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Fire-Tongue online

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"But," he said with deliberate slowness, "I won't let you go."

"You must let me go. Already I have been here too long."

He threw his arms around her and crushed her against him fiercely.
"Never again," he said. "Never again."

She pressed her little hands against his shoulders.

"Listen! Oh, listen!"

"I shall listen to nothing."

"But you must - you must! I want to make you understand something. This
morning I see your note in the papers. Every day, every day for seven
whole long years, wherever I have been, I have looked. In the papers of
India. Sometimes in the papers of France, of England."

"I never even dreamed that you left India," said Nicol Brinn, hoarsely.
"It was through the Times of India that I said I would communicate with

"Once we never left India. Now we do - sometimes. But listen. I prepared
to come when - he - "

Nicol Brinn's clasp of Naida tightened cruelly.

"Oh, you hurt me!" she moaned. "Please let me speak. He gave me your
name and told me to bring you!"

"What! What!"

Nicol Brinn dropped his arms and stood, as a man amazed, watching her.

"Last night there was a meeting outside London."

"You don't want me to believe there are English members?"

"Yes. There are. Many. But let me go on. Somehow - somehow I don't
understand - he finds you are one - "

"My God!"

"And you are not present last night! Now, do you understand? So he
sends me to tell you that a car will be waiting at nine o'clock to-night
outside the Cavalry Club. The driver will be a Hindu. You know what to
say. Oh, my Nicol, my Nicol, go for my sake! You know it all! You
are clever. You can pretend. You can explain you had no call. If you
refuse - "

Nicol Brinn nodded grimly. "I understand! But, good God! How has he
found out? How has he found out?"

"I don't know!" moaned Naida. "Oh, I am frightened - so frightened!"

A discreet rap sounded upon the door.

Nicol Brinn crossed and stood, hands clasped behind him, before the
mantelpiece. "In," he said.

Hoskins entered. "Detective Sergeant Stokes wishes to see you at once,

Brinn drew a watch from his waistcoat pocket. Attached to it was a fob
from which depended a little Chinese Buddha. He consulted the timepiece
and returned it to his pocket.

"Eight-twenty-five," he muttered, and glanced across to where
Naida, wide-eyed, watched him. "Admit Detective Sergeant Stokes at
eight-twenty-six, and then lock the door."

"Very good, sir."

Hoskins retired imperturbably.


Detective Sergeant Stokes was a big, dark, florid man, the word
"constable" written all over him. Indeed, as Wessex had complained more
than once, the mere sound of Stokes's footsteps was a danger signal
for any crook. His respect for his immediate superior, the detective
inspector, was not great. The methods of Wessex savoured too much of the
French school to appeal to one of Stokes's temperament and outlook upon
life, especially upon that phase of life which comes within the province
of the criminal investigator.

Wessex's instructions with regard to Nicol Brinn had been succinct:
"Watch Mr. Brinn's chambers, make a note of all his visitors, but take
no definite steps respecting him personally without consulting me."

Armed with these instructions, the detective sergeant had undertaken
his duties, which had proved more or less tedious up to the time that
a fashionably attired woman of striking but unusual appearance had
inquired of the hall porter upon which floor Mr. Nicol Brinn resided.

In her manner the detective sergeant had perceived something furtive.
There was a hunted look in her eyes, too.

When, at the end of some fifteen or twenty minutes, she failed to
reappear, he determined to take the initiative himself. By intruding
upon this prolonged conference he hoped to learn something of value.
Truth to tell, he was no master of finesse, and had but recently been
promoted from an East End district where prompt physical action was of
more value than subtlety.

As a result, then, he presently found himself in the presence of the
immovable Hoskins; and having caused his name to be announced, he was
requested to wait in the lobby for one minute. Exactly one minute had
elapsed when he was shown into that long, lofty room, which of late had
been the scene of strange happenings.

Nicol Brinn was standing before the fireplace, hands clasped behind him,
and a long cigar protruding from the left corner of his mouth. No one
else was present, so far as the detective could see, but he glanced
rapidly about the room in a way which told the man who was watching
that he had expected to find another present. He looked into the
unfathomable, light blue eyes of Nicol Brinn, and became conscious of a
certain mental confusion.

