BEING THE SECOND OF A SERIES OF STORIES OF The GATES of TIEN T’ZE
THE SLANT-EYED MAN
LESLIE HOWARD GORDON
DON’S prophecy was not strictly fulfilled, however. One whole month elapsed before anything occurred to remind them that the organization of Tien T’ze still existed.
During that month the case of the police against the household of the deceased Sir Trevor Warrington collapsed, suddenly, mysteriously. The hearing was adjourned, leaving the Press and public with a moral certainty of sensational developments when it should be resumed again, yet when it was resumed the case against the accused persons was withdrawn. Further, though this, of course, was a side which the public knew nothing of, Don and Kyrie, who had been warned as witnesses for the prosecution, were never called.
The mystery of the breakdown in the case remained so for some days; then the solution fairly hurled itself upon Don and Kyrie.
The assassination of Patrick Leverton had revived in Donald Craig’s brain the dangerous and fascinating lust to hunt down the solution of the queer organization of Tien T’ze, and, as was ever the case, Don’s enthusiasm had communicated itself to Kyrie Durande. It was therefore an evening of joyous triumph for both of them when Donald Craig returned to his house in Hampstead after replying in person to a courteously worded note from Bruce Mclvor, Superintendent of the Criminal Investigation Department; for Bruce Mclvor had put forward the unique proposal that Don should place himself at the disposal of the Superintendent for the very purpose of smashing that same Tien T’ze, and, of course, what Don undertook Kyrie undertook also. Expectantly, therefore, the two sat in Don’s study at eight-thirty in the evening awaiting the promised visit from the Superintendent himself. The time set for the visit was eight forty-five, and at two minutes to that time Kyrie was set agoggle with excitement by the sound of a panting automobile engine on the drive, and a moment later the whirring of the front-door bell.
BRUCE MCIVOR, when he was shown into the study, proved to be a tallish man of perhaps thirty-five, well groomed, and with just a hint of the army officer in his clipped toothbrush moustache and upright carriage.
He acknowledged Don’s introduction of Kyrie with a quiet bow, and having been ensconced in an arm-chair and fortified with a really excellent cigar, plunged into the business in
“It is not necessary for us,” he said, “to discuss again the hypothetical details of the organization. You, Mr. Craig, were the first to introduce the matter to our notice, and our own subsequent enquiries all point to the assumption that the organization only differs from a hundred other such criminal bodies in two material details: in its scope it is apparently world-wide, and its members seem for the most part to be Chinamen. Sufficient, then, to say that as a criminal body it is considered so important a menace that I have received instructions from the highest authority to handle personally all matters connected with it. Now, you believe, do you not, that the executive part of Tien T’zels work is in the hands of four lieutenants, named after the four principal gates to the Imperial City in Peking—namely, ‘Wu Men,’ ‘Tung An Men,’ ‘Hou Men,’ and ‘H’si An Men’?” Don nodded, and the Superintendent continued. “In that case,” he said, “perhaps this may interest you.” He took from his pocket-book a short strip of kinematograph negative and handed it to Don.
Don held the little strip up to the light and squinted through it, while Kyrie ran from her seat and looked over his shoulder. The strip contained three complete pictures and part of a fourth; each picture showed a large head and shoulder portrait of a man—technically known as a “close up”—and the man was presumably a Chinaman, but that which focused the attention was not so much the head as the background. This background was presumably a lightcolored wall, and sketched upon it appeared in greyish lines a rough St. Andrew’s Cross encircled by an irregular ellipse, while against the lower left-hand arm of the cross stood a rough star.
Don handed the negative back.
“Undoubtedly it is the sign of Tien T’ze,” he said; “it is an exact duplicate of one drawn by poor old Pat Leverton before they got him, and if Pat was right that star represents the ‘H’si An Men’ branch of the organization.”
“Exactly,” Mclvor replied. “A fire occurred last night under rather suspicious circumstances at the studio of the Diamond Motion Picture Company, who had just finished filming a picture of which this is a portion; the rest of the picture is completely destroyed, but fortunately this portion was found beneath a fallen piece of masonry.”
“You think that it’s because of this picture the studio caught fire?” Kyrie questioned.
“To tell you the truth,” he said, “I’m not very interested in the fire, except that it seems to have furnished us with this clue to a possible meeting-place or headquarters of a branch of Tien T’ze. The fire may have been an accident; the fact that the body of the night watchman was found with the head badly smashed at some little distance from the fire rather suggests that it wasn’t, but, after all, he may have been hit by a falling beam and crawled to the point where he was found. The point which immediately concerns us is the diagram on the wall. Unfortunately, the affair is rather complicated for us by the fact that no fewer than five separate spots around Limehouse were used for this particular portion of the picture; it seems that the producer was trying for a certain light effect, and whenever he happened to be near a suitably colored wall at a time when the light was just as he wanted it, he put his actor in position and took a few feet of exposure. The whole five
sections were shown to him at the same time; he selected one and destroyed the others, but he has no means of telling at which precise spot the selected negative was taken. Further, he swears that on none of the walls which he photographed was there any mark; he needed a perfectly plain wall, and he felt certain that he had got it until this piece of negative was shown, him. Incidentally this is one of the discarded portions, and therefore if Tien T’ze fired the studio in order to prevent it from going to the public, they had their trouble for nothing, and brought to our notice a clue which .otherwise we should never have got hold of. However, as I say, the fire and its causes are of no immediate importance; what I came here for to-night was first of all to ask you two whether, after further consideration, you are prepared to undertake the dangerous mission of hunting down this Tien T’ze?”
Don smiled quietly.
“Mr. Mclvor,” he answered, “you are at the moment appearing to us in the light of a fairy godmother. You are putting us in the way of realizing a dream of our lives.”
Mclvor nodded solemnly.
