The Lao Tai Dragon
The story of a desperate bid for wealth and security and of a punishment more horrible than death itself
WITH the stealthy, catlike quietness of which some big men are capable, Caron Felstead glided into Philip Breslin’s library. The room was in darkness, like almost all the rest of the house —a negative assurance that the owner was absent.
A discreet use of Felstead’s torch located his objective, a life-size bust of Shakespeare in a niche in one of the walls. A pressure on either side of the pedestal, a gentle pull, and the bust swung on concealed hinges to one side. In the space thus revealed the steel door of a small safe gleamed dully in the white light of the torch.
Felstead’s gloved hand shook as his fingers grasped the knob of the dial. His memory—was it going to prove reliable after nearly two years? Slow seconds, lengthened interminably by suspense, passed. Then the faint click of the falling tumblers told him that his fears were groundless. A twist of the handle and the door stood open.
The probing light of Felstead’s torch revealed what he had come for—a flat, oblong case, dark green, with gilt lines running along the edges.
There was no need to open it. A quick pressure on the yielding surface satisfied him. He thrust it into an inner pocket of his coat, shut the door of the safe and carefully replaced the bust.
THIRTY minutes later Felstead was lounging in the smoking-room of his club, pulling at a fragrant cigar. His square, clean-shaven face wore the slightly vacant half-smile of pleasurable excitement. That, with the glitter in his eyes and the attitude of his big, muscular body, indicated restrained energy.
Cordway, grown old in the law, and so without undue delicacy, eyed him quizzically.
“Been backing a winner, Felstead?” he asked.
“Eh?” Felstead’s smile deepened. “Why?”
“The circumstantial evidence of that fat smile of yours,” Cordway replied.
“And that bulging breast pocket.”
Felstead shot a swift, startled glance at the round, grinning countenance of Jimmy Higgins. And he was instantly reassured. Jimmy, the amiable, garrulous young bore, who infested the club day and night, was harmless because brainless. He had sidled up to the corner where Cordway and Felstead were sitting, and Felstead, to Cordway’s audibly, and foully expressed disgust, had invited him to join them.
“Well, if I have,” Felstead said at length, “it’s about time.”
“That’s true,” Jimmy agreed, feelingly. “Lately you’ve been looking like—well, like a sick owl.” Felstead laughed explosively.
“Not that you could expect to be chirpy, y’know,” Jimmy went on, “burying yourself for a whole year in that spooky old ruin of yours.”
“The old Manor is a bit quiet, Jimmy,” Felstead agreed, smilingly, “but it is not as bad as all that.” Cordway grunted. “Still hunting for the old man’s doubloons?” he asked. “I thought you had given that up long ago.”
Felstead shook his head, still smiling.
“Waste of time, man,” Cordway growled. “Your uncle got rid of his money before he died.”
“Why are you so sure of that?”
Cordway leaned forward and wagged a fat forefinger as if addressing a jury.
“Now, Felstead, you’re a lawyer yourself,” he said, “so you can reason a little. Five years ago I disposed of all your uncle’s real estate holdings for a pile of money. Well, a normal being would have re-invested that money at once, wouldn’t he?”
“Naturally,” Felstead agreed.
“But not he. He grabbed the cash—I had to give him cash—and rushed off like some mug at Monte Carlo bitten with the gambling fever.”
“Still, that doesn’t prove he got rid of it,” Felstead persisted.
“It doesn’t,” he said, “but don’t forget that he considered you, to put it mildly, a bit of a Sybarite.” Felstead grinned. “Oh, yes,” he said, “he told me that often enough, but not quite as delicately as you put it.”
“And he was determined that you would never waste a dollar of his in what he called, with lots of embroidery, riotous living.”
“I see,” Felstead laughed. “And that’s why you think he gave it away, or perhaps destroyed it?”
“Well,” Cordway replied, “if he had left any money in that old house you would surely have found it, or some of it, before now. Yet, after ransacking it for a year you have found nothing—at least so I assume.” Before answering, Felstead drew hard on his cigar, ejected a cloud of smoke and watched it billow ceilingward. Then, with an enigmatical smile he said:
“And yet he did invest the money.”