"Good evening, sir," he said, awkwardly. "I am acting in the case
concerning the disappearance of Mr. Paul Harley."

"Yes," replied Brinn.

"I have been instructed to keep an eye on these chambers."

"Yes," repeated the high voice.

"Well, sir" - again he glanced rapidly about-"I don't want to intrude
more than necessary, but a lady came in here about half an hour ago."

"Yes," drawled Brinn. "It's possible."

"It's a fact," declared the detective sergeant. "If it isn't troubling
you too much, I should like to know that lady's name. Also, I should
like a chat with her before she leaves."

"Can't be done," declared Nicol Brinn. "She isn't here."

"Then where is she?"

"I couldn't say. She went some time ago."

Stokes stood squarely before Nicol Brinn - a big, menacing figure; but
he could not detect the slightest shadow of expression upon the other's
impassive features. He began to grow angry. He was of that sanguine
temperament which in anger acts hastily.

"Look here, sir," he said, and his dark face flushed. "You can't play
tricks on me. I've got my duty to do, and I am going to do it. Ask your
visitor to step in here, or I shall search the premises."

Nicol Brinn replaced his cigar in the right corner of his mouth:
"Detective Sergeant Stokes, I give you my word that the lady to whom you
refer is no longer in these chambers."

Stokes glared at him angrily. "But there is no other way out," he

"I shall not deal with this matter further," declared Brinn, coldly. "I
may have vices, but I never was a liar."

"Oh," muttered the detective sergeant, taken aback by the cold
incisiveness of the speaker. "Then perhaps you will lead the way, as I
should like to take a look around."

Nicol Brinn spread his feet more widely upon the hearthrug. "Detective
Sergeant Stokes," he said, "you are not playing the game. Inspector
Wessex passed his word to me that for twenty-four hours my movements
should not be questioned or interfered with. How is it that I find you

Stokes thrust his hands in his pockets and coughed uneasily. "I am not a
machine," he replied; "and I do my own job in my own way."

"I doubt if Inspector Wessex would approve of your way."

"That's my business."

"Maybe, but it is no affair of yours to interfere with private affairs
of mine, Detective Sergeant. See here, there is no lady in these
chambers. Secondly, I have an appointment at nine o'clock, and you are
detaining me."

"What's more," answered Stokes, who had now quite lost his temper, "I
intend to go on detaining you until I have searched these chambers and
searched them thoroughly."

Nicol Brinn glanced at his watch. "If I leave in five minutes, I'll be
in good time," he said. "Follow me."

Crossing to the centre section of a massive bookcase, he opened it,
and it proved to be a door. So cunning was the design that the closest
scrutiny must have failed to detect any difference between the dummy
books with which it was decorated, and the authentic works which filled
the shelves to right and to left of it. Within was a small and cosy
study. In contrast with the museum-like room out of which it opened, it
was furnished in a severely simple fashion, and one more experienced in
the study of complex humanity than Detective Sergeant Stokes must have
perceived that here the real Nicol Brinn spent his leisure hours. Above
the mantel was a life-sized oil painting of Mrs. Nicolas Brinn; and
whereas the great room overlooking Piccadilly was exotic to a degree,
the atmosphere of the study was markedly American.

Palpably there was no one there. Nor did the two bedrooms, the kitchen,
and the lobby afford any more satisfactory evidence. Nicol Brinn led the
way back from the lobby, through the small study, and into the famous
room where the Egyptian priestess smiled eternally. He resumed his place
upon the hearthrug. "Are you satisfied, Detective Sergeant?"

"I am!" Stokes spoke angrily. "While you kept me talking, she slipped
out through that study, and down into the street."

"Ah," murmured Nicol Brinn.

"In fact, the whole business looks very suspicious to me," continued the

"Sorry," drawled Brinn, again consulting his watch. "The five minutes
are up. I must be off."

"Not until I have spoken to Scotland Yard, sir."

"You wish to speak to Scotland Yard?"

"I do," said Stokes, grimly.

Nicol Brinn strode to the telephone, which stood upon a small table
almost immediately in front of the bookcase. The masked door remained

"You are quite fixed upon detaining me?"

"Quite," said Stokes, watching him closely.

