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A STRANGE QUESTION
A conviction burst upon my mind that a frightful crime had been committed. By whom and for what purpose I knew not. I hastened to the hotel of the Grand Duke. Tremendous excitement prevailed there, of course. There is no more certain way for a great personage to court publicity than to travel incognito. Everywhere that "M. de Stahler" had appeared all Paris had cried, "There goes the Grand Duke Ivan!" And now as I entered the hotel, press, police and public were demanding: "Is it true that the Grand Duke is dead?" Just emerging from the lift I saw Casimir. In propria persona--as M. Max--he failed to recognize me.
"My good man," I said--"are you a member of the suite of the late Grand Duke?"
"I am, or was, the valet of M. de Stahler, monsieur," he replied.
I showed him my card.
"To me 'M. de Stahler' is the Grand Duke Ivan. What other servants had he with him?" I asked, although I knew very well.
"Where and when was he taken ill?"
"At the Theatre Coquerico. Montmartre, at about a quarter past ten o'clock to-night."
"Who was with him?"
"No one, monsieur. His Highness was alone in a box. I had instructions to call with the car at eleven o'clock."
"The theatre management telephoned at a quarter past ten to say that His Highness had been taken ill and that a physician had been sent for. I went in the car at once and found him lying in one of the dressing-rooms to which he had been carried. A medical man was in attendance. The Grand Duke was unconscious. We moved him to the car----"
"The doctor, the theatre manager, and myself. The Grand Duke was then alive, the physician declared, although he seemed to me to be already dead. But just before we reached the hotel, the physician, who was watching His Highness anxiously, cried, 'Ah,mon Dieu! It is finished. What a catastrophe!'"
"He was dead?"
"He was dead, monsieur."
"Who has seen him?"
"They have telephoned for half the doctors in Paris, monsieur, but it is too late."
He was affected, the good Casimir. Tears welled up in his eyes. I mounted in the lift to the apartment in which the Grand Duke lay. Three doctors were there, one of them being he of whom Casimir had spoken. Consternation was written on every face.
"It was his heart," I was assured by the doctor who had been summoned to the theatre. "We shall find that he suffered from heart trouble."
They were all agreed upon the point.
"He must have sustained a great emotional shock," said another.
"You are convinced that there was no foul play, gentlemen?" I asked.
They were quite unanimous on the point.
"Did the Grand Duke make any statement at the time of the seizure which would confirm the theory of a heart attack?"
No. He had fallen down unconscious outside the door of his box, and from this unconsciousness he had never recovered. (Depositions of witnesses, medical evidence and other documents are available for the guidance of whoever may care to see them, but, as is well known, the death of the Grand Duke was ascribed to natural causes and it seemed as though my trouble would after all prove to be in vain.) Let us see what happened.
Leaving the hotel, on the night of the Grand Duke's death, I joined the man who was watching the cafe telephone.
There had been a message during the course of the evening, but it had been for a Greek cigarette-maker and it referred to the theft of several bales of Turkish tobacco--useful information, of minor kind, but of little interest to me. I knew that it would be useless to question the man Miguel, although I strongly suspected him of being a member of "The Scorpion's" organization. Any patron of the establishment enjoyed the privilege of receiving private telephone calls at the cafe on payment of a small fee.
A man of less experience in obscure criminology might now have assumed that he had been misled by a series of striking coincidences. Remember, there was not a shadow of doubt in the minds of the medical experts that the Grand Duke had died from syncope. His own professional advisor had sent written testimony to show that there was hereditary heart trouble, although not of a character calculated to lead to a fatal termination except under extraordinary circumstances. His own Government, which had every reason to suspect that the Grand Duke's assassination might be attempted, was satisfied. Eh bien! I was not.
I cross-examined the manager of the Theatre Coquerico. He admitted that Mlle. Zara el-Khala had been a mystery throughout her engagement. Neither he nor anyone else connected with the house had ever entered her dressing-room or held any conversation with her, whatever, except the stage-manager and the musical director. These had spoken to her about her music and about lighting and other stage effects. She spoke perfect French.
Such a state of affairs was almost incredible, but was explained by the fact that the dancer, at a most modest salary, had doubled the takings of the theatre in a few days and had attracted capacity business throughout the remainder of her engagement. She had written from Marseilles, enclosing press notices and other usual matter and had been booked direct for one week. She had remained for two months, and might have remained for ever, the poor manager assured me, at five times the salary!
