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can describe it: a seething, bubbling lake of fire. And above, where the
roof of the cavern formed a natural cone, was a square section formed of
massive stone blocks, and quite obviously the handiwork of man. The
bars were too hot to touch, and the heat was like that of a furnace, but
while I stood, peering first upward and then downward, a thing happened
which I almost hesitate to describe, for it sounds like an incident from
a nightmare.

"Heralded by a rumbling sound which was perceptible above the roar of
the fire below, the centre block in the roof slid open. A tremendous
draught of air swept along the passage in which I was standing, and
doubtless along other passages which opened upon this hell-pit.

"As if conjured up by magic, a monstrous column of blue flame arose,
swept up scorchingly, and licked like the tongue of a hungry dragon upon
the roof of the cavern. Instantly the trap was closed again; the tongue
of fire dropped back into the lake from which it had arisen on the
draught of air.

"And right past me where I stood, rigid with horror, looking through
those bars, fell a white-robed figure - whether man or woman I could not
determine! Down, down into the fiery pit, a hundred feet below!

"One long-drawn, dying shriek reached my ears.

"Of my return to the place at which I had left my bundle and rifle I
retain absolutely not one recollection. I was aroused from a sort
of stupor of horror by the sight of a faint light moving across the
platform ahead of me, as I was about to emerge from the tunnel.

"It was the light of a lantern, carried by a man who might have been the
double of that yellow-robed mendicant who had first unconsciously led me
to this accursed place.

"I won't deny that, up to the moment of sighting him, my one idea had
been to escape, to return, to quit this unholy spot. But now, as I
watched the bearer of the lantern cross the platform and enter one of
the seven corridors, that old, unquenchable thirst for new experiences
got me by the throat again.

"As the light of the lantern was swallowed up in the passage, I found my
bundle and rifle and set out to follow the man. Four paces brought me
to the foot of more steps. I walked barefooted, frequently pausing to
listen. There were many carvings upon the walls, but I had no leisure to
examine them.

"Contrary to my anticipations, however, there were no branches in this
zigzag staircase, which communicated directly with the top of the lofty
plateau. When presently I felt the fresh mountain air upon my face, I
wondered why I could perceive no light ahead of me. Yet the reason was
simple enough.

"Since I had passed through that strange watergate to the City of Fire,
the day had ended: it was night. And when, finding no further steps
ahead of me, I passed along a level, narrow corridor for some ten paces
and, looking upward, saw the stars, I was astounded.

"The yellow-robed man had disappeared, and I stood alone, looking down
upon that secret city which I had come so far to see.

"I found myself standing in deep undergrowth, and, pressing this gently
aside, I saw a wonderful spectacle. Away to my left was a great white
marble building, which I judged to be a temple; and forming a crescent
before it was a miniature town, each white-walled house surrounded by a
garden. It was Damascus reduced to fairy dimensions, a spectacle quite
unforgettable.

"The fact which made the whole thing awesome and unreal was the
presence, along the top of the temple (which, like that of Hatshepsu at
Deir elBahari, seemed to be hewn out of the living rock but was faced
with white marble) of seven giant flambeaux, each surmounted by a
darting tongue of blue flame!

"Legend had it that this was the temple built by Zoroaster and preserved
intact by that wonderful secretiveness of the Orient through the
generations, by a cult who awaited the coming of Zoroaster's successor,
of that Fire-Tongue who was to redeem and revolutionize the world.

"I was afraid to move too far from the mouth of the tunnel, but
nevertheless was anxious to obtain a good view of the little city at my
feet. Gingerly I moved farther forward and forward, ever craning out for
a glimpse of the buildings more immediately below me, forgetful of the
fact that I walked upon the brink of a precipice.

"Suddenly my outstretched foot failed to touch ground. I clutched wildly
at the bushes around me. Their roots were not firm in the shallow soil,
and, enveloped like some pagan god in a mass of foliage, I toppled over
the cliff and fell!"



