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Chapter 32 - I See El Mokanna

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« on: January 04, 2023, 05:50:43 am »

DR. PETRIE gave Ramin a sleeping draught and saw him off to bed in the big hotel on the edge of the desert. In spite of all our precautions, news had leaked out that something was afoot.

Whereas, at the time of our arrival, the place had been quiet, with few lights showing, now an air of excitement prevailed. People who seemed to have hastily dressed were standing about in groups. We had smuggled Ramin in by a side entrance. But in the lobby and on the terrace outside I met many curious glances.

And there was another, altogether more disturbing circumstance. In the roadway, and by the gate usually haunted by dragomans during the day, a group of some forty natives had assembled, of a type not usually met with there. They were men from the desert villages for the most part, and although all were oddly silent, I overheard several furtive asides which I construed as definitely hostile.

I recognized the black turbans of the Rifaiyeh and the red of the Ahmadiyeh. Senussi I saw among them too—and the white head-dresses of many Kadiriyeh. . . .

These were the dervishes who had gathered at Gizeh Village!

Wildly impatient as I was to join the party at the Pyramid, it was impossible for me to leave for some time. Petrie was with Ramin, whom he had placed under the care of a resident nurse. The youth kept waking up and calling piteously for me. Twice I had been brought to his room to pacify him. His frame of mind was most mysterious. He seemed to be obsessed with the idea that some harm had befallen me.

The second time, after he had gone to sleep contentedly, clasping my hand, I had managed to slip away without awakening him. And now, as I roamed restlessly about the lobby, Dr. Petrie suddenly appeared.

“He’s right enough now, Greville,” he reported, “and Mrs. Adams is with him. A most reliable woman.”

“Dare we start?” I asked.

“Certainly! my car’s outside. But we shall be too late for——”

I knew what he would have said; equally, I knew why he hesitated. The physical facts of the situation were beyond dispute; but the more I had considered the matter, the more clearly I had appreciated the fact that a man of Dr. Fu Manchu’s intellect would never voluntarily have walked into such a mouse trap.

No one knew how he had entered the Pyramid nor how Ramin had been taken there. Furthermore, he had introduced that singular lamp into the place, the table and the Arab chair. Now, in addition, he had the relics of the Prophet.

As we walked down the sanded drive to the road, observed with great curiosity by several residents who obviously suspected that our business was a strange one, we came face to face with that ominous gathering of Arabs near the gate. I saw at a glance that reinforcements had joined them. The black turbans of the Rifaiyeh predominated now.

“This looks unwholesome, Greville,” said Petrie in an undertone. “What are all these fellows doing here at this time of night?”

“They are the dervishes! Evidently they assembled at Gizeh Village and then marched here. I have been prowling about for some time, waiting for reports about Ramin, and I watched them gathering.”

We were among them now. Although they made way for us, I liked their attitude less and less.

“Tribesmen of some sort,” said Petrie close to my ear. “Except in ones and twos, these birds are rarely seen.”

As we reached his car, which stood a little to the left of the entrance, I looked back uneasily. The dervishes seemed to be watching us.

“What the devil’s afoot?” Petrie asked, grasping the wheel. “I should think they meant mischief, if they were armed.”

He started slowly up the slope; and as we passed that silent company I looked into many flashing eyes close beside the window. But no one attempted to obstruct us.

“A very queer business,” Petrie muttered. “Smith should know at once. It can hardly be a coincidence.”

We met several stragglers of the same type on that short winding road which leads up to the plateau, presumably going to join those already assembled outside Mena House. But the doctor’s mind, as well as my own, now was focused upon the major problem; and as we turned the final bend and the great black mass of the Pyramid loomed above us:

“You know, Greville,” said Petrie, “a load has been lifted from my mind. Honestly, I don’t think the possession of the relics of Mokanna will do much to help the movement. Ramin’s safety would be cheap at the price of every relic in the Cairo Museum.”

“I feel much the same about it,” I admitted. “Although, of course, those things are unique.”

“Unique be damned!” said Petrie. “Hello! who’s this?”

It was a police officer standing with upraised arm.

“You can’t pass this way, sir,” he shouted, and came forward as Petrie pulled up.

We both got out, but the night, as I have said, was very dark. And as we did so, the policeman directed the ray of a lamp upon us.

“Oh!” he added. “It’s Dr. Greville and Mr. Petrie, isn’t it?”