“Eh!” Cordway’s shaggy eyes shot upward. “Then you’ve dug up the securities?”
“I have.” Felstead’s smile broadened. “Not exactly the kind you mean, but mighty good ones, just the same. The kind that dodge taxes and death duties—at the expense of interest. Just the kind a miser like my uncle would go in for.”
For a moment Cordway looked puzzled. Then, heaving himself forward in his chair:
“You mean—diamonds?” he rumbled.
Felstead nodded. “Since he had the bad taste to dislike me,” he said, “I thought it wise to keep an unobtrusive eye on the old man. That’s how I discovered his interest in diamonds. He was buying them but—he wasn’t trading in them. Ergo, he was converting his money into diamonds, after the best traditions of the miser.”
“And he hid them?” Cordway rubbed a gnarled jaw.
“Hid them!” Felstead echoed. “The old magpie wasn’t content with hiding them. He laid false trails everywhere. His tricks baffled me a thousand times before I stumbled on the stones by the sheerest accident.’*
“Well,” said Cordway, scratching a fat thigh, “Easy Street is your future address. You think you have found them all?”
“I think so,” Felstead replied. “Anyway, I figure that the stones I found are worth well over half a million.”
Jimmy gave vent to a shrill whistle that turned half the heads in the room toward their corner.
“Half a million!” he cried, nodding his black, pomaded head at each word. “Gosh! What a lucky dog you are, Felstead!”
“Well, have them valued,” said the practical Cordway. “They should be worth a lot more than that. Know anything of diamonds yourself?”
“Enough to satisfy myself that the old fellow was a pretty sound judge.”
About half an hour later Felstead got up and sauntered about the room. Cordway watched the tall figure pass jauntily from group to group of members; watched it slowly gyrate toward the door and pass through it.
To his relief Jimmy went off, too. He joined a group in another corner and began to talk with great animation. Those around him listened with fixed attention. Cordway, watching him, frowned.
“Now, why the devil did Felstead let that little windbag know anything about it?” he muttered.
rT'HE one thing that troubled Felstead after his uncle’s ■*death was the simultaneous attack of his creditors, whose name was legion. Time, the one thing Felstead wanted most, they firmly refused.
Not daring to let them know the truth, he tried temporizing. They only growled the louder and began to show their teeth. So Felstead took the nearest way out. As a lawyer he had numerous trust funds in his charge. By simply converting some of them into cash he found all the ready money he needed. The funds,
he was convinced as he plunged into the search, would be re-invested in a month or two.
At first the false clues, his uncle’s impish tricks, kept his hopes high. But as he drew blank after blank, his hopes changed to a growing exasperation. That, in turn, gave place to anxiety and finally to despair. For the time was near when the trust funds had to be accounted for. Hence the “sick owl” expression on his face. He could not wrest its secret from the old manor.
But it mattered little now. In his pocket, in the big green case, reposed the Lao Tai Dragon, a mass of blazing diamonds worth a king’s ransom.
That he had robbed Philip Breslin, a life-long friend, was a small matter. Breslin was a millionaire. It was only as a collector that he would be hit. A mere trifle, compared with his, Felstead’s, very existence.
He had secured the Dragon without leaving a clue, and he had sent abroad a perfect alibi. The honest Cordway had swallowed his plausible yarn, and already Jimmy Higgins would be spraying the story over the club. For Jimmy could no more keep a secret than a wicker basket could hold gas.
As he drove home, quivering with a sense of triumph, he sent the car along at a pace that matched his racing blood. For he had work to do and time was short. He had a mass of crooked accounts to make straight, whole files of papers to re-write. After that it would not take many of the diamonds in the green case to restore the missing funds.
ONLY a couple of rooms in Felstead Manor, a great, old, amorphous pile, showed evidence of human occupation. In the larger of the two, before a big fire, sputtering cheerfully in a wide, old-fashioned fireplace, Caron Felstead was sitting. An oil lamp on the table blended its mellow light with the glow of the fire. Over the great dark house an immemorial silence brooded.
Felstead was ill at ease, and the cause was a simple thing—perhaps. Merely an oblong piece of yellow parchment. He had found it underneath the Dragon the night before, when he had opened the case to gloat over his booty.
