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Chapter 39 - Flight from Egypt

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« on: January 04, 2023, 10:11:04 am »

I STOOD at the after end of the promenade deck. Together, Ramin and I watched the lights of Egypt fading in the distance. It was good to be together again after that brief but dreadful hiatus in Cairo, but yet, although neither of us spoke, I knew that we shared a common regret. It was true we had known sorrow in Egypt, but we had known great happiness there, and the happiness outweighed the sorrow.

It was growing late, and we had the starboard side of the deck to ourselves; a few passengers lingered in the smoke-room, but nearly everybody was in bed. It would have been good to have Nayland Smith with us.

In fact, having few friends of my own in London, and knowing that Ramin had many, I felt that those days in the Mediterranean which lay ahead would be the last for a long time during which I should have him to myself.

Together we watched the lights of Port Said growing more and more dim upon the horizon.

Only nine passengers had joined the Indramatra there, including our own party of three. They had been checked up by Nayland Smith, and not one of them came within the shadow of suspicion. Other than these six first-class passengers and ourselves, no one had come aboard in Egypt, nor had the crew been reinforced. I remembered Sir Denis’s parting words:

“Unless, which isn’t impossible, since we’re dealing with Dr. Fu Manchu, an agent of his has been smuggled aboard disguised as cargo, it would appear, Greville, that, for once in his life, the doctor has missed fire.”

It was cold comfort, since I had reason to know that the doctor rarely missed fire.

When at last, and very reluctantly, I turned in that night, common sense told me that Sir Lionel had pulled off his daring trick and risked Ramin’s life in the process. But, once in Europe, I believed that we had little to fear on this score, since the religious-political utility of the relics by then would have become nil. Only by their immediate recovery could Dr. Fu Manchu hope to reëstablish the claims of the new prophet, already challenged by reason of their absence. A week would make all the difference.

But, in destroying this daring scheme of the greatest and also the most evil man I had ever known, what had we done?

His mentality was incalculable. I believed him too great to waste an hour of his time in so futile a purpose as vengeance. But in this I knew that I might be mistaken. He was a Chinaman, and I knew little of Chinese mentality. He was unscrupulous, valuing human life no more highly than the blades of grass one treads upon. But in this he conformed to his own peculiar code.

No desire for personal aggrandizement inspired him, Nayland Smith had assured me. He aimed to lift China from the mire into which China had fallen. He was, according to his peculiar lights, a great patriot. And, this I knew, according to those same peculiar lights, he was scrupulously honourable.

True, the terms he had extorted upon the strength of the abduction of Rima had been blackmail at its vilest, but blackmail of a kind acceptable to his own code. We had agreed to his terms and had set our names to that agreement. Such implicit trust had he placed in our English honour that he had met us alone—the gesture of a great man if a great villain.

And in all good faith on the part of Nayland Smith and myself we had tricked him! Would he have tricked us in quite that way? Was it what his inscrutable Chinese conscience would regard as fair warfare, or was it not?

I doubted, and, to be perfectly honest, I feared. I had warned Ramin to bolt his door before I said good-night to him, and now, entering my own cabin, I did the same. I made sure that the sword of God was in my golf bag concealed among the clubs, and the gold plates in the pocket of my Burberry before I began to undress. The wooden chest, nailed up again, stood at the end of a blind alleyway leading to the chief’s suite.

The Mediterranean was calm as a great lake, and there was little motion perceptible from stem to stern of the Indramatra. My cabin was forward on the port side and only two removed from that occupied by Sir Lionel. These cabins opened on a narrow gallery overlooking the dining saloon, and Rima’s was nearly opposite my own.

I had experienced a pang of uneasiness on realizing that the stewards were almost exclusively Javanese, some of them of a very Mongolian type: silent, furtive, immobile, squatting like images at the corner of nearly every alleyway—their slippers beside them, their faces expressionless.

To-night, however, they had all disappeared. The ship was silent, the saloon a dark well. Only faint vibrations from the screw propellers and that creaking of woodwork inseparable from a ship at sea, disturbed the stillness.

I had only partially unpacked, and feeling very wide awake, I began to grope among my baggage for a tin of tobacco which I had bought just before leaving Cairo. I had determined to smoke a final pipe before turning in. A final drink would have been welcome, but I doubted if I could obtain one.

Following some searching, I discovered the tobacco, and I had just raised the lid and begun to fill my pipe when there came a soft rapping upon the door of the cabin. . . .

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