“I’m glad you look at it like that,” he replied. “I’ve got an idea that we shall need all the enthusiasm we can work up before we finish with the job.” He stopped for a moment, and his eyes rested speculatively on Kyrie. “I rather hesitate in drawing you into this, Miss Durande,” he added.
TY YRLE’S eyes twinkled.
“You’ll hesitate a great deal more if you don’t,” she said. “You’ve no idea how useful I can be when I want.”
“You fully realize that you will be exposed to very formidable dangers from the moment that you undertake this work?” he pointed out.
“Mr. Mclvor,”—Kyrie spoke very seriously now—“I have shared very formidable dangers with Don in almost every part of the map which is left blank. Call it ignorance if you like, but really I’m not scared of Tien T’ze.”
Mclvor nodded with energetic satisfaction. “Then,” he said, “we’ll confirm the compact. We start work to-morrow morning exploring for some sign of that diagram. We’ll meet at Stepney Station at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. Come dressed in a way that will enable us to go anywhere.”
“That’ll be easy,” he answered; “we’ve done it before. Kyrie becomes a lady just hovering on the verge of respectability, and I become a certain Mr. Chip Hamel, a downeast Yankee sailor, who is in town to dispose of a doubtful cargo.”
“Splendid!” Mclvor rose to his feet. “Then look out for Mr. Harry Todd, who buys just such cargoes. Good-night.”
As far as Don and Kyrie were concerned the search in Limehouse was a frost, but Bruce Mclvor manifested a lively interest in a certain little tobacco-shop which stood at the entrance to a blind alley, and the two accepted his judg-
THE little tobacco-shop stood at the corner of a main thoroughfare and a blind alley. Viewed by day, it was just a dingy little shop, and now—at nine-thirty in the evening—it was a dimly-lit, frowsy hole, breathing an atmosphere of squalor and dejection rather than of vice and crime. Occasionally a hunched figure crept from its dim doorway into the rather better illumination of the main road, hovered for a moment in the yellow light of street lamps, and then dissolved into some black gash of a doorway or a passage.
In the main thoroughfare, some hundred yards from the shop, a taxi drew up at the curb beneath the arc light of a public-house and disgorged two men and a girl. One of the two men, a flashily-dressed individual resplendent in much cheap jewellery and a rolled-gold watch-chain, paid the taxi-man and passed through the swing-doors into the bar, leaving for a moment the second man and the girl still on the pavement. This latter couple took, perhaps, a trifle more placing than he who was obviously their leader. Of the two, the man, perhaps, was the easier to locate; the chances were that he was a seafaring man; his clothing was röugh, and his face, though showing some faint trace of good looks, was seamed into lines which had never been set
there by the clean things of life. Now he caught the girl by the arm, and with a little jerk checked the momentary hesitation which she had shown in following in the wake of him who had gone before.
“Say, you aint scared of this hop-joint, kid?” the man questioned, with an accent which would have revealed his n ationality without the aid of his words.
The girl glanced at him from under her brows a trifle doubtfully, then she twisted her arms from his grasp.
“Scared, no,” she answered tersely; then, with a movement betokening either desperation or an abandonment to fate, she dashed open the doors and passed into the stale atmosphere within. Close behind her lounged the seafaring man, his hands in his pockets, and his eyes sharp and quick-moving.
IN THE glaring light of the saloon the seafaring man lolled back against the bar and studied the company dispassionately; each person in turn he subjected to a slow, insolent glance. Starting with the girl beside him, his gaze moved slowly over her close-knit, clean-cut figure clad in the short skirt and grey, close-fitting sweater which her flung-back coat revealed, and perhaps his eyes rested on her a trifle longer than on the rest of the company; from her, however, his scrutiny passed at last to the flashilydressed individual on the other side of her, and then over the others.
For the most part, they were not a pretty lot, these others—wharf-rats, water-rats, all rats, he decided—rats, and some not even such clean vermin, the crushed, the dejected, the cowed, the vicious, the slugger, and the poisonous kind of reptile who slithered nastily through the dark places and struck savagely from unseen corners; they were all here, mixed, perhaps, with a smattering of desperately poor but fairly honest drifters, but only a smattering.
The flashily-dressed individual had ordered drinks and immediately entered into a discussion with his companion, while the girl leaned her shoulders against the bar so that she was facing the door. For perhaps half an hour the discussion between the two proceeded in a kind of rapidlyincreasing crescendo of tensity. It was an obscure discussion touching cargoes and commissions, and very soon it grew obvious that a breach of the peace was imminent; already the bar-tender was glancing frequently and anxiously in the direction of the two; then the swing-doors parted and a man entered.
He was a tall man, above the average, and his clothing was just a trifle cleaner than that of the other occupants of the bar. Yet at first glance it was difficult to say why he caught and held the attention as he undoubtedly did. To the girl standing between the two disputants, his entrance appeared to have no special interest; she glanced at him casually, and then—she looked again. He was abreast of her now and passing up the long bar-room; his movements had a certain dignity about them, and at the same time a certain lithe grace; he was a youngish man, black-haired and sallow-complexioned; then suddenly she placed him— he was a Chinaman. His features were finely cut for an Oriental, his skin only faintly yellow, yet there was no mistaking the eyes with their upward tilt of the outer corners. She turned to watch him up the room, and in doing so she trod on the flashily-dressed man’s foot, but that latter was too engaged in his argument to notice her. The Chinaman passed on and up to a small door labelled “SmokingRoom;” through this door he disappeared.
THE discussion now reached its climax, abruptly words ceased between them, the flashily-dressed man brushed the girl out of his way and stepped close to the seafaring man; for a moment they stood glaring into each other’s eyes, then with a sudden movement the flashily-dressed man turned away and moved higher up the bar. The other laughed wickedly.
“Wisest thing you could ’a’ done, Todd, my son,” he remarked to the retreating figure; “you can’t start no rough-house with Chip Hamel an’ get away with it, not by one hell of a long way.” Then he turned back to the bar and ordered another drink.
