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The night held yet another adventure in store for Soames. His encounter with the two Scotland Yard men had finally expelled all thoughts of pleasure from his mind. The upper world, the free world, was beset with pitfalls; he realized that for the present, at any rate, there could be no security for him, save in the catacombs of Ho-Pin. He came out of the music-hall and stood for a moment just outside the foyer, glancing fearfully up and down the rain-swept street. Then, resuming the drenched raincoat which he had taken off in the theater, and turning up its collar about his ears, he set out to return to the garage adjoining the warehouse of Kan-Suh Concessions.
He had fully another hour of leave if he cared to avail himself of it, but, whilst every pedestrian assumed, in his eyes, the form of a detective, whilst every dark corner seemed to conceal an ambush, whilst every passing instant he anticipated feeling a heavy hand upon his shoulder, and almost heard the words:--"Luke Soames, I arrest you" . . . Whilst this was his case, freedom had no joys for him.
No light guided him to the garage door, and he was forced to seek for the handle by groping along the wall. Presently, his hand came in contact with it, he turned it--and the way was open before him.
Being far from familiar with the geography of the place, he took out a box of matches, and struck one to light him to the shelf above which the bell-push was concealed.
Its feeble light revealed, not only the big limousine near which he was standing and the usual fixtures of a garage, but, dimly penetrating beyond into the black places, it also revealed something else. . . .
The door in the false granite blocks was open!
Soames, who had advanced to seek the bell-push, stopped short. The match burnt down almost to his fingers, whereupon he blew it out and carefully crushed it under his foot. A faint reflected light rendered perceptible the stone steps below. At the top, Soames stood looking down. Nothing stirred above, below, or around him. What did it mean? Dimly to his ears came the hooting of some siren from the river--evidently that of a large vessel. Still he hesitated; why he did so, he scarce knew, save that he was afraid-- vaguely afraid.
Then, he asked himself what he had to fear, and conjuring up a mental picture of his white bedroom below, he planted his foot firmly upon the first step, and from thence, descended to the bottom, guided by the faint light which shone out from the doorway beneath.
But the door proved to be only partly opened, and Soames knocked deferentially. No response came to his knocking, and he so greatly ventured as to push the door fully open.
The cave of the golden dragon was empty. Half frightfully, Soames glanced about the singular apartment, in amid the mountainous cushions of the leewans, behind the pedestal of the dragon; to the right and to the left of the doorway wherein he stood.
There was no one there; but the door on the right--the door inlaid with ebony and green stone, which he had never yet seen open was open now, widely opened. He glided across the floor, his wet boots creaking unmusically, and peeped through. He saw a matting-lined corridor identical with that known as Block A. The door of one apartment, that on the extreme left, was opened. Sickly fumes were wafted out to him, and these mingled with the incense-like odor which characterized the temple of the dragon.
A moment he stood so, then started back, appalled.
An outcry--the outcry of a woman, of a woman whose very soul is assailed--split the stillness. Not from the passageway before him, but from somewhere behind him--from the direction of Block A--it came.
"For God's sake--oh! for God's sake, have mercy! Let me go! . . . let me go!" Higher, shriller, more fearful and urgent, grew the voice--"Let me go!" . . .
Soames' knees began to tremble beneath him; he clutched at the black wall for support; then turned, and with unsteady footsteps crossed to the door communicating with the corridor which contained his room. It had a lever handle of the Continental pattern, and, trembling with apprehension that it might prove to be locked, Soames pressed down this handle.
The door opened . . .
The voice sounded like that of Said. . . .
"Oh! God in Heaven help me! . . . Help!--help!" . . .
"Imsik!" . . .
Footsteps were pattering upon the stone stairs; someone was descending from the warehouse! The frenzied shrieks of the woman continued. Soames broke into a cold perspiration; his heart, which had leaped wildly, seemed now to have changed to a cold stone in his breast. Just at the entrance to the corridor he stood, frozen with horror at those cries.
"Ikfil el-bab!" came now, in the voice of Ho-Pin,--and nearer.
"Let me go! . . . only let me go, and I will never breathe a word. . . . Ah! Ah! Oh! God of mercy! not the needle again! You are killing me! . . . not the needle!" . . .
Soames staggered on to his own room and literally fell within--as across the cave of the golden dragon, behind him, someone--one whom he did not see but only heard, one whom with all his soul he hoped had not seen him--passed rapidly.
Another shriek, more frightful than any which had preceded it, struck the trembling man as an arrow might have struck him. He dropped upon his knees at the side of the bed and thrust his fingers firmly into his ears. He had never swooned in his life, and was unfamiliar with the symptoms, but now he experienced a sensation of overpowering nausea; a blood-red mist floated before his eyes, and the floor seemed to rock beneath him like the deck of a ship. . . .
That soul-appalling outcry died away, merged into a sobbing, moaning sound which defied Soames' efforts to exclude it. . . . He rose to his feet, feeling physically ill, and turned to close his door. . . .
They were dragging someone--someone who sighed, shudderingly, and whose sighs sank to moans, and sometimes rose to sobs,--across the apartment of the dragon. In a faint, dying voice, the woman spoke again:--
"Not Mr. King! . . . not Mr. King! . . . Is there no God in Heaven! . . . ah! spare me . . . spare" . . .
