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Chapter 37 - The Relics of the Prophet

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« on: January 04, 2023, 08:55:10 am »

THERE was some pretty straight talking in the chief’s room five minutes later. Ramin was not present.

“I have the outline of the thing complete, Barton,” said Nayland Smith, puffing furiously at his pipe. “For God’s sake, don’t interrupt. Just listen. My time is brief. The man Amir Khan blundered onto the location of Mokanna’s tomb in some way, and up to the time of his disappearance, was undoubtedly acting on his own. I take it you paid him well for his information.”

“I did.”

Sir Denis nodded.

“He did not belong to that obscure sect, an offshoot of true Mohammedanism, which still holds the tradition of the New Koran. But he knew more than they do, because he knew where the prophet was buried. He was a thug; you always knew this. And he deserted because he was recalled by his immediate chief. The laws of thuggee (which I don’t profess to understand) are very binding upon devotees. His chief learned what had happened; and his chief——”

“Was one of the Fu Manchu group!” Sir Lionel interrupted. “And so . . .”

“And so the news reached the doctor. Where he was at the time, we shall probably never know—but he acted swiftly. The possibilities were tremendous. Islam is at least as divided as Christianity. A religious revival is long overdue. The man and the occasion, only, were wanted. Here was the occasion. Dr. Fu Manchu found the man.”

“Whom did he find?”

“I don’t know. Listen, and I will tell you all I know. In every religion there are secret sects. I have maintained for many years, in the face of much opposition from learned sources—and from you—that the organization known as the Si-Fan embodies the greater part of these dissentients——”

“Rot!”

“Such a movement, reinforced by the backing of the Si-Fan, would almost certainly have tipped the scale. This was what Dr. Fu Manchu saw. The arising of the prophet was staged for him when you blew up that lonely tomb in Khorassan. This he acted upon with the results which we know. Interested parties in the Moslem world were only too ready to receive the new prophet. His material qualities they were prepared to overlook. But it happens—and a memory of Greville’s gave me the clue to the truth—that a certain fanatical sect, having representatives at Damascus and also at Mecca, possess or claim to possess copies of the New Koran.”

“That’s true,” said the chief, shifting his feet uneasily, for he was sprawling upon the settee. “I’ve seen ’em. I knew what I was up against, Smith.”

Nayland Smith looked at Sir Lionel with a sort of reluctant admiration.

“You’re a remarkable man, Barton,” he admitted. “If a modicum of discretion had been added to your outfit, much of this trouble might have been avoided.”

“What trouble?” the chief shouted. He kicked at the wooden chest. “Where’s the trouble? I’ve tricked every damned fool among them. And, by heaven! I’ve tricked Dr. Fu Manchu himself. You all wondered why I hung on so long in Ispahan——”

He began to laugh loudly; but:

“I know now,” said Nayland Smith.

And he spoke the words so coldly that the chief’s laughter was checked.

“I thought,” he went on, “that you were bluffing in Cairo. I knew your schoolboy sense of humour. It was a dramatic surprise to me, although I may not have shown it, when your old suitcase was opened before Mr. Aden and I saw the sword, the mask, and the gold plates.”

He jumped out of his chair and began to move from foot to foot, since there was no room for him to promenade.

“I carried out my contract with Dr. Fu Manchu—Ramin’s life being the price at stake—in what I believed to be all honesty. Don’t speak, Barton—let me finish. Dr. Fu Manchu is the most ghastly menace to our present civilization which has appeared since Attila the Hun. He is an old man, but, by some miracle which I can only ascribe to his gigantic will power, he is as forceful to-day as he was in the first hour that I ever set eyes upon him in a forest of Burma. That’s agreed. He has one virtue. According to his admittedly peculiar code—he is a man of honour.”

“Stop!”

Sir Lionel was up, now, his strong hands clenched, his eyes glaring upon the speaker.

“Stop, Smith! I won’t take it from you or from any man. I may have broken every other commandment, but I never lied.”

“Have I accused you of lying?” Sir Denis’s voice was very cool.