Todd moved up the long room until he was as far from Chip as he could get, then he sauntered in at the smokeroom door. As the door closed behind him, Todd glanced around the room; its only other occupant was the yellowfaced man, who sat in a corrter drinking something from a wine-glass. Todd nodded to him cheerily.
“Evening, mister,” he said; “hope I don’t intrude.”
The sallow-faced man gave a little indefinable gesture. “Not in the least,” he answered politely.
Todd sank into a chair beside him.
“Fairly warm in here, aint it?” he remarked conversationally.
The sallow-faced man admitted that it was.
“Lot more comfortable than sitting in the public bar,” Todd pursued.
The sallow-faced man agreed.
Chip had been drinking deeply, and Todd had kept pace with him, though the fact was a little less apparent in Todd. Now he made one last desperate appeal to engage his new-found companion in conversation.
“Have a drink?” he asked.
The sallow-faced man was obliged; he already had one.
'T'ODD rose to his feet, and, moving to the little window -*• which gave into the bar, he demanded a large whisky and splash. With the glass in his hand he returned to his seat and sat down heavily, so heavily that the whisky lopped over the rim of the glass and splashed on to his clothing. Todd swore uncertainly, and pulling out his handkerchief proceeded to rub his trouser leg; but with the handkerchief came something else—a small light-colored object which fell on to the polished floor with a little rattle. At the sound Todd ceased his rubbing and looked around for the object, but he failed to find it until, raising his eyes a little, he discovered that the sallow-faced man was holding it out to him. It was a small rectangle of ivory, and bore, carved on one face, a St. Andrew’s Cross surrounded by an ellipse. Hastily Todd recovered his property and thrust it into a waistcoat pocket, then he looked at the sallow man’s face.
The slant eyes were fixed on his expressionlessly.
Todd laughed uncomfortably.
“A charm,” he explained, “brings me luck. Silly idea, isn’t it? Wouldn’t have lost it for worlds. Given me by an old friend, dead now, poor chap. Sentiment, silly idea.” He laughed again, took a deep drink, and looked at the sallow-faced man once more. Still the slant eyes were on him, and still they were expressionless, the face a blank.
“Have a drink?” Todd suggested again hurriedly.
For a full minute longer the slant eyes never wavered. Then the sallow-faced man spoke.
“Sentiment is not foolish,” he said,
“but superstition is. How can luck affect our lives when all gates lead to.....”
Came just the suspicion of a pause, and in that fractional pause Todd saw daylight.
“Tien T’ze,” Todd whispered quickly,
—“all gates lead to Tien T’ze.”
Still with his face expressionless the sallow-faced man nodded.
“Which gate do you go by?” he asked.
“Tung An Men,” Todd replied; “and you?”
“H’si An Men,” the sallow-faced man answered.
“Good!” Todd hitched his chair forward, all signs of drunkenness gone from him now. “I thought you might be when I saw you come in. Now, see here, I need help: can I have it?”
Came again that indefinable gesture from the sallowfaced man.
“Perhaps,” he said—“for what purpose?”
' I 'ODD leaned closer still.
“There is not room for you and me and that man out in the bar there, the tall fellow who looks like a seafaring man and calls himself Chip Hamel,” he explained. “He got into touch with me this evening—Lord knows how— over a supply of opium he said he’s just landed. And with credentials from a trusted source, too, but they were forged most likely. Anyhow, I’m telling you he’s no more a ‘hop-dealer’ than the King of England; he’s a ‘tec,’ that’s what he is, and he’s got to be got out of the locality.”
Very faintly the sallow-faced man smiled.
“Violence so near home is not good policy,” he remarked.
Todd nodded energetically.
“I’m with you there,” he agreed; “the disappearance of a detective around here would just about put the lid on it, but there’s another way. Suppose things happened like this; when he and the girl leave here an automobile runs up and stops a few steps behind them; a fellow who seems to be pretty drunk comes along and cannons into this socalled Chip Hamel, there’s a little scrummage, the drunken fellow breaks away, at the same moment the car starts again, and Chip finds the girl has disappeared; the drunk jumps aboard the car as it passes, and it whizzes off. The obvious solution to Chip is that the girl has been
carried off in the car; he’ll follow it; we’ll contrive that he shan’t lose the trail, and we’ll lead him somewhere out of harm’s way.”
‘‘And the girl?” the sallow-faced man questioned.
“She stays,” Todd replied, “here, right in the heart of things—for a time.”
Slowly the slant eyes took on just the vestige of an expression, just the feeblest ghost of amuse-
“It is terrible to contemplate how readily Tung An Men sheds blood,” the sallow-faced man remarked; then he rose to his feet.
“Detain Chip Hamel for ten minutes,” he said, and passed out into the bar.
Ten minutes later Todd gave over his further attempt to renew friendly relations with Chip Hamel, and that latter, accompanied by the girl, passed out. into the street.
CONTRARY to what is usually the case, the transition from the warm atmosphere of the bar to the cool of the night appeared to sober Chip, for he moved beside the girl with a steady step.
Thirty seconds of walking brought them to the little tobacco-shop at the mouth of the blind alley. And here it happened. A closed automobile snorted up to the curb behind them, and at the same time a filthily clad individual cannoned right into Chip; in less than a second the seafaring man found himself embroiled in a scrap which terminated as suddenly as it had begun. His adversary broke away from him, the closed automobile roared into activity again, shot past them, and in passing received Chip’s attacker on its step as neatly as if he had been placed there. Then Chip made the discovery; the girl was gone. He wasted no breath in shouting for assistance; the attack and. the retreating car told their own tale. He whirled in his tracks and looked about him. Crawling opportunely towards him out of the gloom was a taxi. He hailed it and leapt aboard.
“Double fare if you keep in touch with that car ahead,” he shouted to the driver, “and a fiver for yourself.”
