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THE HEART OF CHUNDA LAL
Dusk had drawn a grey mantle over the East-End streets when Miska, discharging the cab in which she had come from Victoria, hurried furtively along a narrow alley tending Thamesward. Unconsciously she crossed a certain line--a line invisible except upon a map of London which lay upon the table of the Assistant Commissioner in New Scotland Yard--the line forming the "red circle" of M. Gaston Max. And, crossing this line, she became the focus upon which four pairs of watchful eyes were directed.
Arriving at the door of a mean house some little distance removed from that of Ah-Fang-Fu, Miska entered, for the door was open, and disappeared from the view of the four detectives who were watching the street. Her heart was beating rapidly. For she had thought, as she had stood up to leave the restaurant, that the fierce eyes of Chunda Lal had looked in through the glass panel of one of the doors.
This gloomy house seemed to swallow her up, and the men who watched wondered more and more what had become of the elegant figure, grotesque in such a setting, which had vanished into the narrow doorway--and which did not reappear. Even Inspector Kelly, who knew so much about Chinatown, did not know that the cellars of the three houses left and right of Ah-Fang-Fu's were connected by a series of doors planned and masked with Chinese cunning.
Half an hour after Miska had disappeared into the little house near the corner, the hidden door in the damp cellar below "The Pidgin House" opened and a bent old woman, a ragged, grey-haired and dirty figure, walked slowly up the rickety wooden stair and entered a bare room behind and below the shop and to the immediate left of the den of the opium-smoker. This room, which was windowless, was lighted by a tin paraffin lamp hung upon a nail in the dirty plaster wall. The floor presented a litter of straw, paper and broken packing-cases. Two steps led up to a second door, a square heavy door of great strength. The old woman, by means of a key which she carried, was about to open this door when it was opened from the other side.
Lowering his head as he came through, Chunda Lal descended. He wore European clothes and a white turban. Save for his ardent eyes and the handsome fanatical face of the man, he might have passed for a lascar. He turned and half closed the door. The woman shrank from him, but extending a lean brown hand he gripped her arm. His eyes glittered feverishly.
"So!" he said, "we are all leaving England? Five of the Chinese sail with the P. and O. boat to-night. Ali Khan goes to-morrow, and Rama Dass, with Miguel, and the Andaman. I meet them at Singapore. But you?"
The woman raised her finger to her lips, glancing fearfully towards the open door. But the Hindu, drawing her nearer, repeated with subdued fierceness:
"I ask it again--but you?"
"I do not know," muttered the woman, keeping her head lowered and moving in the direction of the steps.
But Chunda Lal intercepted her.
"Stop!" he said--"not yet are you going. There is something I have to speak to you."
"Ssh!" she whispered, half turning and pointing up toward the door.
"Those!" said the Hindu contemptuously--"the poor slaves of the black smoke! Ah! they are floating in their dream paradise; they have no ears to hear, no eyes to see!" He grasped her wrist again. "They contest for shadow smiles and dream kisses, but Chunda Lal have eyes to see and ears to hear. He dream, too but of lips more sweet than honey, of a voice like the Song of the Daood! Inshalla!"
Suddenly he clutched the grey hair of the bent old woman and with one angry jerk snatched it from her head--for it was a cunning wig. Disordered, hair gleaming like bronze waves in the dim lamplight was revealed and the great dark eyes of Miska looked out from the artificially haggard face--eyes wide open and fearful.
"Bend not that beautiful body so," whispered Chunda Lal, "that is straight and supple as the willow branch. O, Miska"--his voice trembled emotionally and he that had been but a moment since so fierce stood abashed before her--"for you I become as the meanest and the lowest; for you I die!"
Miska started back from him as a muffled outcry sounded in the room beyond the half-open door. Chunda Las started also, but almost immediately smiled--and his smile was tender as a woman's.
"It is the voice of the black smoke that speaks, Miska. We are alone. Those are dead men speaking from their tombs."
"Ah-Fang-Fu is in the shop," whispered Miska.
"And there he remain."
"But what of ... him!"
Miska pointed toward the eastern wall of the room in which they stood.
Chunda Lal clenched his hands convulsively and turned his eyes in the same direction.
"It is of him," he replied in a voice of suppressed vehemence, "it is of him I would speak." He bent close to Miska's ear. "In the creek, below the house, is lying the motor-boat. I go to-day to bring it down for him. He goes to-night to the other house up the river. To-morrow I am gone. Only you remaining."
"Yes, yes. He also leaves England to-morrow."
"I go with him," she whispered.
Chunda Lal glanced apprehensively toward the door. Then:
"Do not go with him!" he said, and sought to draw Miska into his arms. "O, light of my eyes, do not go with him!"
Miska repulsed him, but not harshly.
"No, no, it is no good, Chunda Lal. I cannot hear you."
"You think"--the Hindu's voice was hoarse with emotion--"that he will trace you--and kill you?"
"Trace me!" exclaimed Miska with sudden scorn. "Is it necessary for him to trace me? Am I not already dead except for him! Would I be his servant, his lure, his slave for one little hour, for one short minute, if my life was my own!"
Beads of perspiration gleamed upon the brown forehead of the Hindu, and his eyes turned from the door to the eastern wall and back again to Miska. He was torn by conflicting desires, but suddenly came resolution.
