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Chapter 43 - The Voice in Bruton Street

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Author Topic: Chapter 43 - The Voice in Bruton Street  (Read 11 times)
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« on: January 04, 2023, 11:04:05 am »

IN THE absence of Ramin and the chief, the big gloomy house in Bruton Street overpowered me. But with characteristic disregard of my personal wishes Sir Lionel that morning had carried Ramin off to Norfolk—true, for two days only. But London, much as I had longed to see it again, can be a lonely spot for a man with few friends.

By common consent, that most singular episode on the high seas had been hushed up as far as possible. It took its place, of course, in the ship’s log.

Examination of the cabin occupied by the pseudo-member of Parliament revealed the fact that two of his three trunks were empty, and that the third contained discarded clothing—and a pneumatic pump. A life jacket was missing from its place; and the crate which once had held the relics (broken open) was discovered in his bathroom. He had taken the precaution of examining this first, thereby exhibiting a knowledge of Sir Lionel’s methods!

That the floating ball had contained the sealed packages stolen from the purser’s safe was beyond dispute. He had brought this remarkable piece of equipment for that purpose. It was, I suppose, a large rubber bag in two sections which could be hermetically screwed together and then inflated by means of the pump, when, assuming its contents to be not too heavy, it would float.

The method employed in opening the safe, as the captain had said, was a new development in burglary. Later, looking back upon my profound mystification, the genius of Dr. Fu Manchu has positively awed me; for I know now, although I did not know then, that he himself, with that sardonic humour peculiarly his own, had demonstrated this very process in that untraceable house outside Cairo!

Who was the man posing as “Mr. Kennington”?

Obviously his appearance was due to a cunning disguise. My impression of the swimmer who had climbed into the seaplane was that of a slender, athletic figure. He had been a wonderful actor, too, admirably chosen for his rôle, since by drawing attention to himself at the outset he had completely lulled everyone’s suspicion—even deceiving Nayland Smith. . . .

These queer memories often claimed my mind at the most unlikely moments. We had been absent from England more than a year and had brought back a stack of stuff to be disposed of and catalogued. This tedious business, the chief invariably left to me.

I was three deep in appointments with British Museum authorities, the Royal Society, and others too numerous to mention.

The bloodstained relics of Mokanna occupied a case to themselves in the famous Museum Room at Bruton Street. Sir Lionel had several properties in England, one of which, however, he had recently sold. His collection was distributed among the others, but the gems were in London.

Ramin and the chief left by an eleven o’clock train for Norfolk, and, a busy day’s work now concluded, I looked forward to a dull evening. However, by chance I picked up an old acquaintance at the club; we did a show together and then went on to supper, killing time quite agreeably. For a few hours, at any rate, I forgot Ramin.

He had gone up to Norfolk to rest, specifying that he would be absent for only two days. He would have refused to go at all, I am sure, under ordinary circumstances; but Mrs. Petrie was meeting him there. Petrie and Sir Denis were already homeward bound, and the chief had planned the return from Norfolk to synchronize with their arrival in London.

If Sir Lionel ever enters paradise, it is beyond doubt that he will reorganize the angels. . . .

I parted from my friend at the top of the Haymarket in the neighbourhood of one o’clock and decided to walk back to Bruton Street. As I set out, going along deserted Piccadilly, a panorama of the recent years unrolled itself before my mind. The giant shadow of Fu Manchu lay over all my memories.

There had been a time, and this not so distant, when I should have hesitated to walk alone along Piccadilly at one o’clock in the morning; but in some queer fashion my feelings in regard to Dr. Fu Manchu had undergone a change.

Since that unforgettable interview in the Great Pyramid, I had formed an impression of his greatness which, oddly enough, gave me a sense of security. This may be difficult to understand, but what I mean is that I believed him too big to glance aside at one so insignificant as myself. If ever I stood in his way, he would crush me without hesitation; at the moment he had nothing to gain by intruding upon my humble existence.

So I mused, staring about me as I walked. His resources, I realized, were enormous, apparently inexhaustible, as the daring robbery from the Indramatra on the high seas had shown; but the motive which had actuated this could inspire Dr. Fu Manchu no longer.

There had been a short paragraph in the Times that morning (confirming the latest news from Sir Denis) which indicated that the Mokanna rising, or threat of a rising, sometimes referred to as the “Coming of the New Mahdi,” had subsided almost as suddenly as it had arisen. The explanation of the Times correspondent was that the leader of the movement, whose identity remained unknown, had proved to be an impostor.

There was a fair amount of traffic in Piccadilly, but there were few pedestrians. I lighted my pipe. Crossing to the corner of Bond Street I saw a constable patiently testing the fastenings of shop doors. My thoughts flashed back to the many market streets of the East I had known. . . .

I began to feel pleasantly sleepy. Another busy day was before me; the chief was preparing a paper dealing with the Mokanna relics which he would read before the Royal Society. Embodying, as it did, the truth about the abortive rising of the Masked Prophet, it was calculated to create a tremendous sensation, doubtless involving Notes between the Persian Legation and the Foreign Office. This, of course, which any normal man must have wished to avoid, was frankincense and myrrh in the nostrils of Sir Lionel.

At eleven o’clock four famous experts had been invited to examine the relics: Hall-Ramsden of the British Museum; Dr. Brieux of Paris; Professor Max Eisner—Germany’s greatest Orientalist; and Sir Wallace Syms of the Royal Society.

I think the chief’s hasty departure had something to do with this engagement. He avoided his distinguished contemporaries as one avoids a pestilence. I had rarely known such a meeting which had not developed into a fight.

“Better wait for the Royal Society night, Greville,” he had said. “Then I can go for the lot of ’em together!”

Turning into Bruton Street, I saw it deserted as far as Berkeley Square. Sir Lionel’s house was one of the few not converted to commercial use; for this once favoured residential district is being rapidly absorbed into the shopping zone. He had had tempting offers for the property; but the mere fact that others were so anxious to buy was sufficient to ensure his refusal to sell. The gloomy old mansion, which he rarely occupied, but where a staff of servants was maintained, cost him somewhere in the neighbourhood of two thousand a year to keep empty.

I was in sight of the entrance, guarded by two miniature obelisks, and was already fumbling for my key when an odd thing occurred.

The adjoining house had been up for sale ever since I could remember. It was unoccupied and plastered all over with auctioneers’ boards—a pathetically frequent sight in Mayfair. And as I passed the iron railing guarding the area of the basement—indeed, had my foot on Sir Lionel’s steps—a voice called me by name. . . .

“Shan!”

The voice came from the basement of the empty house!

It was a soft voice. My heart leapt wildly. In tone it was not unlike the voice of Ramin!

I turned back, staring down into the darkness below. An illusion, I thought. Yet I could have sworn it was a human voice. And as I stood there looking down:

“Shan!” it came again, more faintly.

It chilled me! it was uncanny—but investigate I must. I looked up and down the street; not a soul was in sight. Then, pushing open the iron gate, I descended the steps to the little sunken forecourt.

There was no repetition of the sound, and it was very dark down there in the area. But I could see that a window of the empty house had been taken out, and it occurred to me that the call had come from someone inside. Standing by the frameless window:

“Who’s there?” I cried.

There was no reply.

Yet I knew that a second time I could not have been mistaken. Someone had called my name. I must learn the truth. My pipe gripped firmly between my teeth, and, ignoring accumulated dust on the ledge, I climbed over a low sill and dropped into the gloom of the deserted house. I put my hand into my topcoat pocket in search of matches. . . .

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