In one long stride Brinn was through the doorway, telephone in hand!
Before Stokes had time to move, the door closed violently, in order, no
doubt, to make it shut over the telephone cable which lay under it!

Detective Sergeant Stokes fell back, gazed wildly at the false books for
a moment, and then, turning, leaped to the outer door. It was locked!

In the meanwhile, Nicol Brinn, having secured the door which
communicated with the study, walked out into the lobby where Hoskins was
seated. Hoskins stood up.

"The lady went, Hoskins?"

"She did, sir."

Nicol Brinn withdrew the key from the door of the room in which
Detective Sergeant Stokes was confined. Stokes began banging wildly upon
the panels from within.

"That row will continue," Nicol Brinn said, coldly; "perhaps he will
shout murder from one of the windows. You have only to say you had no
key. I am going out now. The light coat, Hoskins."

Hoskins unemotionally handed coat, hat, and cane to his master and,
opening the front door, stood aside. The sound of a window being raised
became audible from within the locked room.

"Probably," added Nicol Brinn, "you will be arrested."

"Very good, sir," said Hoskins. "Good-night, sir..."


Some two hours after Paul Harley's examination of Jones, the
ex-parlourmaid, a shabby street hawker appeared in the Strand, bearing a
tray containing copies of "Old Moore's Almanac." He was an ugly-looking
fellow with a split lip, and appeared to have neglected to shave for at
least a week. Nobody appeared to be particularly interested, and during
his slow progression from Wellington Street to the Savoy Hotel he smoked
cigarettes almost continuously. Trade was far from brisk, and the vendor
of prophecies filled in his spare time by opening car doors, for which
menial service he collected one three-penny bit and several sixpences.

This commercial optimist was still haunting the courtyard of the hotel
at a time when a very handsome limousine pulled up beside the curb and
a sprucely attired Hindu stepped out. One who had been in the apartments
of Ormuz Khan must have recognized his excellency's private secretary.
Turning to the chauffeur, a half-caste of some kind, and ignoring the
presence of the prophet who had generously opened the door, "You
will return at eight o'clock," he said, speaking perfect and cultured
English, "to take his excellency to High Claybury. Make a note, now, as
I shall be very busy, reminding me to call at Lower Claybury station for
a parcel which will be awaiting me there."

"Yes, sir," replied the chauffeur, and he touched his cap as the Hindu
walked into the hotel.

The salesman reclosed the door of the car, and spat reflectively upon
the pavement.

Limping wearily, he worked his way along in the direction of Chancery
Lane. But, before reaching Chancery Lane, he plunged into a maze of
courts with which he was evidently well acquainted. His bookselling
enterprise presently terminated, as it had commenced, at The Chancery

Once more safe in his dressing room, the pedler rapidly transformed
himself into Paul Harley, and Paul Harley, laying his watch upon the
table before him, lighted his pipe and indulged in half an hour's close

His again electing to focus his attention upon Ormuz Khan was this time
beyond reproach. It was the course which logic dictated. Until he had
attempted the task earlier in the day, he could not have supposed it so
difficult to trace the country address of a well-known figure like that
of the Persian.

This address he had determined to learn, and, having learned it, was
also determined to inspect the premises. But for such a stroke of good
luck as that which had befallen him at the Savoy, he could scarcely have
hoped. His course now lay clearly before him. And presently, laying his
pipe aside, he took up a telephone which stood upon the dressing table
and rang up a garage with which he had an account.

"Hello, is that you, Mason?" he said. "Have the racer to meet me at
seven o'clock, half-way along Pall Mall."

Never for a moment did he relax his vigilance. Observing every
precaution when he left The Chancery Agency, he spent the intervening
time at one of his clubs, from which, having made an early dinner, he
set off for Pall Mall at ten minutes to seven. A rakish-looking gray car
resembling a giant torpedo was approaching slowly from the direction of
Buckingham Palace. The driver pulled up as Paul Harley stepped into
the road, and following a brief conversation Harley set out westward,
performing a detour before heading south for Lower Claybury, a little
town with which he was only slightly acquainted. No evidence of
espionage could he detect, but the note of danger spoke intimately to
his inner consciousness; so that when, the metropolis left behind, he
found himself in the hilly Surrey countryside, more than once he pulled
up, sitting silent for a while and listening intently. He failed,
always, to detect any sign of pursuit.

