I had been given to understand that
the way in was a secret known only to the initiated.

"Nevertheless, I had no intention of turning back; and, although I
realized that from this point onward I must largely trust to luck, I
had no intention of taking unnecessary chances. Accordingly, I dressed
myself in Vadi's clothes, and, being very tanned at this time, I think I
made a fairly creditable native.

"Faintly throughout the night, above the other sounds of the jungle, I
had heard that of distant falling water. Now, my informant at Nagpur, in
speaking of the secret temple, had used the words:

"'Whoever would see the fire must quit air and pass through water.'

"This mysterious formula he had firmly declined to translate into
comprehensible English; but during my journey I had been considering
it from every angle, and I had recently come to the conclusion that the
entrance to this mysterious place was in some way concealed by water.
Recollecting the gallery under Niagara Falls, I wondered if some similar
natural formation was to be looked for here.

"Now, in the light of the morning sun, looking around me from the little
plateau upon which I stood, and remembering a vague description of the
country which had been given to me, I decided that I was indeed in the
neighbourhood of the Temple of Fire.

"We had followed a fairly well-defined path right to this plateau,
and that it was nothing less than the high road to the citadel of
Fire-Tongue, I no longer doubted. Beneath me stretched a panorama limned
in feverish greens and unhealthy yellows. Scar-like rocks striated the
jungle clothing the foothills, and through the dancing air, viewed from
the arid heights, they had the appearance of running water.

"Swamps to the southeast showed like unhealing wounds upon the face of
the landscape. Beyond them spread the lower river waters, the bank
of the stream proper being discernible only by reason of a greater
greenness in the palm-tops. Venomous green slopes beyond them again, a
fringe of dwarf forest, and the brazen skyline.

"On the right, and above me yet, the path entered a district of volcanic
rocks, gnarled, twisted, and contorted as with the agonies of some
mighty plague which in a forgotten past had seized on the very bowels of
the world and had contorted whole mountains and laid waste vast forests
and endless plains. Above, the sun, growing hourly more cruel; ahead,
more plague-twisted rocks and the scars dancing like running water; and
all around the swooning stillness of the tropics.

"The night sounds of the jungle had ceased, giving place to the
ceaseless humming of insects. North, south, east, and west lay that haze
of heat, like a moving mantle clothing hills and valleys. The sound of
falling water remained perceptible.

"And now, gentlemen, I must relate a discovery which I had made in the
act of removing Vadi's clothing. Upon his right forearm was branded
a mark resembling the apparition which I had witnessed in the night,
namely, a little torch, or flambeau, surmounted by a tongue of fire.
Even in the light of the morning, amid that oppressive stillness, I
could scarcely believe in my own safety, for that to Vadi the duty
of assassinating me had been assigned by this ever-watchful, secret
organization, whose stronghold I had dared to approach, was a fact
beyond dispute.

"Since I seemed to be quite alone on the plateau, I could only suppose
that the issue had been regarded as definitely settled, that no doubt
had been entertained by Vadi's instructors respecting his success. The
plateau upon which I stood was one of a series of giant steps, and on
the west was a sheer descent to a dense jungle, where banks of rotten
vegetation, sun-dried upon the top, lay heaped about the tree stems.

"Dragging the heavy body of Vadi to the brink of this precipice, I
toppled it over, swaying dizzily as I watched it crash down into the
poisonous undergrowth two hundred feet below.

"I made a rough cache, where I stored the bulk of my provisions; and,
selecting only such articles as I thought necessary for my purpose,
I set out again northward, guided by the sound of falling water, and
having my face turned toward the silver pencillings in the blue sky,
which marked the giant peaks of the distant mountains.

"At midday the heat grew so great that a halt became imperative. The
path was still clearly discernible; and in a little cave beside it,
which afforded grateful shelter from the merciless rays of the sun, I
unfastened my bundle and prepared to take a frugal lunch.

"I was so employed, gentlemen, when I heard the sound of approaching
footsteps on the path behind me - the path which I had recently
traversed.

"Hastily concealing my bundle, I slipped into some dense undergrowth by
the entrance to the cave, and crouched there, waiting and watching.
I had not waited very long before a yellow-robed mendicant passed by,
carrying a bundle not unlike my own, whereby I concluded that he had
come some distance. There was nothing remarkable in his appearance
except the fact of his travelling during the hottest part of the day.
Therefore I did not doubt that he was one of the members of the secret
organization and was bound for headquarters.