Soames closed the door and stood propped up against it, striving to fight down the deathly sickness which assailed him. His clothes were sticking to his clammy body, and a cold perspiration was trickling down his forehead and into his eyes. The sensation at his heart was unlike anything that he had ever known; he thought that he must be dying.
The awful sounds died away . . . then a muffled disturbance drew his attention to a sort of square trap which existed high up on one wall of the room, but which admitted no light, and which hitherto had never admitted any sound. Now, in the utter darkness, he found himself listening--listening . . .
He had learnt, during his duties in Block A, that each of the minute suites was rendered sound-proof in some way, so that what took place in one would be inaudible to the occupant of the next, provided that both doors were closed. He perceived, now, that some precaution hitherto exercised continuously had been omitted to- night, and that the sounds which he could hear came from the room next to his own--the room which opened upon the corridor that he had never entered, and which now he classified, mentally, as Block B.
What did it mean?
Obviously there had been some mishap in the usually smooth conduct of Ho-Pin's catacombs. There had been a hurried outgoing in several directions . . . a search?
And by the accident of his returning an hour earlier than he was expected, he was become a witness of this incident, or of its dreadful, concluding phases. He had begun to move away from the door, but now he returned, and stood leaning against it.
That stifling room where roses shed their petals, had been opened to-night; a chill touched the very center of his being and told him so. The occupant of that room--the Minotaur of this hideous labyrinth--was at large to-night, was roaming the passages about him, was perhaps outside his very door. . . .
Dull moaning sounds reached him through the trap. He realized that if he had the courage to cross the room, stand upon a chair and place his ear to the wall, he might be able to detect more of what was passing in the next apartment. But craven fear held him in its grip, and in vain he strove to shake it off. Trembling wildly, he stood with his back to the door, whilst muttered words, and moans, ever growing fainter, reached him from beyond. A voice, a harsh, guttural voice--surely not that of Ho-Pin--was audible, above the moaning.
For two minutes--three minutes--four minutes--he stood there, tottering on the brink of insensibility, then . . . a faint sound-- a new sound,--drew his gaze across the room, and up to the corner where the trap was situated.
A very dim light was dawning there; he could just detect the outline of an opening--a half-light breaking the otherwise impenetrable darkness.
He felt that his capacity for fear was strained to its utmost; that he could support nothing more, yet a new horror was in store for him; for, as he watched that gray patch, in it, as in a frame, a black silhouette appeared--the silhouette of a human head . . . a woman's head!
Soames convulsively clenched his jaws, for his teeth were beginning to chatter.
A whistle, an eerie, minor whistle, subscribed the ultimate touch of terror to the night. The silhouette disappeared, and, shortly afterwards, the gray luminance. A faint click told of some shutter being fastened; complete silence reigned.
Soames groped his way to the bed and fell weakly upon it, half lying down and burying his face in the pillow. For how long, he had no idea, but for some considerable time, he remained so, fighting to regain sufficient self-possession to lie to Ho-Pin, who sooner or later must learn of his return.
At last he managed to sit up. He was not trembling quite so wildly, but he still suffered from a deathly sickness. A faint streak of light from the corridor outside shone under his door. As he noted it, it was joined by a second streak, forming a triangle.
There was a very soft rasping of metal. Someone was opening the door!
Soames lay back upon the bed. This time he was past further panic and come to a stage of sickly apathy. He lay, now, because he could not sit upright, because stark horror had robbed him of physical strength, and had drained the well of his emotions dry.
Gradually--so that the operation seemed to occupy an interminable time, the door opened, and in the opening a figure appeared.
The switch clicked, and the room was flooded with electric light.
Ho-Pin stood watching him.
Soames--in his eyes that indescribable expression seen in the eyes of a bird placed in a cobra's den--met the Chinaman's gaze. This gaze was no different from that which habitually he directed upon the people of the catacombs. His yellow face was set in the same mirthless smile, and his eyebrows were raised interrogatively. For the space of ten seconds, he stood watching the man on the bed. Then:--
"You wreturn vewry soon, Mr. Soames?" he said, softly.
Soames groaned like a dying man, whispering:
"I was . . . taken ill--very ill." . . .
"So you wreturn befowre the time awranged for you?"
His metallic voice was sunk in a soothing hiss. He smiled steadily: he betrayed no emotion.
"Yes . . . sir," whispered Soames, his hair clammily adhering to his brow and beads of perspiration trickling slowly down his nose.
"And when you wreturn, you see and you hear--stwrange things, Mr. Soames?"
Soames, who was in imminent danger of becoming physically ill, gulped noisily.
"No, sir," he whispered,--tremulously, "I've been--in here all the time."
Ho-Pin nodded, slowly and sympathetically, but never removed the glittering eyes from the face of the man on the bed.
"So you hear nothing, and see nothing?"
The words were spoken even more softly than he had spoken hitherto.
"Nothing," protested Soames. He suddenly began to tremble anew, and his trembling rattled the bed. "I have been--very ill indeed, sir."
Ho-Pin nodded again slowly, and with deep sympathy.
"Some medicine shall be sent to you, Mr. Soames," he said.
He turned and went out slowly, closing the door behind him.
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