"Listen, then." His voice was barely audible. "If I tell you that your life is your own--if I reveal to you a secret which I learned in the house of Abdul Rozan in Cairo----"
Miska watched him with eyes in which a new, a wild expression was dawning.
"If I tell you that life and not death awaits you, will you come away to-night, and we sail for India to-morrow! Ah! I have money! Perhaps I am rich as well as--someone; perhaps I can buy you the robes of a princess"--he drew her swiftly to him--"and cover those white arms with jewels."
Miska shrank from him.
"All this means nothing," she said. "How can the secret of Abdul Rozan help me to live! And you--you will be dead before I die!--yes! One little hour after he finds out that I go!"
"Listen again," hissed Chunda Lal intensely. "Promise me, and I will open for you a gate of life. For you, Miska, I will do it, and we shall be free. He will never find out. He shall not be living to find out!"
"No, no, Chunda Lal," she moaned. "You have been my only friend, and I have tried to forget ..."
"I will forswear Kali forever," he said fervently, "and shed no blood for all my life! I will live for you alone and be your slave."
"It is no good. I cannot, Chunda Lal, I cannot."
"Miska!" he pleaded tenderly.
"No, no," she repeated, her voice quivering--"I cannot ... Oh! do not ask it; I cannot!"
She picked up the hideous wig, moving towards the door. Chunda Lal watched her, clenching his hands; and his eyes, which had been so tender, grew fierce.
"Ah!" he cried--"and it may be I know a reason!"
She stopped, glancing back at him.
"It may be," he continued, and his repressed violence was terrible, "it may be that I, whose heart is never sleeping, have seen and heard! One night"--he crept towards her--"one night when I cry the warning that the Doctor Sahib returns to his house, you do not come! He goes in at the house and you remain. But at last you come, and I see in your eyes----"
"Oh!" breathed Miska, watching him fearfully.
"Do I not see it in your eyes now! Never before have I thought so until you go to that house, never before have you escaped from my care as here in London. Twice again I have doubted, and because there was other work to do I have been helpless to find out. To-night"--he stood before her, glaring madly into her face--"I think so again--that you have gone to him...."
"Oh, Chunda Lal!" cried Miska piteously and extended her hands towards him. "No, no--do not say it!"
"So!" he whispered--"I understand! You risk so much for him--for me you risk nothing! If he--the Doctor Sahib--say to you: 'Come with me, Miska----'"
"No, no! Can I never have one friend in all the world! I hear you call, Chunda Lal, but I am burning the envelope and--Doctor Stuart-- finds me. I am trapped. You know it is so.
"I know you say so. And because he--Fo-Hi--is not sure and because of the piece of the scorpion which you find there, we go to that house-- he and I--and we fail in what we go for." Chunda Lal's hand dropped limply to his sides. "Ah! I cannot understand, Miska. If we are not sure then, are we sure now? It may be"--he bent towards her--"we are trapped!"
"Oh, what do you mean?"
"We do not know how much they read of what he had written. Why do we wait?"
"He has some plan, Chunda Lal," replied Miska wearily. "Does he ever fail?"
Her words rekindled the Hindu's ardour; his eyes lighted up anew.
"I tell you his plan," he whispered tensely. "Oh! you shall hear me! He watch you grow from a little lovely child, as he watch his death-spiders and his grey scorpions grow! He tend you and care for you and make you perfect, and he plan for you as he plan for this other creatures. Then, he see what I see, that you are not only his servant but also a woman and that you have a woman's heart. He learn--who think he knows all--that he, too, is not yet a spirit but only a man, and have a man's heart, a man's blood, a man's longings! It is because of the Doctor Sahib that he learn it----"
He grasped Miska again, but she struggled to elude him. "Oh, let me go!" she pleaded. "It is madness you speak!"
"It is madness, yes--for you! Always I have watched, always I have waited; and I also have seen you bloom like a rose in the desert. To-night I am here--watching ... and he knows it! Tomorrow I am gone! Do you stay, for--him?
"Oh," she whispered fearfully, "it cannot be."
"You say true when you say I have been your only friend, Miska. To-morrow he plan that you have no friend."
He released her, and slowly, from the sleeve of his coat, slipped into view the curved blade of a native knife.
"Ali Khan Bhai Salam!" he muttered--by which formula he proclaimed himself a Thug!
Rolling his eyes in the direction of the eastern wall, he concealed the knife.
"Chunda Lal!" Miska spoke wildly. "I am frightened! Please let me go, and tomorrow----"
"To-morrow!" Chunda Lal raised his eyes, which were alight with the awful light of fanaticism. "For me there may be no tomorrow! Jey Bhowani! Yah Allah!"
"Oh, he may hear you!" whispered Miska pitifully. "Please go now. I shall know that you are near me, if----"
"I will ask your aid."
Her voice was very low.
"And if it is written that I succeed?"
Miska averted her head.
"Oh, Chunda Lal ... I cannot."
She hid her face in her hands.
Chunda Lal stood watching her for a moment in silence, then he turned toward the cellar door, and then again to Miska. Suddenly he dropped upon one knee before her, took her hand and kissed it, gently.
"I am your slave," he said, his voice shaken with emotion. "For myself I ask nothing--only your pity."
He rose, opened the door by which Miska had entered the room and went down into the cellars. She watched him silently, half fearfully, yet her eyes were filled with compassionate tears. Then, readjusting the hideous grey wig, she went up the steps and passed through the doorway into the den of the opium smokers.
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