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THE SUBLIME ORDER
Stuart awoke to a discovery so strange that for some time he found himself unable to accept its reality. He passed his hands over his face and eyes and looked about him dazedly. He experienced great pain in his throat, and he could feel that his neck was swollen. He stared down at his ankles, which also were throbbing agonisingly--to learn that they were confined in gyves attached by a short chain to a ring in the floor!
He was lying upon a deep diwan, which was covered with leopard-skins and which occupied one corner of the most extraordinary room he had ever seen or ever could have imagined. He sat up, but was immediately overcome with faintness which he conquered with difficulty.
The apartment, then, was one of extraordinary Oriental elegance, having two entrances closed with lacquer sliding doors. Chinese lamps swung from the ceiling, illuminated it warmly, and a great number of large and bright silk cushions were strewn about the floor. There were tapestries in black and gold, rich carpets and couches, several handsome cabinets and a number of tall cases of Oriental workmanship containing large and strangely bound books, scientific paraphernalia, curios and ornaments.
At the further end of the room was a deep tiled hearth in which stood a kind of chemical furnace which hissed constantly. Upon ornate small tables and pedestals were vases and cases--one of the latter containing a number or orchids, in flower.
Preserved lizards, snakes, and other creatures were in a row of jars upon a shelf, together with small skeletons of animals in frames. There was also a perfect human skeleton. Near the centre of the room was a canopied chair, of grotesque Chinese design, upon a dais, a big bronze bell hanging from it; and near to the diwan upon which Stuart was lying stood a large, very finely carved table upon which were some open faded volumes and a litter of scientific implements. Near the table stood a very large bowl of what looked like platinum, upon a tripod, and several volumes lay scattered near it upon the carpet. From a silver incense-burner arose a pencilling of blue smoke.
One of the lacquer doors slid noiselessly open and a man entered, Stuart inhaled sibilantly and clenched his fists.
The new-comer wore a cowled garment of some dark blue material which enveloped him from head to feet. It possessed oval eye-holes, and through these apertures gleamed two eyes which looked scarcely like the eyes of a human being. They were of that brilliant yellow color sometimes seen in the eyes of tigers, and their most marked and awful peculiarity was their unblinking regard. They seemed always to be open to their fullest extent, and Stuart realized with anger that it was impossible to sustain for long the piercing gaze of Fo-Hi ... for he knew that he was in the presence of "The Scorpion"!
Walking with a slow and curious dignity, the cowled figure came across to the table, first closing the lacquer door. Stuart's hands convulsively clutched the covering of the diwan as the sinister figure approached. The intolerable gaze of those weird eyes had awakened a horror, a loathing horror, within him, such as he never remembered to have experienced in regard to any human being. It was the sort of horror which the proximity of a poisonous serpent occasions--or the nearness of a scorpion....
Fo-Hi seated himself at the table.
Absolute silence reigned in the big room, except for the hissing of the furnace. No sound penetrated from the outer world. Having no means of judging how long he had been insensible, Stuart found himself wondering if the raid on the den of Ah-Fang-Fu had taken place hours before, days earlier, or weeks ago.
Taking up a test-tube from a rack on the table, Fo-Hi held it near a lamp and examined the contents--a few drops of colourless fluid. These he poured into a curious long-necked yellow bottle. He began to speak, but without looking at Stuart.
His diction was characteristic, resembling his carriage in that it was slow and distinctive. He seemed deliberately to choose each word and to give to it all its value, syllable by syllable. His English was perfect to the verge of the pedantic; and his voice was metallic and harsh, touching at time, when his words were vested with some subtle or hidden significance, guttural depths which betrayed the Chinaman. He possessed uncanny dignity as of tremendous intellect and conscious power.
"I regret that you were so rash as to take part in last night's abortive raid, Dr. Stuart," he said.
Stuart started. So he had been unconscious for many hour!
"Because of your professional acquirements at one time I had contemplated removing you," continued the unemotional voice. "But I rejoice to think that I failed. It would have been an error of judgement. I have useful work for such men. You shall assist in the extensive laboratories of my distinguished predecessor."
"Never!" snapped Stuart.
The man's callousness was so purposeful and deliberate that it awed. He seemed like one who stands above all ordinary human frailties and emotions.