"I gave him half an hour's start and then resumed my march. If he could
travel beneath a noonday sun, so could I.

"In this fashion I presently came out upon a larger and higher plateau,
carpeted with a uniform, stunted undergrowth, and extending, as flat as
a table, to the very edge of a sheer precipice, which rose from it to
a height of three or four hundred feet - gnarled, naked rock, showing no
vestige of vegetation.

"By this time the sound of falling water had become very loud, and as I
emerged from the gorge through which the path ran on to this plateau
I saw, on the further side of this tableland, the yellow robe of the
mendicant. He was walking straight for the face of the precipice, and
straight for the spot at which, from a fissure in the rock, a little
stream leapt out, to fall sheerly ten or fifteen feet into a winding
channel, along which it bubbled away westward, doubtless to form a
greater waterfall beyond.

"The mendicant was fully half a mile away from me, but in that clear
tropical air was plainly visible; and, fearing that he might look
around, I stepped back into the comparative shadow of the gorge and
watched.

"Gentlemen, I saw a strange thing. Placing his bundle upon his head, he
walked squarely into the face of the waterfall and disappeared!"



CHAPTER XXXII. STORY OF THE CITY OF FIRE (CONTINUED)

"'Quitting air, must pass through water.' The meaning of those words
became apparent enough. I stood at the foot of the waterfall, looking up
at the fissure from which it issued.

"Although the fact had been most artistically disguised, I could not
doubt that this fissure was artificial. A tunnel had been hewn through
the rock, and a mountain stream diverted into it. Indeed, on close
inspection, I saw that it was little more than a thin curtain of water,
partly concealing what looked like the entrance of a cave.

"A great deal of mist arose from it. But I could see that, beyond a
ducking, I had little to fear; and, stepping down into the bed of the
little stream which frothed and bubbled pleasantly about my bare legs, I
set my bundle on my head as the mendicant had done, and plunged through
the waterfall, into a place of delicious coolness.

"A strange greenish light prevailed here and directly before me I saw
a flight of stone steps leading upward through a tunnel in the rock. By
the light of a pocket torch with which I had provided myself, I began
to ascend the steps. These, as I have said, were hewn out of the solid
rock, and as they numbered something like seven hundred, the labour
expended upon the making of this extraordinary staircase must have been
stupendous.

"At first the character of the surrounding tunnel suggested that it was,
in part at least, a natural cavern. But as I mounted higher and
higher, solid masonry appeared in places, some of it displaying unusual
carvings, of a character with which I was quite unfamiliar. I concluded
that it was very ancient.

"I should explain, gentlemen, that this ascending tunnel zigzagged in
a peculiar fashion, which may have been due to the natural formation of
the volcanic rock, or may have been part of the design of the original
builder. I had ascended more than five hundred steps, and felt that a
rest would shortly be necessary, when I reached a sort of cavern, or
interior platform, from which seven corridors branched out like the
spokes of a wheel. The top of this place was lost in shadows, which the
ray of my torch failed to penetrate; and here I paused, setting down my
bundle and wondering what my next move should be.

"To the damp coolness of the lower stairs an oppressive heat had now
succeeded, and I became aware of a continuous roaring sound, which I
found myself unable to explain.

"Attached to a belt beneath my native dress I carried a Colt revolver;
and therefore, leaving my rifle and bundle in a corner of the cavern, I
selected one of these corridors more or less at random, and set out
to explore. This corridor proved to slope very gently upward from the
platform, and I could not fail to notice that at every step the heat
grew greater and greater. A suffocating, sulphurous smell became
perceptible also, and the roaring sound grew almost deafening. It became
possible to discern the walls of the corridor ahead because of a sort of
eerie bluish light which had now become visible.

"Gentlemen, I don't say that I hesitated in a physical sense: I went
right on walking ahead. But a voice somewhere deep down inside me was
whispering that this was the road to hell.

"At a point where the heat and the smell were almost unendurable the
corridor was blocked by massive iron bars beyond which the reflection of
some gigantic fire danced upon the walls of a vast cavern.

"The heat was so great that my garments, saturated by the curtain of
water through which I had passed, were now bone dry, and I stood peering
through those bars at a spectacle which will remain with me to the
merciful day of my death.

"A hundred feet beneath me was a lake of fire! That is the only way I


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