The night was tropically brilliant, hot, and still, but saving the
distant murmur of the city, and ordinary comings and goings along the
country roads, there was nothing to account for a growing anxiety of
which he became conscious.

He was in gunshot of Old Claybury church tower, when the sight of a
haystack immediately inside a meadow gate suggested a likely hiding
place for the racer; and, having run the car under cover, Harley
proceeded on foot to the little railway station. He approached a porter
who leaned in the doorway. "Could you direct me to the house of his
excellency Ormuz Khan?" he inquired.

"Yes, sir," was the reply. "If you follow the uphill road on the other
side of the station until you come to the Manor Park - you will see the
gates - and then branch off to the right, taking the road facing the
gates. Hillside - that's the name of the house - is about a quarter of a
mile along."

Dusk was beginning to fall and, although the nature of his proposed
operations demanded secrecy, he recognized that every hour was precious.
Accordingly he walked immediately back to the spot at which he had left
the car and, following the porter's directions, drove over the line at
the level crossing immediately beyond the station, and proceeded up
a tree-lined road until he found himself skirting the railing of an
extensive tract of park land.

Presently heavy gates appeared in view; and then, to the right, another
lane in which the growing dusk had painted many shadows. He determined
to drive on until he should find a suitable hiding place. And at a
spot, as he presently learned, not a hundred yards from Hillside, he
discovered an opening in the hedge which divided the road from a tilled
field. Into this, without hesitation, he turned the racer, backing in,
in order that he might be ready for a flying start in case of emergency.
Once more he set out on foot.

He proceeded with caution, walking softly close to the side of the road,
and frequently pausing to listen. Advancing in this fashion, he found
himself standing ere long before an open gateway, and gazing along a
drive which presented a vista of utter blackness. A faint sound reached
his ear - the distant drone of a powerful engine. A big car was mounting
the slope from Lower Claybury Station.


Not until Harley came within sight of the house, a low, rambling
Jacobean building, did he attempt to take cover. He scrambled up a tree
and got astride of a wall. A swift survey by his electric torch of the
ground on the other side revealed a jungle of weeds in either direction.

He uttered an impatient exclamation. He calculated that the car was now
within a hundred yards of the end of the lane. Suddenly came an idea
that was born of emergency. Swarming up the tree to where its dense
foliage began, he perched upon a stout bough and waited.

Three minutes later came a blaze of light through the gathering
darkness, and the car which he had last seen at the Savoy was turned
into the drive, and presently glided smoothly past him below.

The interior lights were extinguished, so that he was unable to discern
the occupants. The house itself was also unilluminated. And when the
car pulled up before the porch, less than ten yards from his observation
post, he could not have recognized the persons who descended and entered

Indeed, only by the sound of the closing door did he know that they had
gone in. But two figures were easily discernible; and he judged them to
be those of Ormuz Khan and his secretary. He waited patiently, and ere
long the limousine was turned in the little courtyard before the porch
and driven out into the lane again. He did not fail to note that, the
lane regained, the chauffeur headed, not toward Lower Claybury, but away
from it.

He retained his position until the hum of the motor grew dim in the
distance, and was about to descend when he detected the sound of a
second approaching car! Acutely conscious of danger, he remained where
he was. Almost before the hum of the retiring limousine had become
inaudible, a second car entered the lane and turned into the drive of

Harley peered eagerly downward, half closing his eyes in order that he
might not be dazzled by the blaze of the headlight. This was another
limousine, its most notable characteristic being that the blinds were
drawn in all the windows.

On this occasion, when the chauffeur stepped around and opened the door,
only one passenger alighted. There seemed to be some delay before he was
admitted, but Harley found it impossible to detect any details of the
scene being enacted in the shadowed porch.