The upper half was covered with small Chinese characters, so old and faded as to be almost illegible.
Underneath, and evidently written much later than the original, was a translation in English.
The phraseology was of the florid Oriental type, perhaps because it followed the original literally. The Dragon, it proclaimed, was the sacred symbol of the Lao Tai Brotherhood, whose members were men of great virtue. The brotherhood had been founded in a far-off age. Each member had given a jewel, a pledge, as well as an emblem, of faithfulness. And among them cunning craftsmen had fashioned the Dragon. From time to time some guardian had given his life in protecting it from the inevitable plunderers, thus acquiring power to guard it for ever, even from the Other World. Should impious hands be laid on the Dragon, in all the centuries to come, one of its guardians would appear and deal with the offender, after the ancient Chinese customs.
“And pretty devilish they were,” Felstead muttered with a short laugh, after about the fiftieth perusal of the parchment. Solitude had given him the habit of soliloquy.
A year before, he would have flung the parchment into the fire and promptly forgotten all about it. But now—perhaps it was merely guilt, perhaps the gloom of the old house had left its mark on his mind; at all events he was uneasily conscious that the warning on the parchment filled him with an acute sense of foreboding.
“Pure piffle,” he said, glaring again at the yellow paper, “written to scare off ignorant Chinese bandits.” But the strange, eerie feeling persisted, holding him back from pressing work on the papers he had brought home from the office.
He leaned toward the fire. Twice his hand went out to drop the parchment in. Each time he hesitated, slowly drawing his arm back, as if some gentle pressure had been placed on it.
Finally, with a backward sweep of his arm, he flung the thing on the table behind him. It fluttered down on top of a disordered heap of papers.
“Pure bunk,” he muttered irritably. “Oriental humbug.”
He swung round to the table and set to work on the papers. And gradually, as he became absorbed in calculations, the old parchment and its threat faded from his mind.
UNBROKEN silence held for more than an hour.
Then suddenly, the shrill clanging of the big, old-fashioned door-bell rang out. Felstead started violently and jumped to his feet. His face paled and, for a moment, he stood irresolute. Then, squaring his broad shoulders, he picked up the lamp and made his way through the blackness of a high, echoing corridor to the distant front door.
As the door opened, the flame of the lamp flared into a murky smudge. In the resulting gloom a coated figure stepped in with a quiet “Good evening, Felstead.”
Felstead hastily barred the way until the lamplight steadied, and he was able to recognize his visitor. It was Philip Breslin. He almost staggered as he stepped back.
But so great was his sense of security that in an instant he was himself again
“Hello, Breslin,” he cried, in warm welcome.
“Why, man, I thought you were in China!”
“I was,” answered Breslin, “but I finished my business sooner than I expected,”
Felstead shot out his hand.
“More than glad to see you, old chap,” he said. “Nobody could be more welcome. When did you blow in?”
“Last night,” Breslin answered briefly, grasping the outstretched hand. “You are alone, I suppose?” ^ “As usual. I’m not overwhelmed with visitors here, you know.” Felstead laughed with a kind of rueful Carelessness, _ — '
“Well, I Want to speak to you for a few minutes.” Breslin’s Voice was toneless. There was a troubled look on his face, in sharp contrast with Felstead’s easy smile.
“Come into my den and talk all night if you like,” he said heartily, taking up the lamp. “There’s a fire there. This old gazebo needs it, and it helps to keep the spooks away.”
Ü When they reached the den he pulled a chair toward the fire for his visitor, and lit a second lamp.
“I’m afraid I’m short of refreshments,” he apologized, “but—”
“Never mind that,” Breslin broke in, curtly, “my business will not take long—now.” His voice had
suddenly grown hard and cold.
Felstead shot a sharp, questioning glance at him.
“I heard to-day at the club about your good luck,” Breslin began.
Felstead frowned, and made a gesture of annoyance. “Then that fool Higgins has been talking,” he said. “But I suppose it’s my own fault. He was present when I told Cordway about it.”
“You found half a million dollars worth of diamonds?” “About that, I should say,” Felstead replied, coolly. “More, if anything.”