"Your prejudice is natural," rejoined Fo-Hi calmly. "You are ignorant of our sublime motives, but you shall nevertheless assist us to establish that intellectual control which is destined to be the new World Force. No doubt you are conscious of a mental hiatus extending from the moment when you found the pigtail of the worthy Ah-Fang-Fu about your throat until that when you recovered consciousness in this room. It has covered a period roughly of twenty-four hours, Dr. Stuart."
"I don't believe it," muttered Stuart--and found his own voice to seem as unreal as everything else in the nightmare apartment. "If I had not revived earlier, I should never have revived at all."
He raised his hand to his swollen throat, touching it gingerly.
"Your unconsciousness was prolonged," explained Fo-Hi, consulting an open book written in Chinese characters, "by an injection which I found it necessary to make. Otherwise, as you remark, it would have been prolonged indefinitely. Your clever but rash companion was less happy."
"What!" cried Stuart--"he is dead? You fiend! You damned yellow fiend!" Emotion shook him and he sat clutching the leopard-skins and glaring madly at the cowled figure.
"Fortunately," resumed Fo-Hi, "my people--with one exception-- succeeded in making their escape. I may add that the needless scuffling attendant upon arresting this unfortunate follower of mine, immediately outside the door of the house, led to the discovery of your own presence. Nevertheless, the others departed safely. My own departure is imminent; it has been because of certain domestic details and by the necessity of awaiting nightfall. You see, I am frank with you."
"Because the grave is silent!"
"The grave, and ... China. There is no other alternative in your case."
"Are you sure that there is no other in your own?" asked Stuart huskily.
"An alternative to my returning to China? Can you suggest one?"
"The scaffold!" cried Stuart furiously, "for you and the scum who follow you!"
Fo-Hi lighted a Bunsen burner.
"I trust not," he rejoined placidly. "With two exceptions, all my people are out of England."
Stuart's heart began to throb painfully. With two exceptions! Did Miska still remain? He conquered his anger and tried to speak calmly, recognising how he lay utterly in the power of this uncanny being and how closely his happiness was involved even if he escaped with life.
"And you?" he said.
"In these matters, Dr. Stuart," replied Fo-Hi, "I have always modelled my behavior upon that of the brilliant scientist who preceded me as European representative of our movement. Your beautiful Thames is my highway as it was his highway. No one of my immediate neighbours has ever seen me or my once extensive following enter this house." He selected an empty test-tube. "No one shall see me leave."
The unreality of it all threatened to swamp Stuart's mind again, but he forced himself to speak calmly.
"Your own escape is just possible, if some vessel awaits you; but do you imagine for a moment that you can carry me to China and elude pursuit?"
Fo-Hi, again consulting the huge book with its yellow faded characters, answered him absently.
"Do you recall the death of the Grand Duke Ivan?" he said. "Does your memory retain the name of Van Rembold and has your Scotland Yard yet satisfied itself that Sir Frank Narcombe died from 'natural causes'? Then, there was Ericksen, the most brilliant European electrical expert of the century, who died quite suddenly last year. I honor you, Dr. Stuart, by inviting you to join a company so distinguished."
"You are raving! What have these men in common with me?"
Stuart found himself holding his breath as he awaited a reply--for he knew that he was on the verge of learning that which poor Gaston Max had given his life to learn. A moment Fo-Hi hesitated--and in that moment his captive recognised, and shuddered to recognise, that he won this secret too late. Then:
"The Grand Duke is a tactician who, had he remained in Europe, might well have readjusted the frontiers of his country. Van Rembold, as a mining engineer, stands alone, as does Henrik Ericksen in the electrical world. As for Sir Frank Narcombe, he is beyond doubt the most brilliant surgeon of today, and I, a judge of men, count you his peer in the realm of pure therapeutics. Whilst your studies in snake-poisons (which were narrowly watched for us in India) give you an unique place in toxicology. These great men will be some of your companions in China."
"In China, Dr. Stuart, where I hope you will join them. You misapprehend the purpose of my mission. It is not destructive, although neither I nor my enlightened predecessor have ever scrupled to remove any obstacle from the path of that world-change which no human power can check or hinder; it is primarily constructive. No state or group of states can hope to resist the progress of a movement guided and upheld by a monopoly of the world's genius. The Sublime Order, of which I am an unworthy member, stands for such a movement."
"Rest assured it will be crushed."
"Van Rembold is preparing radium in quantities hitherto unknown from the vast pitchblend deposits of Ho-Nan--which industry we control. He visited China arrayed in his shroud, and he travelled in a handsome Egyptian sarcophagus purchased at Sotherby's on behalf of a Chinese collector."