Presently the second car was driven away, pursuing the same direction as
the first. Hot upon its departure came the drone of a third. The windows
of the third car also exhibited drawn blinds. As it passed beneath him
he stifled an exclamation of triumph. Vaguely, nebulously, the secret
of this dread thing Fire-Tongue, which had uplifted its head in England,
appeared before his mind's eye. It was only necessary for him to assure
himself that the latest visitor had been admitted to the house before
the next move became possible. Accordingly he changed his position,
settling himself more comfortably upon the bough. And now he watched the
three cars perform each two journeys to some spot or spots unknown, and,
returning, deposit their passengers before the porch of Hillside. The
limousine used by Ormuz Khan, upon its second appearance had partaken of
the same peculiarity as the others: there were blinds drawn inside the

Paul Harley believed that he understood precisely what this signified,
and when, after listening intently in the stillness of the night, he
failed to detect sounds of any other approach, he descended to the path
and stole toward the dark house.

There were French windows upon the ground floor, all of them closely
shuttered. Although he recognized that he was taking desperate chances,
he inspected each one of them closely.

Passing gently from window to window, his quest ultimately earned its
reward. Through a crack in one of the shutters a dim light shone out.
His heart was beating uncomfortably, although he had himself well in
hand; and, crawling into the recess formed by the window, he pressed
his ear against a pane and listened intently. At first he could hear
nothing, but, his investigation being aided by the stillness of the
night, he presently became aware that a voice was speaking within the
room - deliberately, musically. The beating of his heart seemed to make
his body throb to the very finger tips. He had recognized the voice to
be the voice of Ormuz Khan!

Now, his sense of hearing becoming attuned to the muffled tones, he
began to make out syllables, words, and, finally, sentences. Darkness
wrapped him about, so that no one watching could have seen his face. But
he himself knew that under the bronze which he never lost he had grown
pale. His heartbeats grew suddenly fainter, an eerie chill more intense
than any which the note of danger had ever occasioned caused him to draw
sharply back.

"My God!" he whispered. He drew his automatic swiftly from his pocket,
and, pressed against the wall beside the window, looked about him as a
man looks who finds himself surrounded by enemies. Not a sound disturbed
the stillness of the garden except for sibilant rustlings of the leaves,
occasioned by a slight breeze.

Paul Harley retreated step by step to the bushes. He held the pistol
tightly clenched in his right hand.

He had heard his own death sentence pronounced and he knew that it was
likely to be executed.


He regained the curve of the drive without meeting any opposition.
There, slipping the pistol into his pocket, he climbed rapidly up the
tree from which he had watched the arrival of the three cars, climbed
over the wall, and dropped into the weed jungle beyond. He crept
stealthily forward to the gap where he had concealed the racer, drawing
nearer and nearer to the bushes lining the lane. Only by a patch of
greater darkness before him did he realize that he had reached it. But
when the realization came one word only he uttered: "Gone!"

His car had disappeared!

Despair was alien to his character: A true Englishman, he never knew
when he was beaten. Beyond doubt, now, he must accept the presence
of hidden enemies surrounding him, of enemies whose presence even his
trained powers of perception had been unable to detect. The intensity of
the note of danger which he had recognized now was fully explained.
He grew icily cool, master of his every faculty. "We shall see!" he
muttered, grimly.

Feeling his way into the lane, he set out running for the highroad, his
footsteps ringing out sharply upon the dusty way. The highroad gained,
he turned, not to the left, but to the right, ran up the bank and threw
himself flatly down upon it, lying close to the hedge and watching the
entrance to the lane. Nothing appeared; nothing stirred. He knew the
silence to be illusive; he blamed himself for having ventured upon
such a quest without acquainting himself with the geography of the

Great issues often rest upon a needle point. He had no idea of
the direction or extent of the park land adjoining the highroad.
Nevertheless, further inaction being out of the question, creeping along
the grassy bank, he began to retreat from the entrance to the lane. Some
ten yards he had progressed in this fashion when his hidden watchers
made their first mistake.

A faint sound, so faint that only a man in deadly peril could have
detected it, brought him up sharply. He crouched back against the hedge,
looking behind him. For a long time he failed to observe anything.
Then, against the comparatively high tone of the dusty road, he saw a
silhouette - the head and shoulders of someone who peered out cautiously.

Still as the trees above him he crouched, watching, and presently, bent
forward, questing to right and left, questing in a horribly suggestive
animal fashion, the entire figure of the man appeared in the roadway.

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Online LibrarySax RohmerFire-Tongue → online text (page 9 of 15)