Petrie laughed.

“The other way about, officer,” he replied.

“You’ll have to walk from here. Those are my orders, sir.”

“It makes no difference. We couldn’t have driven much further, anyway. Is there any news?”

“Not that I’ve heard, sir. I understand that they’re still searching inside——”

“What!” I exclaimed. “There’s nothing to search—only two rooms. That is, unless they’re searching Davison’s shaft.”

“Come on, Greville,” said Petrie curtly. “Let’s go and see for ourselves. You may be of use here. You ought to know every nook and cranny of the place.”

“I do, but so does the chief—and he’s on the spot.”

We were challenged again as we reached the foot of the Pyramid, by a sergeant whom I took to be in charge of the cordon.

“O. K., sir,” he said when he saw me.

“What’s happened? Who’s inside?”

“The acting superintendent, sir, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, and Sir Lionel Barton. Three men with them.”

“And no one has come out?”

“Not a soul, sir.”

Petrie turned to me in the darkness.

“Shall we go up?” he asked.

We found four men on duty when we had climbed up to the entrance. They passed us immediately, and I was about to lead the way in when a muffled voice reached me from the interior.

“I tell you it’s a trick, Smith! He’s slipped out in some way. . . .”

The chief.

I stepped back again and felt, for I could not see their faces, an atmosphere of tension among the four police officers on duty.

“There’s treachery. Somebody’s been bought over.”

That loud, irascible voice was drawing nearer; and: “It’s all but incredible, Greville,” said Petrie, in a low voice; “but evidently Fu Manchu has managed to get out as mysteriously as he got in!”

“I hope there’s no question about us, sir,” came sharply; and one of the four men, whom on close inspection I recognized for a sergeant, stepped forward. “I’m responsible to the acting superintendent, so I don’t care what the other gentleman says. But you can take my word for it that nobody has come out of this place to-night, since you came out with the lady and Sir Denis.”

“We don’t doubt it, Sergeant,” Petrie replied. “Sir Denis won’t doubt it, either. You mustn’t pay too much attention to Sir Lionel Barton. He’s naturally very disturbed.”

“That may be, sir——” the man began; when: “Who’s on duty, here?” bellowed the chief, suddenly appearing out of the opening.

“One moment, Sir Lionel,” a quiet voice interrupted; and I saw Hewlett grasp his arm. “I am responsible for the men on duty. Sergeant!”

“Sir?”

“Have you anything to report?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“It’s some damned trick!” growled the chief.

Nayland Smith came out last, saw me in the darkness, and:

“Is everything all right, Greville?” he asked eagerly.

“We managed to get him to sleep,” Petrie replied. “Everything is all right. But this business passes my comprehension, Smith.”

“It does!” the latter rapped. “But, needless to say, I anticipated it.”

“It’s a trick!” the chief shouted. “The man’s a conjurer: always was. How did he get Ramin in? Damn it! Can’t we ask him?”

“You’ll ask him nothing to-night, Barton,” Petrie returned quietly. “And you’ll ask him nothing in the morning until you have my permission.”

“Thanks!” was the reply. “I’ll remember you in my will.” He was, in short, in a towering rage, and: “Where’s Greville?” he finished up.

“Here I am.”

“D’you think it feasible that Fu Manchu could have slipped up into one of the construction chambers?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Neither do I. Even if he did, he’s got to come down sometime.”

“What are these construction chambers, Greville?” Nayland Smith asked in a low voice.

“Five low spaces above the King’s Chamber,” I replied, “terminating in a pointed roof, generally supposed to have been intended to relieve the stress on the room below.”

“Any way into them?”

“Yes—by means of a long ladder.”

“Is there anything in what Barton says?”

“Hardly. In any event, there is only one way out!” I turned to Sir Lionel. “Have you searched the shaft, Chief?”

“No!” he growled—“I haven’t. And what’s more I’m not going to. Have the damn place closed and watched; that’s all that’s necessary.”

Nayland Smith turned to Hewlett.

“You must arrange for the Pyramid to be closed to visitors for the remainder of the week. And have men on duty at the entrance day and night.”

“Very good,” said Hewlett; “I’ll see to it.”

We had climbed down again to the base, and my feet were on the sand, when an idea occurred to me.

“By heavens! Sir Denis,” I cried. “It isn’t safe to leave just four men there to-night.”

“Why?” he snapped.