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

"My awakening was as strange as anything which had befallen me. I lay
upon a silken bed in a pavilion which was furnished with exquisite, if
somewhat barbaric, taste.

"A silken shaded lamp hung upon a golden chain near to my couch, but it
was dimmed by the rosy light streaming in through the open door - a light
which I believed to be that of dawn. I ached in every limb and felt weak
and ill. There was a bandage about my head, too, but this great physical
weakness numbed my curiosity, and I just lay still, looking out through
the doorway into a lovely garden. I could form no impression of what had
happened, and the ceaseless throbbing in my head rendered any attempt to
do so very painful.

"I was lying there, in this curious and apathetic state, when the
curtains draped in the doorway were pulled more widely aside and a woman
came in.

"Gentlemen, I will not endeavour to describe her, except to say that she
was so darkly lovely that I doubted the evidence of my senses; tall and
lithe, with the grace of some beautiful jungle creature.

"When she saw that I was awake, she paused and lowered her head in
confusion. She wore a gossamer robe of sheeny golden silk, and, standing
there with the light of the dawn behind her, she made a picture that I
think would have driven a painter crazy.

"I am supposed to be an unimpressionable man, and perhaps it is true;
but there at that moment, as the glance of her dark eyes met the
wondering look in mine, I knew that my hour had come for good or ill.

"This is not the time nor the place for personal reminiscences. I am
here for another purpose. One of those accidents which are really due
to the hand of fate had precipitated me into the garden of the house of
Naida, and she in her great compassion had tended me and sheltered me,
keeping my presence secret from those who would have dealt with me in
summary fashion, and, indeed, who were actually on the look-out for my
arrival.

"Yes, so Naida informed me. To my great surprise she spoke almost
perfect English, and that sort of understanding sprang up between us
immediately which, in the case of a man and a beautiful woman thrown
together as we were, can only terminate in one way.

"She was some sort of priestess of the temple which I had seen from the
top of the cliff. What else she was I very shortly learned.

"In accordance with one of the many strange customs of the City of Fire,
her personal servants, or rather slaves, were blind mutes! Gentlemen,
I warned you that my story was tough. Doubtless you are beginning to
appreciate the fact that I spoke no more than the truth.

"Naida, for such was her name, told me that the Brahmin, Vadi, who had
acted as my guide, was one of the followers of the Prophet of Fire, to
whom had been given the duty of intercepting me. His failure to report
within a certain time had resulted in two of the priests of this
strange cult being sent out to obtain information. That these were the
yellow-robed mendicants who had passed me in the mountains, I did not
doubt.

"Their reports, so Naida informed me, had led to a belief that Vadi
had perished with me; but as an extra measure of precaution, that very
night - indeed, shortly after I had passed that way - a guard had been set
upon the secret entrance. Therefore, even if my strength had permitted,
I should have been unable to return by the way I had come.

"But indeed I was as weak as a child, and only to the presence of much
foliage upon the acclivity down which I had rolled, and to the fact that
I had fallen upon soft soil in a bed of flowers, can I ascribe my having
failed to break my neck.

"In this way, gentlemen, I entered upon a brief period of my life at
once more sweet and more bitter than any I had known. Next to that
strange, invisible prophet whose name was Fire-Tongue, Naida held
unquestioned sway in this secret city. Her house was separated from the
others, and she travelled to and from the temple in a covered litter. To
look upon her, as upon Fire-Tongue himself, was death. Women, I learned,
were eligible for admission to this order, and these were initiated by
Naida.

"As the days of my strange but delightful captivity wore on, I learned
more and more of the weird people who, unseen, surrounded me. There were
lodges of the Cult of Fire all over the East, all having power to make
initiates and some to pass disciples into the higher grades. Those who
aspired to the highest rank in the order, however, were compelled to
visit this secret city in the Indian hills.

"Then at last I learned a secret which Naida had for long kept back from
me. These followers of the new Zoroaster were polygamists, and she
was the first or chief wife of the mysterious personage known as
Fire-Tongue. I gathered that others had superseded her, and her lord and
master rarely visited this marble house set amid its extensive gardens.