A curious fact now came to light. In all her photographs Zara el-Khala appeared veiled, in the Eastern manner; that is to say, she wore a white silk yashmak which concealed all her face except her magnificent eyes! On the stage the veil was discarded; in the photographs it was always present.
And the famous picture which she had sent to the Grand Duke? He had destroyed it, in a fit of passion, on returning from the Bois de Boulogne after his encounter with Chunda Lal!
It is Fate after all--Kismet--and not the wit of man which leads to the apprehension of really great criminals--a tireless Fate which dogs their footsteps, a remorseless Fate from which they fly in vain. Long after the funeral of the Grand Duke, and at a time when I had almost forgotten Zara el-Khala, I found myself one evening at the opera with a distinguished French scientist and he chanced to refer to the premature death (which had occurred a few months earlier) of Henrik Ericksen, the Norwegian.
"A very great loss to the century, M. Max," he said. "Ericksen was as eminent in electrical science as the Grand Duke Ivan was eminent in the science of war. Both were stricken down in the prime of life--and under almost identical circumstances."
"That is true," I said thoughtfully.
"It would almost seem," he continued, "as if Nature had determined to foil any further attempts to rifle her secrets and Heaven to check mankind in the making of future wars. Only three months after the Grand Duke's death, the American admiral, Mackney, died at sea--you will remember? Now, following Ericksen, Van Rembold, undoubtedly the greatest mining engineer of the century and the only man who has ever produced radium in workable quantities, is seized with illness at a friend's house and expires even before medical aid can be summoned."
"It is very strange.'
"It is uncanny."
"Were you personally acquainted with the late Van Rembold?" I asked.
"I knew him intimately--a man of unusual charm, M. Max; and I have particular reason to remember his death, for I actually met him and spoke to him less than an hour before he died. We only exchanged a few words--we met on the street; but I shall never forget the subject of our chat."
"How is that?" I asked.
"Well, I presume Van Rembold's question was prompted by his knowledge of the fact that I had studied such subjects at one time; but he asked me if I knew of any race or sect in Africa or Asia who worshipped scorpions."
"Scorpions!" I cried. "Ah, mon Dieu! monsieur say it again-- scorpions?"
"But yes, certainly. Does it surprise you?"
"Did it not surprise you?"
"Undoubtedly. I could not imagine what had occurred to account for his asking so strange a question. I replied that I knew of no such sect, and Van Rembold immediately changed the subject, nor did he revert to it. So that I never learned why he had made that singular inquiry."
You can imagine that this conversation afforded me much food for reflection. Whilst I could think of no reason why anyone should plot to assassinate Grand Dukes, admirals and mining engineers, the circumstances of the several cases were undoubtedly similar in a number of respects. But it was the remarkable question asked by Van Rembold which particularly aroused my interest.
Of course it might prove to be nothing more than a coincidence, but when one comes to consider how rarely the word "scorpion" is used, outside those in which these insects abound, it appears to be something more. Van Rembold, then, had had some occasion to feel curious about the scorpions; the name "Scorpion" was associated with the Hindu follower of Zara el-Khala; and she was who had brought the Grand Duke to Paris, where he had died.
Oh! it was a very fragile thread, but by following such a thread as this we are sometimes led to the heart of a labyrinth.
Beyond wondering if some sinister chain bound together this series of apparently natural deaths I might have made no move in the matter, but something occurred which spurred me to action. Sir Frank Narcombe, the great English surgeon, collapsed in the foyer of a London theatre and died shortly afterwards. Here again I perceived a case of a notable man succumbing unexpectedly in a public place--a case parallel to that of the Grand Duke, of Ericksen, of Van Rembold! it seemed as though some strange epidemic had attacked men of science--yes! they were all men of science, even including the Grand Duke, who was said to be the most scientific soldier in Europe, and the admiral, who had perfected the science of submarine warfare.
"The Scorpion!" ... that name haunted me persistently. So much so that at last I determined to find out for myself if Sir Frank Narcombe had ever spoken about a scorpion or if there was any evidence to show that he had been interested in the subject.
I could not fail to remember, too, that Zara el-Khala had last been reported as crossing to England.
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