The unclean lines had smoothed out of “Chip Hamel’s” face now, and he had lost his strong American accent, but in place his mouth had taken on a firm set, and behind the grey of his eyes lurked a light the nature of which it was difficult to determine.
KYRLE DURANDE lay face downwards in the cellar of a house in the alley at the rear of the tobacco-shop, with a gag between her teeth and her wrists bound behind her back.
The part she had to play was a difficult one. Mclvor had decided that someone must enter the tobacco-shop and collect information, and his scheme had been to gain admittance for Kyrie under the guise of using her as a means for removing Don. Now that she was here it remained for her to escape from her cellar and explore the house in which she was, before the police raid, which Mclvor had arranged, should take place. To do this she had exactly two hours, and she realized that she must do just the right thing at just the right time if disaster was not to overtake Mclvor’s daring campaign and incidentally herself. She knew Mclvor’s time-table by heart, and therefore she was able to time her own actions, but the danger lay either in her miscalculation of time or in Mclvor’s timetable being thrown out of gear. The latter was beyond her control, but the former she tried to render as unlikely as possible by a careful and monotonous counting of seconds. Her aim must be to keep quiet until the last possible moment, and then, allowing herself a narrow margin before the police raid, to escape from her place of confinement, to make as complete a survey of the house as possible, and to avoid being caught, as eventually she must be caught, until such time as the speedy arrival of the police should save her from the resentment of H’si An Men’s confederates. To this end she lay still on the cellar floor and carefully counted away one hour and a half, then she acted.
When she had been seized a cloth had been thrown over
her head, so that she had not seen by what route she had been conveyed to the cellar. Once in the cellar, however, the cloth had been removed. She had been gagged and her wrists had been bound behind her back with a short length of stout cord, otherwise she was not secured in any way, and therefore to free her hands was a simple matter, more especially as she had concealed in the pocket of her coat,
as a precaution against just such a situation, a longbladed hunting-knife. With a little manipulation she extracted the knife from her pocket and sawed at the.rope; in a moment it gave. She climbed to her feet, freed her mouth of the gag, and then began a careful exploration of the cellar, aided by an electric torch, without which she never allowed herself to embark on anything.
' I 'HE rays of the torch established nothing of interest.
-*• She was in a very ordinary-looking cellar, from which a short flight of stone steps led up to a trap-door. Propping her torch in a corner so that its rays were away from the trap-door, she swiftly divested herself of her coat. It might be necessary at any moment now for her to resort to very quick movement, which the heavy coat would hamper. Then, holding her torch in one hand, she slowly mounted the stone steps until her head was brushing the trap-door. Here she halted, and thrusting the torch into the pocket of her skirt she listened intently. From the room above came not a breath of sound. Raising her hands, she pressed gently on the trap-door; it was heavy, but not secured in any way, and it gave upwards to her pressure. Very slowly she raised it until one edge was an inch above the flooring, then she stopped and listened again. The crack around the edge of the trap revealed that no light burned in the room above. Quietly she raised the trap until the aperture was sufficiently wide for her to squeeze through. Once in the dark room, she closed the trap again and strained her eyes through the darkness. On one side she could make out the faint rectangle of a window. Cautiously she felt her way towards it and looked out. The immediate foreground was in deep gloom, but she decided that she was looking out on to a small square yard at the end of which a low wall obscured all but a narrow strip of the river which flowed beyond it. On the far bank of the river a lone pinpoint of light sent a little pencil of gold across the water. She turned from the window, and taking out the electric torch she carefully covered the lens with her hand and then switched on the light; very cautiously she allowed a tiny beam to play round the room. It was empty, and looked to have been so for generations; the rotting wallpaper was hanging in strips and corners from the walls, a fall of soot and plaster choked the fireplace and had blown in across the floor until it had completely carpeted it with a coating which showed her own footprints clearly. Certainly, she decided, this room had remained undisturbed for some considerable period, but even as she came to this decision she altered it. The prying gleam of the torch had picked
up something which took her swiftly and quietly across the room. As she had stood, with her back to the window, she had been facing a door set in the opposite wall; now, by the aid of the torch, she discovered that from this door, across the comer of the room, ran a narrow strip of flooring which had been swept clean, as a crossing is swept across a muddy
Two conclusions seemed possible to account for this: a heavy package might have been dragged across the floor, or the dust might have been deliberately cleared in order that people might pass and repass without leaving footmarks; the former was perhaps the more nearly probable of the two, yet both seemed to be fairly improbable, since while one end ©f the swept path terminated by the door, the other fetched up short against one wall. She crossed to this point and examined the wall with the utmost care, and when shè had finished she was prepared to swear that there was no concealed door there. Yet someone had walked along that strip of swept floor very recently, for a closer examination of it revealed a single track of footsteps, the wet mud of which had not yet
Recklessly now she flashed the torch about her. The room was entirely empty, the walls were solid, the floor also, except for the one trap-door through which she had come, and which was in the opposite comer of the room to the swept path. There seemed only one explanation: whoever had owned the muddy boots had gone upwards, through a concealed trap in the ceiling. Yet how? Possibly by means of a ladder lowered from above. She turned the torch on the ceiling, and this idea took stronger possession of her. The ceiling was papered, and the design on the paper took the form of large squares; also, the paper on the ceiling was intact, while that of the walls was coming away in strips. She determined that she must find some means of examining that ceiling. The easiest way seemed to be to go outside the room and ascend the stairs to the room above.
CHE tiptoed softly to the door, listened for a moment, ^ and then pushed it open. The narrow hall was in darkness, and once again her torch revealed the extreme of dilapidation. She turned towards the stairs and then stopped in her tracks. From the fifth step to the top of the flight the whole lot had collapsed in a jumble of rotten wood, bricks, and plaster; it was impossible to reach the first floor of the house that way.