"Her dignities remained, however, and no one had aspired to dethrone her
as high priestess of the temple. She evidently knew all the secrets of
the organization, and I gathered that she was indispensable to the group
who controlled it.

"Respecting Fire-Tongue himself, his origin, his appearance, she was
resolutely silent, a second Acte, faithful to the last. That the ends of
this cult were not only religious but political, she did not deny, but
upon this point she was very reticent. An elaborate system of espionage
was established throughout the East, Near and Far, and death was the
penalty of any breach of fidelity.

"Respecting the tests to which candidates were put, she spoke with more
freedom. Those who, having reached the second grade, aspired to the
first, were submitted to three very severe ones, to make trial of their
courage, purity, and humility. Failure in any of these trials resulted
in instant death, and the final test, the trial by fire, which took
place in a subterranean chamber of the great temple, resulted in a
candidate whose courage failed him being precipitated into that lake of
flame which I have already described - a dreadful form of death, which by
accident I had witnessed.

"Gentlemen, realizing what the existence of such an organization meant,
what a menace to the peace of the world must lie here, what dreadful
things were almost hourly happening about me at behest of this invisible
monster known as Fire-Tongue, I yet confess - for I am here to speak the
truth - that, although I had now fully recovered my strength, I lingered
on in a delicious idleness, which you who hear me must find it hard to
understand.

"I have the reputation of being a cold, hard man. So had Antony before
he met Cleopatra. But seven years ago, under the Indian moon, I learned
tolerance for the human weakness which forgets the world for the smiles
of a woman.

"It had to end. Sooner or later, discovery was inevitable. One night I
told Naida that I must go. Over the scene that followed I will pass in
silence. It needed all the strength of a fairly straight, hard life to
help me keep to my decision.

"She understood at last, and consented to release me. But there were
obstacles - big ones. The snow on the lower mountain slopes had begun to
melt, and the water-gate in the valley by which I had entered was now
impassable. As a result, I must use another gate, which opened into a
mountain path, but which was always guarded. At first, on hearing this,
I gave myself up for lost, but Naida had a plan.

"Removing a bangle which she always wore, she showed me the secret mark
of Fire-Tongue branded upon the creamy skin.

"'I will put this mark upon your arm,' she said. 'In no other way can
you escape. I will teach you some of the passwords by which the brethren
know one another, and if you are ever questioned you will say that you
were admitted to the order by the Master of the Bombay Lodge, news of
whose death has just reached us.'

"'But,' said I, 'how can I hope to pass for an Oriental?'

"'It does not matter,' Naida replied. 'There are some who are not
Orientals among us!'

"Gentlemen, those words staggered me, opening up a possibility which had
seemed only shadowy before. But Naida, who had tremendous strength of
character, definitely refused to discuss this aspect of the matter,
merely assuring me that it was so.

"'Those who have successfully passed the ordeal of fire,' she said, 'are
put under a vow of silence for one month, and from moon to moon must
speak to no living creature. Therefore, once you bear the mark of
the Fiery Tongue, you may safely pass the gate, except that there are
certain signs which it is necessary you should know. Afterward, if you
should ever be in danger of discovery anywhere in the East, you will
remember the passwords, which I shall teach you.'

"So I was branded with the mark of Fire-Tongue, and I spent my last
night with Naida learning from her lips the words by which members of
this order were enabled to recognize one another. In vain I entreated
Naida to accompany me. She would allow herself to love and be loved; but
the vows of this singular priesthood were to her inviolable.

"She exacted an oath from me that I would never divulge anything which I
had seen or heard in the City of Fire. She urged that I must leave India
as quickly as possible. I had already learned that this remote society
was closely in touch with the affairs of the outside world. And, because
I knew I was leaving my heart behind there in the Indian hills, I
recognized that this dreadful parting must be final.

"Therefore I scarcely heeded her when she assured me that, should I ever
be in danger because of what had happened, a message in the Times
of India would reach her. I never intended to insert such a message,
gentlemen. I knew that it would need all my strength to close this door
which I had opened.