“Practically, yes.”

“You remained in Ispahan until Solomon Ishak, perhaps the finest craftsman in the East, had duplicated the relics of the prophet. Oh, it was clever work, Barton. But . . .”

“Well,” growled the chief, still glaring at him. “But, what . . . ? Didn’t the man Aden or Samarkan or whatever his name is—pass the stuff that we showed him in Shepheard’s? Did I or did you undertake to deliver up anything else? We had Ramin back, and we handed over the duplicates.” Furiously he kicked the box. “Ali Mahmoud had the relics. He brought them from old Solomon Ishak back to Cairo, and from Cairo on board here. And there they are!”

He dropped back onto the settee, his mouth working evilly, for he was in murderous humour. But Nayland Smith continued to watch him calmly.

“It would be reviving an ancient libel to say that you argue like a Jesuit, Barton,” he remarked coldly.

“Thanks!” snapped the chief. “You have probably said enough.”

I think I have never felt more unhappy in my life. The facts now revealed to me were astounding; the ethics of the thing beyond me. But it was ghastly that these two old friends—men of first-rate genius in their separate spheres—should thus be almost at one another’s throats.

Loyalty to the chief forbade my siding with Sir Denis, yet in my heart I knew that the latter was right. The price had been Ramin’s life; and Sir Lionel had played a faked card.

It didn’t surprise me; and since he had succeeded, I had it in my heart to forgive him, but:

“You know, chief,” I said, “I can see what Sir Denis means. So don’t boil over. We were in the wrong.”

I hadn’t meant it; I am not clever enough to have thought of it; but that use of “we” rather did the trick. Sir Lionel relaxed and looked at me in an almost kindly way.

“You think so, Greville?” he growled.

“Well, it was the devil of a risk, and Dr. Fu Manchu——”

“Dr. Fu Manchu,” Nayland Smith snapped, “discovered the substitution in Damascus, on the very day, I believe, that I arrived there. By means of what secret knowledge held by certain imams of the Great Mosque he anticipated that the forgery would be detected, I don’t know.”

He paused—his pipe had gone out, and he struck a match; then:

Someone spoke from the pulpit that evening. The huge mosque was packed to the doors. I have never seen such mass fanaticism in my life.”

“Were you there?” asked the chief with sudden boyish enthusiasm.

“I was.”

“Good old Smith!”

And in those words I recognized the fact that the storm had blown over.

“The speaker wore a green turban, a green robe, and a gold mask.”

“It was Fu Manchu!”

“I am still inclined to doubt it. I don’t think I could mistake him. If it were he, then he has thrown off the burden of thirty years. He held his audience in the palm of his hand, as I know Fu Manchu can do. But the virility of his voice . . .”

And as he spoke, a sort of half-memory stirred in my brain. It passed—leaving a blank.

“There were doubters there. And that very night, as I believe, the substitution was discovered. The new Mahdi opened brilliantly, Barton, but he met with a definite check in Damascus. What actually happened I naturally don’t profess to know. But—” he pointed to the wooden chest on the floor of the cabin—“are they there?”

“They are!” said the chief triumphantly.

“The rumour is already spreading—you know how news travels in these parts—that Mokanna is an impostor. I need not add that our Intelligence Department is zealously fostering this. Only one thing could save the situation.” He pointed again to the chest. “I don’t know where Dr. Fu Manchu is, but from my knowledge of his methods I should predict that he is not far from Port Said at the present moment.”

Those words sent a cold shudder down my spine.

“He’s too late,” growled Sir Lionel; “we sail in fifteen minutes.”

“I know,” Nayland Smith returned. “But while I’m aware that I am wasting words, if I were in your shoes, Barton, I should be disposed to send Ali Mahmoud ashore with that crate and sail in comfort.”

“You’d do nothing of the sort!” shouted the chief, jumping up again. “You know it as well as I do.”

“Very good. I’ve a few suggestions to make before I go ashore. I can’t possibly leave Egypt for at least another week, when I hope that Petrie will be ready to join me.”

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