“You remember the meeting of dervishes reported by Enderby? Well—they are here—fifty or sixty strong!”

“Where?”

“Just this side of Mena House.”

“A rescue!” said the chief hoarsely. “They mean to rush the entrance! Fu Manchu is hiding inside!”

I could see Nayland Smith pulling at the lobe of his ear.

“They began to gather about midnight,” said Hewlett. “It’s been reported.”

“Who are they?”

“Mostly men from outlying villages, and as Mr. Greville says, members of various dervish orders.”

“I don’t like this,” rapped Nayland Smith. “The Mahdi organized the dervishes, you know. What’s your opinion, Hewlett?”

“I haven’t one. I can’t make it out—unless, as Sir Lionel suggests, they are going to attempt to rush us . . . But, by jove! here they come!”

We had set out down the slope and nearly reached that point where Petrie and I had left the car. Now, we pulled up like one man.

Dimly visible in the darkness of the night, their marching feet crunching upon the sand, we saw a considerable company of Arabs approaching from the opposite direction.

“It might be dangerous,” Nayland Smith muttered, “if it weren’t for the fact that sixty armed men are still on duty.”

And as he spoke, that onward march ceased as if in response to some unspoken order. Vaguely, although at no great distance from where we stood, we could see that strangely silent company. The policeman who had stopped Petrie’s car suddenly appeared.

“What do I do about this, sir?” he asked, addressing Hewlett. “They look nasty to me.”

“Do nothing,” was the reply. “We have the situation well in hand.”

“Very good, sir.”

We were near enough now to the crowd on the edge of the plateau to be able to distinguish the colours of robes and turbans—white, black, green and red; a confused blurred mass, but divisible into units. And as I looked doubtingly in their direction, suddenly I saw a hundred arms upraised, and in a muted roar their many voices reached me:

Mokanna!

Whereupon, unanimous as worshippers in a cathedral, they dropped to their knees and bowed their heads in the sand!

“Good God! What’s this?”

Nayland Smith was the speaker.

We all turned together, looking back to the northern face of the Great Pyramid. And as we did so, I witnessed a spectacle as vivid in my mind to-night as it was on the occasion of its happening.

Perhaps two thirds of the way up the slope of the great building, but at a point which I knew to be inaccessible to any climber, a figure appeared. . . . Even from where I stood, it was visible in great detail—for the reason that this figure was brilliantly lighted!

Many explanations occurred to us later of how this illumination might have been produced. We recalled the globular lamp in the King’s Chamber; several such lamps, masked from the viewpoint of the onlookers and placed one step below the figure, backed by reflectors, would, I think, have accounted for the phenomenon. But at the time, no solution was offered.

Personally, I was conscious of nothing but stark amazement. For there, enshrined in the darkness, I saw El Mokanna!

I saw a tall, majestic figure, wearing either a white or a very light green robe. The face was concealed by a golden mask and surmounted by a tall turban. Upraised in the right hand glittered a sword with a curved blade . . .

A weird chanting arose from the dervishes. I didn’t even glance back. I was staring—staring at that apparition on the Pyramid. Distant shouting reached me—orders, as I realized. But I knew, had known it all along, that no climber could reach that point.

Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the apparition vanished.

The lights had been extinguished or covered: such was the conclusion to which we came later. But at the time the effect was most uncanny. And as the figure vanished, again, from the dervishes, came a loud and now triumphant shout:

Mokanna!

In the dead silence which followed:

“Fu Manchu has set us a problem,” said Nayland Smith. “Either he or some selected disciple has been posing as the reborn prophet, from Afghanistan right down to the border of Arabia. You understand the dervish gathering, now, Hewlett?”

A murmuring of excited conversation reached us. The assembly of Arabs, palpably come there as to a tryst, was dispersing and already returning down the slope.

“It was urgent,” Sir Denis went on; “hence the abduction of Ramin. This was an appointment with the leaders of the Senussi and other fanatical orders. He had tricked them hitherto, but if the real relics had once been placed beyond his reach detection sooner or later was inevitable. This spark, Greville—” he turned to me in the darkness—“is going to light a bonfire. The Mokanna promises to be a greater problem than the Mahdi.”

Whereupon the chief began to laugh!

That laughter was so unexpected, and indeed so eerie in the circumstances, that I found in it some quality of horror.

“He’s tricked us, Smith!” he shouted. “He’s tricked us! But, by God, I’ve tricked him!

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