She thought swiftly for a moment, then she went back to the room and once more examined the swept path across the floor. Foot by foot she went over it until she came to a point where the man with the muddy boots had stopped, the toes of his boots actually touching the wainscoting. Then she got another brain-wave. She placed her feet directly over the last two footprints and exerted a steadily increasing pressure of her toes; the effect was almost instantaneous. A short section of boarding right against the wainscoting gave beneath her pressure, while simultaneously one of the square sections of the ceiling hinged back and a rope ladder descended, yet through this aperture no glimmer of light showed. Unhesitatingly, Kyrie stepped on to the bottom rung of the ladder and ascended, having first once more extinguished her torch. She went steadily up until with her hand she felt the edge of the aperture in the ceiling; then she stopped for a moment to listen.
Perhaps the thing about the house which was most trying to her nerves was the absolute silence; the atmosphere of death and decay seemed to pervade every corner, and was in no wise relieved by the smoothly-working piece of mechanism which she was making use of; not a breath of sound entered from the outside. Even this person whose footprints she had found had moved above her head so silently that she had heard no whisper of the sound of his passing. And now, when every law of probability told her
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that she should be close to the inhabitants of the place, the baffling silence still reigned . Then suddenly, as she stood there, there swept over her for the first time the thought that perhaps these people had received warning of the coming of the police and decamped. The thought was vastly discouraging, for it meant, if it were correct, that she had spent two hours of personal discomfort and mental strain to no purpose, to say nothing of the shattering of Bruce Mclvor’s plans.
NOW that the thought had been born it gathered force every second. A little less cautiously, she felt around her in the space, a few inches deep, between the ceiling of the one room and the floor of the other; then she ascended another step of the ladder and allowed her fingers to stray over the under surface of the floor above; here in a moment she felt indications of another trap-door which rose easily at her touch, and a second later she stepped out into another room, also in pitch darkness, while the ladder, relieved of her weight, wound back on a spring roller—or so she judged from the slight sound.
Once again she stood still and listened intently; then she stooped to close the trap behind her, but even as she bent to reach it the first faint sound set her heart beating at a slightly increased pace. It was a soft pattering sound, rather like the footfalls of an animal on a hard surface, and it was quite impossible to locate it. She straightened up and waited. The sound stopped abruptly.
For just three minutes she stood motionless in the pitch blackness, every nerve of her strained to the uttermost to catch that sound again and place it, but the silence remained undisturbed.
At last she cautiously drew her electric torch from her pocket. She realized fully the danger of showing a light, but she realized equally the futility of standing in this utter darkness. After all, she was not there to preserve her own safety, but to make some very definite discoveries, discoveries which could only be made by the aid of a light. She pressed forward the button of the torch and swung the eone of light about the room. It was a smallish square room, and one glance revealed that whoever the occupant might be he was a man with a keen eye to the maximum of comfort. The wall was papered in deep red, the floor was uncarpeted save for one large Turkey rug, and the boards were highly polished; one wall was almost wholly taken up by a great book-case, beautifully carved and well stocked; in a corner stood a tall smoking-cabinet; before the fireplace, in which stood an electric radiator, was a low divan completely covered by a black and gold rug of embroidered silk and of unusual beauty; for the rest, a carved ebony table, a few red-seated chairs of the “Abbot” variety, and, at one side of the room, a heavy ebony writing-table, completed the furnishings. All this she took in in the first sweep of her torch—this and the fact that there was no one save herself in the room.
AND then, even as she made the first movement to cross to the writingtable, the torch was suddenly jerked from her hand—jerked forward as though someone had been standing before her and snatched it away.
With a sharp rattle it fell on the polished floor, the bulb smashed, and its light went
Confident of an attack, she swiftly altered her position; but if her sense of hearing could be relied upon, no attack was attempted. After that rattling fall of her torch the silence had closed in again as completely as ever.
Now her nerves began to trouble her. It seemed that invisible eyes were watching her through the blackness, that out in the heavy gloom weird terrors were mouthing silently and vindictively at her, mocking her futile efforts to see them, lying in wait and deliberately delaying the moment when they should spring upon her; her fancy suggested cold, invisible hands reaching out to seize her; her ears tricked her into believing that she heard stealthy movements behind her; her eyes tricked her into seeing in the pitch blackness unusual, terror-breeding shapes of still greater blackness. Now she was certain someone
was breathing close to her face; she shot out her arm in the darkness and encountered nothing; then it seemed something stirred against the bottom of her skirt; came a moment when she was almost prepared to swear that over her right shoulder an invisible face was held close to her own, that a soft breathing was stirring the hair at her temple. Again she struck savagely at the fancied presence, and again she encountered nothing.
Suddenly, with an unexpectedness which clutched at her heart, a voice spoke out of the darkness—a soft, slightly sibilant voice which sounded to be a few feet away and directly in front of her.
“Is it not indiscreet of a young lady to penetrate into the private sanctum of an unknown man?” the voice questioned.
But for one breathless gasp at the first sound of the voice, she remained silent, and the voice continued:
“From your silence I must take it that you disagree with me. Indiscretion is not a term suited to your actions. Perhaps you are right in that; shall we put it this way, then? Is it not extremely ill-advised for a young lady of your age and charm to enter the private apartment of such a one as H’si An Men, the Gate of Tien T’ze?”
L'OR a moment the voice ceased again,
. and in that moment Kyrie recovered her nerve; thrusting her hands out before her, she crept quietly in the direction of the voice. Five complete steps forward she took, then she pulled up short; her hands had come in contact with the wall of the room.
At the same moment the voice spoke again, and now it was away to her right.
“The Machiavellian scheme of tracking down H’si An Men by means of a woman,” it said, “is almost as diverting to contemplate as the refreshing artlessness which has characterized several other actions of Mr. Bruce Mclvor.”
She turned swiftly and groped for the speaker, and still she encountered nothing. Almost immediately the voice resumed behind her.