"I will spare you and myself the details of our parting. I passed out
from the City of Fire in the darkest hour of the night, through a long
winding tunnel, half a mile in length. I had protested to Naida that the
secret mark might be painted upon my arm and not branded, but she had
assured me that the latter was a necessity, and this now became evident;
for, not only three times was it subjected to scrutiny, but by the last
of the guards, posted near the outer end of the tunnel, it was tested
with some kind of solution.

"Silence and the salutation with the moistened finger tips, together
with the brand upon my arm, won me freedom from the abode of
Fire-Tongue.

"From a village situated upon one of the tributaries of the Ganges I
readily obtained a guide, to whom such silent, yellow-robed figures as
mine were evidently not unfamiliar; and, crossing the east of Nepal,
I entered Bengal, bearing a strange secret. I found myself in an empty
world - a world which had nothing to offer me. For every step south took
me farther from all that made life worth living."



CHAPTER XXXIV. NICOL BRINN'S STORY (CONCLUDED)

"The incidents of the next seven years do not concern you, gentlemen.
I had one aim in life - to forget. I earned an unenviable reputation for
foolhardy enterprises. Until this very hour, no man has known why I
did the things that I did do. From the time that I left India until the
moment when fate literally threw me in the way of the late Sir Charles
Abingdon, I had heard nothing of the cult of Fire-Tongue; and in spite
of Naida's assurance that its membership was not confined to Orientals,
I had long ago supposed it to be a manifestation of local fanaticism,
having no political or international significance.

"Then, lunching with the late Sir Charles after my accident in the
Haymarket, he put to me a question which literally made me hold my
breath.

"'Do you know anything of the significance of the term Fire-Tongue?' he
asked.

"I am not accustomed to any display of feeling in public, and I replied
in what I think was an ordinary tone:

"'In what connection, Sir Charles?'

"'Well,' said he, watching me oddly, 'I know you have travelled in
India, and I wondered if you had ever come in contact with the legend
which prevails there, that a second Zoroaster has arisen, to preach the
doctrine of eternal fire.'

"'I have heard it,' I replied, guardedly.

"'I thought it possible,' continued Sir Charles, 'and I am tempted to
tell you of a curious experience which once befell me during the time
that I was a guest of my late friend Colonel Banfield in Delhi. My
reputation as an osteologist was not at that time so fully established
as it later became, but I already had some reputation in this branch
of surgery; and one evening a very dignified Hindu gentleman sought an
interview with me, saying that a distinguished native noble, who was
a guest of his, had met with a serious accident, and offering me a fee
equivalent to nearly five hundred pounds to perform an operation which
he believed to be necessary.

"'I assured him that my services were at his disposal, and blankly
declined to accept so large a fee. He thereupon explained that the
circumstances were peculiar. His friend belonged to a religious cult of
an extremely high order. He would lose caste if it became known that he
had been attended by a Christian surgeon; therefore my visit must be a
secret one.

"'It made no difference,' I replied. 'I quite understood; and he might
rely upon my discretion.

"'Accordingly I was driven in a car which was waiting to some house upon
the outskirts of the city and conducted to a room where the patient
had been carried. I saw him to be a singularly handsome young man,
apparently about twenty-three years of age. His features were flawless,
and he possessed light ivory skin and wavy jet-black hair. His eyes,
which were very dark and almond-shaped, had a strange and arresting
beauty. But there was something effeminate about him which repelled
me, I cannot say in what way; nor did I approve of the presence of many
bowls of hyacinths in the room.

"'However, I performed the operation, which, although slight, demanded
some skill, and with the nature of which I will not trouble you. Intense
anxiety was manifested by the young man's attendants, and one of these,
a strikingly beautiful woman, insisted on remaining while the operation
was performed.

"'She seemed more especially to concern herself with preserving intact
a lock of the young man's jet-black hair, which was brushed in rather
an odd manner across his ivory forehead. Naturally enough, this
circumstance excited my curiosity and, distracting the woman's attention
for a moment - I asked her to bring me something from a table at the
opposite side of the room - I lightly raised this wayward lock and
immediately replaced it again.

