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Chapter 44 - “This Was the Only Way . . .”

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Author Topic: Chapter 44 - “This Was the Only Way . . .”  (Read 8 times)
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« on: January 04, 2023, 11:35:07 am »

A PARALYZING grip seized my ankles; my arms were pinioned behind me, and an impalpable something was pressed over my mouth! I experienced a sudden sharp pain in my arm, as though something had seared the flesh. Then . . . I realized that, struggle as I might, I was helpless—helpless as a child!

That I had walked into a trap laid by common footpads was the thought that flashed across my mind. But the presence of someone who knew my name, promptly banished it. I had walked into a trap—yes! But the identity of the one who had baited that trap suddenly forced itself upon my brain with all the reality of a vision: long, narrow, brilliantly green eyes seemed to be looking into mine out of the darkness. . . .

I was spurred to a great effort for safety. I exerted every nerve and sinew in a violent bid for liberty.

Good heavens! what was it that had me at its mercy! Surely no human hands gripped my ankles; no arms of flesh and blood could hold a struggling, muscular man, immovable!

Yet, so I was held—immovable! My strivings were utterly futile: no sound of quickened breathing, nothing to show that my struggles inconvenienced these unseen captors. No flinching; no perceptible tremor of the hands—if hands they were—that had locked themselves about me.

I swore in an agony of furious impotence. But only a groan escaped from the pad held over my mouth. Then, I stood still—tensed nervously. . . . The crowning strangeness of the thing had suddenly been borne home to me.

Held captive though I was, no attempt had been made on my personal possessions, no word had been spoken! Nothing had moved—nothing breathed. Indeed, although I stood but a few yards from a Mayfair street, there was something awful in the stillness—something uncanny in the silent strength which held me.

Doubts were dispelled; the cold water of nervous fear trickled down my spine. For what is more fearful than utter helplessness in the face of an enemy? I was afraid—grimly, dreadfully afraid.

I felt chilled, too, as though by the near presence of ice. The pad was not pressed so tightly over my mouth as to be stifling, but nevertheless I held my breath, listening. Save for the thumping of my heart, not a sound could I hear.

Then, from afar off, as though from a remote room of the empty house, came a voice—a wonderful and a strange voice, penetrating, sweet, and low; the voice of a woman. Although the speaker seemed to be far away—very far away—the impression was not as that of a loud voice heard in the distance; it was that of a soft, caressing voice which carried clearly every word to my ear, from some other place; almost from some other world.

“You have nothing to fear, Shan,” it said. “No harm shall come to you. This was the only way.”

The voice ceased . . . and then, I was free!

For several seconds, an unfamiliar numbness, the spell of the hidden speaker, lay upon me. I stood stock still, questioning my sanity. Then natural instincts reasserted themselves. I lashed out right and left, with hand and foot, might and main!

A gashed knuckle was my only reward—caused by a window casement. With fingers far from steady, at last I found the matches, struck one and looked quickly about me.

I was alone!

The unsatisfactory light showed a large kitchen, practically stripped; a big, dirty cooking range at one end, torn wall paper, and general odds and ends upon the floor; an old whitewash pail in a corner—my pipe lying at my feet. Absolutely nothing else. I ran to the only door which I could see.

It was locked.

The cupboards! . . . both were empty!

My fourth match smoldered down to my fingers, and, as a man in a dream, I climbed out again into the well of the area, looking up at dirty vacant windows, plastered over with house agents’ bills.

“What the devil!” I said aloud.

A voice answered from immediately above me.

“Hello, there!”

I turned with a start. It was a policeman—a real substantial constable; the same, I thought, whom I had seen examining shop doors in Bond Street.

“What’s your game, eh?”

He was standing by the iron gate, looking down at me. My first impulse was to tell him the truth. I was conscious of a crying necessity for someone to confide in. Then, the thought of the question which had already flashed through my own mind restrained me: Such a tale would be discredited by any, and by every policeman in the force.

“It’s all right, constable,” I said, going up the steps. “I thought I heard a row in this house, so I went to investigate. But there seems to be no one there.”

The man’s attitude of suspicion relaxed when he had had a good look at me.

“I live next door,” I went on, “and was just about to go in when I heard it.”

“What sort of a row, sir?”

“Don’t know exactly,” I replied—“scuffling sounds.”

The officer looked surprised.

“Can’t be rats, can it?” he mused. “Been inside?”

“I looked in through that broken kitchen window.”

“Nobody there?”

“No, nobody.”

“Think I’ll take a look round.”

He went down the steps, shot a light into the broken window, and finally climbed over, as I had done. He examined the kitchen, trying the door which I knew to be locked; then:

“Must have been mistaken, sir,” he said; “the place has been empty for years. But I believe it’s been sold recently and is going to be converted into flats.”

He walked up the steps and approached the front entrance, directing his light through glass panels into an empty hallway, at the same time ringing the bell, though with what idea I was unable to conjecture.

“Nobody here,” he concluded. “Nothing to make it worth anybody’s while, is there?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” I agreed; and, entirely contrary to regulations, slipped a ten-shilling note into his hand. “Sorry I have been unable to find you a case, though.”

“Right-ho!” the constable grinned; “better luck next time. Good-night, sir.”

“Good-night,” I said, taking out my key and opening Sir Lionel’s door.

As I hung up my hat and coat I stood in the lobby trying to get my ideas into some kind of order. What, exactly, had happened?

Had I fallen victim to a delusion?—was my brain slightly out of gear? And if so, where had delusion ceased and actuality commenced? I had spoken to the constable; this was beyond dispute. But had I ever heard that strange voice? Had I ever been gripped as in a vice and listened to those words? And if I had, what did it all mean? Who could profit by it?

If, as I suspected—and the suspicion was abominable—we had blown the trumpet of triumph too soon, why should Fu Manchu, or anyone associated with him, stoop to a meaningless practical joke?

I stared about the lobby with its curious decorations, and up the fine old staircase to where a row of Saracen armour stood on guard. The servants had long since retired, and there was not a sound to be heard in the house. Pushing open the dining-room door, I turned up one of the lights.

There was cold supper on the buffet, which Betts invariably placed there. I helped myself to a stiff whisky and soda, extinguished the light, and went upstairs.

Needless to say that I was badly shaken, mystified, utterly astounded. Aimlessly I opened the door of the Museum Room, turning up all the lamps.

Walking in, I dropped into one of the big settees, took a cigarette from a box which lay there, lighting it and staring about me. I was surrounded by the finest private collection of its kind in Great Britain. Sir Lionel’s many donations to public institutions contained treasures enough, but here was the cream of a lifetime of research.

Directly facing me where I sat, in a small case which had been stripped for the purpose, were the fifteen gold plates of the New Koran mounted on little wooden easels; the mask above them, and the magnificent Sword of God suspended below. A table with paper, writing material, lenses, and other conveniences, was set not far away, in preparation for the visit of the experts in the morning.

And I sat, dully gazing at all this for fully five minutes—or so I estimated at the time.

As a matter of fact, I may have remained there longer; I have no recollection of going upstairs, but it is certain that I did not fall asleep in the Museum Room. I remember that a welcome drowsiness claimed me as I sat there, and I remember extinguishing my cigarette in an ash tray.

Of my movements from that point onward I retain no memory whatever!

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