“You came here, my dear young lady, to catch a glimpse of H’si An Men. Then carry in your memory the knowledge that for some minutes you have already conversed with that august individual, for I am he. This thought may perhaps help to brighten your old age, if your somewhat unladylike and inquisitive habits and my peiv sonal welfare admit of your reaching that honorable estate.”
The instant the voice had sounded behind her Kyrie had swung round and advanced on it for a third time, and now, as it ceased speaking, she walked right against a human body. For a fraction of a second she delayed to act. Twice she had felt for this man where she was certain he stood, and twice she had failed to touch him; now that she had done so, her momentary surprise caused just that fractional delay. Two arms shot round her, crushing her own to her sides and holding her like a steel hoop; behind her sounded twice that padding sound, her arms were seized from behind, drawn firmly back, and a thin cord bit viciously into the flesh of her wrists.
Suddenly, very faintly, and from some distance, it seemed, there rose a shrill whirring sound—a police whistle.
The arms about her stiffened, the hands at work at her wrists jerked the thin cord a degree tighter and made a swift knot, and a second later a pad of something was thrust between her teeth. From H’si An Men, whose arms were still about her, came a whispered sibilant, which was replied to by the man behind her. Two hands stole softly up her arms, passed the cord around them, and drew her elbows together in the small of her back; next the hands drew that vicious thin cord around her ankles and bound them; then the encircling arms of H’si An Men lowered her to the ground.
Throughout the proceedings she had not struggled; the fact that they were binding her so thoroughly had proved that for the moment they did not contemplate her death, and therefore it followed that by remaining passive she stood a chance of being able to catch at least a glimpse of H’si An Men.
The whirring of the police whistle sounded again, and this time it was appreciably louder. From the darkness around her came again that sibilant whis-
per; again came the soft padding sound, then a metallic snap which sounded like an electric-light switch, but no light disturbed the blackness. The padding sound seemed to hover about her incessantly now: once a foot struck against her, and a soft ejaculation was followed by a sharp kick in her
SUDDENLY from below came a fresh sound, a dull boom, followed by the heavy tread of men in the room below, and then the mutter of voices
In a flash it came to her that all trace of her own footprints and that swept path in the room below had been obliterated by the action of that switch which she had heard manipulated. The room below would contain abundant proof of long disuse, and well might the astute Bruce Mclvor be pardoned for not subjecting it to a close examination. Yet Mclvor had to be warned that the room above his head was occupied; there was only one way to warn him, and that was by striking her feet sharply on the floor. Swiftly she rolled on to her face, bent her legs at the knee, and then struck downwards with the toes of her shoes, but her feet never reached the floor. An invisible hand caught the loose end of the cord about her ankles and drew it powerfully upwards, upwards, until the lower part of her body was clear of the ground and her weight rested on the upper part of her chest. In this position she was robbed completely of all power of move-
The silence had closed in about her now, the soft padding had ceased; from below came the sound of footsteps crossing the room and entering the hall; voices, a trifle more muffled now, growled for a moment; then followed the noise of shooting bolts, and finally the boom of the front door. Bruce Mclvor had drawn off his men. Feebly she worked her fingers, savagely she tried to get an inch of movement out of her arms, then her ankles were lowered to the floor again.
And now, for the first time, genuine panic began to threaten her. Mclvor had failed to find her; it appeared that he had failed even to suspect the upper floor of the house; no doubt the appearance of the hall and the room below, added to the broken-down staircase, had looked conclusive enough. She was abandoned into the hands of these invisible people who, it seemed, moved in the dark with the ease of cats. Apparently her captors did not mean to kill her at once, but there was a terrifying possibility that they meant to do infinitely worse; that'quiet, soft-toned voice which had spoken to'her out of the darkness had contained in it the very essence of abysmal cruelty.
Came a sharp metallic click, and the light of an electric globe flooded the room. She turned her head and discovered herself to be lying at the very feet of an immaculately clad man in European dress. He was a small, rather elderly individual, possessed of a yellow skin, a thin pencilled moustache, and evil little slant'eyes. He was seated in a heavy carved chair, his gaze fixed ironically upon her.
For a long time he gazed fixedly at her, while a smile slowly twisted his unpleasant mouth; then he stretched out one patentleather-clad foot and tapped her gently on the shoulder.
“Is it not the height of folly,” he said, “when you have destroyed the tiger’s lair to place yourself amongst the ruins until the tiger returns? That is not intended to be a question, since I realize your inability to reply. It is intended, my dear young lady, merely to give you food for reflection during what, I fear, will be a long and uncomfortable journey and a still longer and more uncomfortable—eh, may we say captivity? During that captivity it is extremely unlikely that you will find occasion to think of any matter other than yourself, but should you do so, you may find it instructive to consider that the painful end to which your life has been brought is entirely due to your impolitic desire to look too closely upon a lieutenant of Tien T’ze.”
E ROSE to his feet, and simultaneously another figure moved into Kyrle’>s range of vision, another Chinaman, clad this time in the blue smock of Ms race. H’si An Men issued an order, and the second Chinaman disappeared from the room; in less than a minute he was'back again, carrying an overcoat, silk hat, and ebony stick. Expeditiously he helped
H’si An Men into the overcoat, and then handed him the hat and stick. Again H’si An Men issued an order, accompanied this time with a careless rap with his stick on Kyrle’s body, as though she had been an article of luggage.
The second Chinaman stooped and lifted her; without effort he carried her across the room and laid her on the floor close to the trap-door through which she had come. This trap he next proceeded to open, and then to lower the rope ladder; that done, he shot one glance at his chief, and in response to a mere lowering of H’si An Men’s eyelids descended the ladder. H’si An Men laid his hat and stick on the floor, and seizing Kyrle’s ankles drew her to the edge of the trap. For a moment he straightened up and took one final look around the room; then he stepped close to the edge of the trap and, bending, sent one sentence down to the hearer in the room below.