"'Do you know what it concealed, Mr. Brinn?'

"I assured him that I did not.

"'A mark, apparently natural, resembling a torch surmounted by a tongue
of fire!'

"I was amazed, gentlemen, by Sir Charles's story. He was given his fee
and driven back to his quarters. But that he had succeeded where I had
failed, that he had actually looked upon Fire-Tongue in person, I could
not doubt. I learned from this, too, that the Prophet of Fire did not
always remain in his mountain stronghold, for Delhi is a long way from
the Secret City.

"Strange though it must appear, at this time I failed to account for Sir
Charles confiding this thing to me. Later, I realized that he must have
seen the mark on my arm, although he never referred to it.

"Well, the past leapt out at me, as you see, and worse was to come.
The death of Sir Charles Abingdon told me what I hated to know: that
Fire-Tongue was in England!

"I moved at once. I inserted in the Times the prearranged message,
hardly daring to hope that it would come to the eye of Naida; but it
did! She visited me. And I learned that not only Sir Charles Abingdon,
but another, knew of the mark which I bore!

"I was summoned to appear before the Prophet of fire!

"Gentlemen, what I saw and how I succeeded in finding out the location
of his abode are matters that can wait. The important things are these:
first, I learned why Sir Charles Abingdon had been done to death!

"The unwelcome attentions of the man known as Ormuz Khan led Sir Charles
to seek an interview with him. I may say here and now that Ormuz Khan is
Fire-Tongue! Oh! it's a tough statement - but I can prove it. Sir Charles
practically forced his way into this man's presence - and immediately
recognized his mysterious patient of years ago!

"He accused him of having set spies upon his daughter's movements - an
accusation which was true - and forbade him to see her again. From that
hour the fate of Sir Charles was sealed. What he knew, the world
must never know. He had recorded, in a private paper, all that he had
learned. This paper was stolen from his bureau - and its contents led
to my being summoned to the house of Fire-Tongue! It also spurred the
organization to renewed efforts, for it revealed the fact that Sir
Charles contemplated confiding the story to others.

"What were the intentions of the man Ormuz in regard to Miss Abingdon,
I don't know. His entourage all left England some days ago - with three
exceptions. I believe him to have been capable of almost anything.
He was desperate. He knew that Ormuz Khan must finally and definitely
disappear. It is just possible that he meant Miss Abingdon to disappear
along with him!

"However, that danger is past. Mrs. McMurdoch, who to-day accompanied
her to his house, was drugged by these past-masters in the use of
poisons, and left unconscious in a cottage a few miles from Hillside,
the abode of Ormuz.

"You will have observed, gentlemen, that I am somewhat damaged. However,
it was worth it! That the organization of the Fire-Worshippers is
destroyed I am not prepared to assert. But I made a discovery to-day
which untied my hands. Hearing, I shall never know how, that Naida had
had a secret interview with me, Fire-Tongue visited upon her the penalty
paid seven years ago by my informant in Nagpur, by Sir Charles Abingdon,
recently, by God alone knows how many scores - hundreds - in the history
of this damnable group.

"I found her lying on a silken divan in the deserted house, her hands
clasped over a little white flower like an odontoglossum, which lay on
her breast. It was the flower of sleep - and she was dead.

"My seven years' silence was ended. One thing I could do for the world:
remove Fire-Tongue - and do it with my own hands!

"Gentlemen, at the angle where the high road from Upper Claybury joins
the Dover Road is the Merton Cottage Hospital. Mr. Harley is awaiting
us there. He is less damaged than I am. A native chauffeur, whose name I
don't know, is lying insensible in one of the beds - and in another is a
dead man, unrecognizable, except for a birthmark resembling a torch on
his forehead, his head crushed and his neck broken.

"That dead man is Fire-Tongue. I should like, Mr. Commissioner, to sign
the statement."







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