Fo-Hi stood up and crossed to the hissing furnace. He busied himself with some obscure experiment which proceeded there, and:
"Your own state-room will be less romantic, Dr. Stuart," he said, speaking without turning his head; "possibly a packing-case. In brief, that intellectual giant who achieved to much for the Sublime Order--my immediate predecessor in office--devised a means of inducing artificial catalepsy----"
"My God!" muttered Stuart, as the incredible, the appalling truth burst upon his mind.
"My own rather hazardous delay," continued Fo-Hi, "is occasioned in some measure by my anxiety to complete the present experiment. Its product will be your passport to China."
Carrying a tiny crucible, he returned to the table.
Stuart felt that his self-possession was deserting him. Madness threatened ... If he was not already mad. He forced himself to speak.
"You taunt me because I am helpless. I do not believe that those men have been spirited into China. Even if it were so, they would die, as I would die, rather than prostitute their talents to such mad infamy."
Fo-Hi carefully poured the contents of the crucible into a flat platinum pan.
"In China, Dr. Stuart," he said, "we know how to make men work! I myself am the deviser of a variant of the unduly notorious kite device and the scarcely less celebrated 'Six Gates of Wisdom.' I term it The Feast of a Thousand Ants. It is performed with the aid of African driver ant, a pair of surgical scissors and a pot of honey. I have observed you studying with interest the human skeleton yonder. It is that of one of my followers--a Nubian mute--who met with an untimely end quite recently. You are wondering, no doubt, how I obtained the frame in so short a time? My African driver ants, Dr. Stuart, of which I have three large cases in a cellar below this room, performed the task for me in exactly sixty-nine minutes."
Stuart strained frenziedly at his gyves.
"My God!" he groaned. "All I have heard of you was the merest flattery. You are either a fiend or a madman!"
"When you are enlisted as a member of the Sublime Order," said Fo-Hi softly, "and you awaken in China, Dr. Stuart--you will work. We have no unwilling recruits."
"Stop your accursed talk. I have heard enough."
But the metallic voice continued smoothly:
"I appreciate the difficulty which you must experience in grasping the true significance of this movement. You have seen mighty nations, armed with every known resource of science, at a deadlock on the battlefield. You naturally fail to perceive how a group of Oriental philosophers can achieve what the might of Europe failed to achieve. You will remember, in favour of my claims, that we command the service of the world's genius, and have a financial backing which could settle the national loans of the world! In other words, exhumation of a large percentage of the great men who have died in recent years would be impossible. Their tombs are empty."
"I have heard enough. Drug me, kill me; but spare me your confidences."
"In the crowded foyer of a hotel," continued Fo-Hi imperturbably, "of a theatre, of a concert-room; in the privacy of their home, of their office; wherever opportunity offered, I caused them to be touched with the point of a hypodermic needle such as this." He held up a small hypodermic syringe.
"It contained a minute quantity of the serum which I am now preparing--the serum whose discovery was the crowning achievement of a great scientist's career (I refer, Dr. Stuart, to my brilliant predecessor). They were buried alive; but no surgeon in Europe or America would have hesitated to certify them dead. Aided by a group of six Hindu fanatics, trained as Lughais (grave-diggers), it was easy to gain access to their resting-places. One had the misfortune to be cremated by his family--a great loss to my Council. But the others are now in China, at our headquarters. They are labouring day and night to bring this war-scarred world under the sceptre of an Eastern Emperor."
"Faugh!" cried Stuart. "The whole of that war-scarred world will stand armed before you!"
"We realise that, doctor; therefore we are prepared for it. We spoke of the Norwegian Henrick Ericksen. This is his most recent contribution to our armament."
Fo-Hi rested on long yellow hand upon a kind of model searchlight.
"I nearly committed the clumsy indiscretion of removing you with this little instrument," he said. "You recall the episode? Ericksen's Disintegrating Ray, Dr. Stuart. The model, here, possesses a limited range, of course, but the actual instrument has a compass of seven and a half miles. It can readily be carried by a heavy plane! One such plane in a flight from Suez to Port Said, could destroy all the shipping in the Canal and explode every grain of ammunition on either shore! Since I must leave England to-night, the model must be destroyed, and unfortunately a good collection of bacilli has already suffered the same fate."