And then it was that inspiration came to Kyrie. Quick as a flash she swung her legs forcibly against H’si An Men’s. The result was instantaneous: the lieutenant of Tien T’ze lost his balance, pitched forward through the square aperture in the floor and crashed on to the head and shoulders of his retainer beneath.
Slowly and painfully Kyrie worked her body round, until her face was over the open trap; below, the room was in utter darkness save for one irregular patch where the light from the room above shone down through the square hole.
In this patch of light two faces, sallow and unreal, gazed up at the girl with fixed eyes staring from heads which lolled clumsily on their shoulders.
TYYRLE DURANDE squirmed back from the open trap with difficulty. Each moment now was reducing the narrow margin of possible movement which her bonds allowed her. The light still burned, and anxiously she took in every detail of her surroundings.
She had given up hope of help from the outside now. Bruce Mclvor had, without doubt, decided that she had made her escape, and some considerable time must elapse before her continued absence would cause sufficient alarm to give rise to a search being made for her.
Her eyes came to rest on a partially open door at the far end of the room; beyond this door no light burned, nor could she detect the slightest sound within the house. She drew some little encouragement from this, but not a great deal; if the house was actually empty at the moment, it seemed likely to remain so for some hours to come, since any member of the H’si An Men branch who had chanced to escape McIvor’s raid would be likely to keep clear of the locality for a space. At the same time, the chances were greatly in favor of Tien T’ze agents arriving before any search party "which Mclvor would send out. Further, she could not be sure whether H’si An Men himself or his retainer were dead or merely stunned.
Her safety, it seemed, depended entirely upon her own efforts. Yet what effort could she make? She was bound firmly and scientifically; by dint of rolling across the floor, or possible hitching herself forward a few inches at a time, she could change her position and perhaps escape from the room itself by the dark doorway, but that seemed to mark the maximum of her liberty.
She twisted her head desperately; the gag was choking her ; it seemed to be stifling her brain as well as her voice. The first thing, she decided, must be to try every plan of getting rid of it.
• At the cost of more than one painful movement, she twisted on to her knees and managed to cross to a corner of the great book-case. Here, using a projecting ledge as a lever, she succeeded at last in forcing the bandage down under her chin, and that once accomplished it was a simple matter to get rid of the pad between her teeth. This successfully achieved, her spirits revived a little, but her efforts had been exhausting and she was compelled to rest a while.
Now her principal trouble lay in the pain which her bonds were causing her; the thin cord was biting into her flesh. Her arms were practically helpless, but she found that by sitting back on her heels she could reach the knot of the cord around her ankles. For ten minutes she worked patiently, and at the end of that Qme she had no more than loosened the skilfullytied knot. It was going to be a long job, yet she had proved it possible of accom-
plishment and the advantage of having her feet free was sufficiently apparent to hold her at the task.
SHE rested her fast-numbing fingers for a moment, then she attacked the knot again. It was a desperately painful operation, for the cord, gripping her wrists and elbows, cut off the circulation from her hands completely and turned every movement of her hands into an agony, and warned her that she must hurry if she were to achieve her object before her hands became completely helpless.
Suddenly she ceased her efforts. From where she was kneeling she faced the partially open door, and now she" had caught a glimpse of something stirring in the darkness beyond. With widening eyes she stared at the narrow opening, striving to recognize the nature of the thing which stirred. It was a dim grey shape, rendered but barely visible by the light from the room in which she was—a thin, formless something which rose and fell and swayed gently.
Abruptly she placed it, and the realization sent her furiously again at the task of freeing her ankles. That grey, formless thing was smoke; the house was on fire!
In the.firsLmoment of her realization she came near to" losing her grip upon herself, but with a mighty mental effort she checked.the panic which threatened to overcome her. Now, more than ever, there was need for haste and a freeness from that fumbling which panic brings.
That swaying smoke-cloud seemed to promise her immunity from a further meeting with the Tien T’ze men, but it offered as an alternative a more terrible ending to the episode. It appeared that H’si An Men, having decided that, since it had once been marked by the police, the house was now useless for his purpose, had fired the place a few moments before the time arranged for his departure, and had his calculations gone without a hitch he and his retainer, together with Kyrie, would have got clear of the place with a comfortable margin. Yet now. . . ?
Ever the smoke-cloud beyond the dark door-way was thickening; already it was waving wispy tentacles into the room where Kyrie was. Now the smell of burning wood reached her nostrils unmistakably—and the knot at her ankles still held.
WITH a tightening at her breast, she realized, too, that even with her feet free she was far from out of danger. Apart from the smoke-filled room beyond the open door there was only one way to escape for her—down through the trap in the floor, and how was it possible that with arms helplessly bound behind her she could descend the dangling rope ladder? And, further, she would have to discover and operate the mechanism which controlled the ladder, since H’si An Men’s retainer had relinquished his hold on it when she had sent his chief crashing on to him, and it had to a certainty been drawn up around its spring roller, though she did not remember its ascent.
The panic which she had held in check with a desperate determination surged up again. What was the use? What possible chance had she? Then, even as her last shred of courage threatened to snap, the knot gave and her ankles were free. Instantly hope surged up again. She scrambled to her feet and, lashed by the whip of her fear and the drive of self-preservation, forced her numbed feet to carry her to the partially-open door.
The atmosphere of the room in which she was was thickening rapidly; already she could feel the first indication of the heavy smoke in her lungs, but even as she reached it a little spear-head of flame stabbed viciously through the smoke-packed darkness—at her very feet, it seemed.
She backed away from the door and looked wildly around her. Where were the windows? It appeared that the room did not contain any, for not the slightest indication of them was visible. A moment longer she stood motionless, and in that moment a multitude of impressions and emotions crowded her brain almost to madness.