Placidly, slowly, and unmoved from his habit of unruffled dignity, Fo-Hi placed the model in a deep mortar, whilst Stuart watched him speechless and aghast. He poured the contents of a large pan into the mortar, whereupon a loud hissing sound broke the awesome silence of the room and a cloud of fumes arose.
"Not a trace, doctor!" said the cowled man. "A little preparation of my own. It destroys the hardest known substance--with the solitary exception of a certain clay--in the same way that nitric acid would destroy tissue paper. You see I might have aspired to become famous among safe-breakers."
"You have preferred to become infamous among murderers!" snapped Stuart.
"To murder, Dr. Stuart, I have never stooped. I am a specialist in selective warfare. When you visit the laboratory of our chief chemist in Kiangsu you will be shown the whole of the armory of the Sublime Order. I regret that the activities of your zealous and painfully inquisitive friend, M. Gaston Max, have forced me to depart from England before I had completed my work here."
"I pray you may never depart," murmured Stuart.
Fo-Hi having added some bright green fluid to that in the flat pan, had now poured the whole into a large test-tube, and was holding it in the flame of the burner. At the moment that it reached the boiling point it became colourless. He carefully placed the whole of the liquid in a retort to which he attached a condensor. He stood up.
Crossing to a glass case which rested upon a table near the diwan he struck it lightly with his hand. The case contained sand and fragments of rock, but as Fo-Hi struck it, out from beneath the pieces of rock darted black active creatures.
"The common black scorpion of Southern India," he said softly. "Its venom is the basis of the priceless formula, F. Katalepsis, upon which the structure of our Sublime Order rests, Dr. Stuart; hence the adoption of a scorpion as our device."
He took up a long slender flask.
"This virus prepared from a glandular secretion of the Chinese swamp-adder is also beyond price. Again-the case upon the pedestal yonder contains five perfect bulbs, three already in flower, as you observe, of an orchid discovered by our chief chemist in certain forests of Burma. It only occurs at extremely rare intervals--eighty years or more--and under highly special conditions. If the other two bulbs flower, I shall be enabled to obtain from the blooms a minimum quantity of an essential oil for which the nations of the earth, if they knew its properties, would gladly empty their treasuries. This case must at all costs accompany me."
"Yet because you are still in England," said Stuart huskily, "I venture to hope that your devil dreams may end on the scaffold."
"That can never be, Dr. Stuart," returned Fo-Hi placidly. "The scaffold is not for such as I. Moreover, it is a crude and barbaric institution which I deplore. Do you see that somewhat peculiarly constructed chair, yonder? It is an adaptation, by a brilliant young chemist of Canton, of Ericksen's Disintegrating Ray. A bell hangs beside it. If you were seated in that chair and I desire to dismiss you, it would merely be necessary fro me to strike the bell once with the hammer. Before the vibration of the note had become inaudible you would be seeking your ancestors among the shades. It is the throne of the gods. Such a death is poetic."
He returned to the table and, observing meticulous care, emptied the few drops of colourless liquid from the condenser into a test-tube. Holding the tube near a lamp, he examined the contents, then poured the liquid into the curious yellow bottle. A faint vapour arose from it.
"You would scarcely suppose," he said, "that yonder window opens upon an ivy-grown balcony commanding an excellent view of that picturesque Tudor survival, Hampton Court? I apprehend, however, that the researches of your late friend, M. Gaston Max, may ere long lead Scotland Yard to my doors, although there has been nothing in the outward seeming of this house, in the circumstances of my tenancy, or in my behaviour since I have--secretly--resided here, to excite local suspicion."
"Scotland Yard men may surround the house now!" said Stuart viciously.
"One of the two followers I have retained here with me, watches at the gate," replied Fo-Hi. "An intruder seeking to enter by any other route, through the hedge, over the wall, or from the river, would cause electric bells to ring loudly in this room, the note of the bell signifying the point of entry. Finally, in the event of such a surprise, I have an exit whereby one emerges at a secret spot on the river bank. A motor-boat, suitably concealed, awaits me there."
He placed a thermometer in the neck of the yellow bottle and the bottle in a rack. He directed the intolerable gaze of his awful eyes upon the man who sat, teeth tightly clenched, watching him from the diwan.
"Ten minutes of life--in England--yet remain to you, Dr. Stuart. In ten minutes this fluid will have cooled to a temperature of 99 degrees, when I shall be enabled safely make an injection. You will be reborn in Kiangsu."
Fo-Hi walked slowly to the door whereby he had entered, opened it and went out. The door closed.
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