Why had H’si An Men fired the house? There must be something here to hide, something which could not be carried away. What chances lay almost within her grasp? What information to be gathered, not merely of H’si An Men, but of that wider organization, Tien T’ze? Here,
while she stood helpless, a weapon which at one blow, perhaps, would destroy Tien T’ze was in all probability being consumed by the fire.
IT WAS a maddening thought, but it served a useful purpose; it drew her mind, panic-ridden but a moment ago, into a more ordered course. Useless now to regret chances beyond her reach, useless to contemplate anything save her own chance of escape, in whatever direction that might lie.
She crossed to the still open trap and went on her knees again; then a little exclamation escaped her—the ladder, for some reason, had not reascended. For a moment this seemed like a Heaven-sent blessing, but quickly she realized its uselessness. Her arms were helpless, and without their aid she could not maintain her balance on the ladder.
A sound like the soft rushing of wind brought her eyes round to the door behind her. The room beyond was no longer in darkness; now the grey fog of smoke was lit by a leaping orange glow. Then, with a suddenness which drew a cry from her, the electric light went out.
The failure of the light seemed to act like a talisman on the fire. The orange glow increased, great leaping blades of flame stabbed through the open doorway, seemed to linger for a moment around its woodwork, and then fell back, leaving behind them little fresh flames which writhed like snakes.
Kyrie turned once more to the trap. There was but one course open to her; from the first she had seen it, but from the first she had shrunk from it. Remained now no room for shrinking; it was the sole alternative to death in the midst of those hurrying flames behind her. She must drop through the trap, guiding her fall as best she might, so as to land upon those huddled bodies below. Yet once again she had been dangerously long in reaching a decision, for now she had not even the advantage of the shaft of light which had streamed down through the trap to guide her. She thrust her feet down through the trap, balanced herself for an instant, and then shot downwards.
Suppose she should miss her mark? Suppose she broke a leg? She would be compelled to lie there and watch the fire gain in the room above until the burning floor showered blazing timbers on to her. The drop seemed like a mile. Then she landed, landed on something which felt sickeningly soft, but in landing she struck her head and slipped into a stunned unconsciousness.
Slowly she struggled back to a knowledge of her surroundings. It seemed she had been unhurt save for that one blow on the head. With a shuddering movement she recoiled from that which had broken her fall ; then she glanced up at the trap-door. Apparently her spell of unconsciousness had not been long, for the swaying light in the room above seemed no brighter.
She scrambled to her feet and dashed for that point where she knew the door of the room to be, but in the darkness she miscalculated her distance from the door and ran full against it. The door slammed to, and she heard the latch click home. Quickly she swung round, and, seizing the handle with her bound hands, turned it. It turned easily, too easily, and in a flash she realized that the violent closing of the door had broken the time-worn lock. Escape that way was barred. There remained the window, that little dust-curtained window which she had peered through when she had first emerged from the cellar beneath, and which she knew gave into a yard and then to the river. She turned towards it, made a movement to cross to it, and then stopped abruptly. Silhouetted dimly against the night without were the head and shoulders of a man.
Kyrie drew back hurriedly into the corner by the door. Who was he? Quite possibly he was one of Mclvor’s men, but equally possibly he might be a member of Tien T’ze. With breathless anxiety she watched. She saw him raise his arm and lift the sash; then she saw him swing one leg over the sill. And now, sitting astraddle of the window-sill, he stopped. To Kyrie, watching anxiously for his next movement, it seemed that he sat motionless for an unnaturally long time; then her ears gave her the reaon.
UROM away in the distance came the insistent clanging of a bell. Somewhere the fire brigade was hurrying to a call. Where? Where but here?
Then the man seated astride of the window-sill moved. He swung quietly into the room, and immediately crouched out of sight below the line of the panes.
Kyrle’s heart quickened its beats. The man’s movements were significant; he too had heard the fire-bell, he too had realized that this house was the point for which the brigade was headed, and—he was concealing himself until he could make sure of that. That seemed to stamp him. If he were one of Mclvor’s men, what need of concealment from the crowd which the fire and the arrival of the brigade would collect?
The bell, clanging in the night, grew louder, then muted suddenly, to burst out agair, the next instant from somewhere not very far away.
From the direction of the window Kyrie caught the rustle of a movement. Came a sharp click, and the light from an electric torch stabbed into the gloom, to throw its white circle directly on to the two huddled bodies beneath the trap. For an instant the shaft of light remained moonless, then it began to slowly circle the room.
Fascinated, Kyrie remained without power of movement, watching the circle of light from the torch move slowly, relentlessly, towards her; in a moment it would reach her, and then. . . .?
The clanging of the fire-bell was swelling nearer, but it seemed to her that the engine must be crawling at a snail’s pace. The door behind her was locked firmly; the distance to the window was too great to be crossed before the man would reach her. The light was approaching. She shrank from it as though it had been a white-hot iron, and with the instinctive movement there leapt into her brain an idea, one solitary chance.
CHE took a step away from that groping finger of light, away in the direction of the window. Every law of probability cried aloud that the attempt was hopeless that the chance was so narrow as to have no existence, yet nothing else remained. Her first step towards the window had apparently passed unheard, for the light continued to move steadily and without any increase in its pace. She took another step, a piece of fallen plaster cracked under her heel, and the light leapt at her, enveloping her in its white circle.
She sprang wildly for the window, and as she sprang she heard thesound of the man’s hurried movement, She gained the open sash, but even as she made the reckless spring which was to have precipitated her into the blackness without two arms closed around her.
It seemed that the house spun round beneath her; then through the muffling cloud which was closing down on her brain a voice bored keenly:
“Keep quiet! Steady now!”
For a moment she stood motionless, then her limbs trembled beneath her.
“Mclvor!” she gasped.
( “Yes,” the superintendent replied. “Steady now! Keep that grip on yourself Good! You’re great!”
(Another story in this series mil appear in our next issue.)