Breslin nodded. “Last night I lost diamonds worth several times that amount.” He kept his eyes on Felstead as he spoke.
Felstead’s gesture of astonishment was more eloquent than any word.
“You remember the Dragon I bought in China,” Breslin went on, “the Lao Tai Dragon?” I showed it to you about three months ago.”
“Last night it was stolen.”
“It was taken from a safe I have in the library, concealed, or so I thought, behind a bust of Shakespeare. You’ve noticed it, of course?”
“The safe was cracked—blown open?”
“No!” Breslin barked out. His voice had grown deeper and harsher. “The bust was moved, and the safe opened by the combination—by one who knew the secret of both.”
“But who could know either?”
“Since my wife died,” Breslin replied, “two people besides myself knew. One is my secretary.”
“Ah! You let an employee know!”
“Oh, I know John too well to suspect him,” Breslin returned quickly. “I would trust my life to him. In fact it was through him that I was able to buy the Dragon.”
“He was here in your absence?”
“He was,” replied Breslin, “and he examined that safe every day at noon. Yesterday, at noon, the Dragon was there. When I opened the safe at ten o’clock last night it was gone.”
“Well, Breslin,” Felstead said slowly, “I can’t tell you how sorry I am, but I’m afraid your confidence has been sadly misplaced.”
Breslin glanced at him, and then stared into the fire,
as if pondering the suggestion. After a moment’s silence he spoke.
“Felstead,” he said, “you know that, against my wishes, my wife always wanted to transfer her property to me.”
Felstead stared at him and frowned interrogatively.
“When her illness became serious she cabled,” he continued. “But her message did not reach me in the interior of China until—until too late. She was dying. She wanted to make a will in my favor. And she sent for you.”
Felstead murmured something.
“The deeds were in the library safe, and she and I had an agreement never to tell anyone the secret of that. But her time was shortening. She grew panicky. So—■ she told you how to get at the safe and gave you the combination.” Breslin continued to stare into the fire.
“Yes, I remember,” Felstead said, in a casual tone. “I think I mentioned it to you.”
“You did not,” Breslin retorted sharply. “My wife left a note for me, explaining what she had done. To hasten matters,” he continued, “she also gave you the keys to the private entrance to the library.”
Felstead frowned, as if searching his memory.
“I believe she did,” he said slowly.
“Those keys were never returned.
“No? Well, perhaps—” Felstead broke off suddenly. A swift scowl darkened his face. He barked out in a menacing tone:
“What the devil are you driving at, Breslin?”
Breslin looked sternly at him.
“Just this, Felstead,” he said, “I don’t know whether it was need or greed, or what it was that made you steal the Dragon, but before I leave to-night you are going to give it back.”
Felstead jerked backward. His hands snapped to the arms of his chair. The blood rushed to his face, then receded, leaving a pallor
that appeared ghastly in the dimly reflected lamplight.
For a moment there was absolute silence in the room. Then Felstead’s rage, the violent rage of the justly accused, broke out.
“Damn you,” he shouted fiercely, “do you dare to come here and accuse me of stealing?”
“Drop that, man. For heaven’s sake drop that attitude. It is mere acting and it won’t do.”
Glaring savagely at Breslin, Felstead sprang from his chair, his fists clenched, his breath coming heavily.
Breslin’s hand came out of his coat pocket, and the black muzzle of an automatic covered Felstead’s breast,
“None of that, you fool,” he warned.
Felstead pulled up abruptly, his eyes on the weapon, a mixture of surprise and reproach in them.
‘•‘Yes,” said Breslin, interpreting his look, “I had á notion that it might bel necessary to come armed! Your present attitudé justifies the precaution,’* he added dryly. !
“But to accuse—” !
“Do you think I would accuse you without proof?” Breslin broke in. “Sit down.”
“Proof, proof,” spluttered Felstead.
Breslin raised his hand, “Felstead,” he said, “I have the most indisputable proof that you are guilty.”
Felstead laughed derisively.
“Do you deny that you took the Dragon?” Breslin shot out.
“Deny it! Of course I do, absolutely.” i
“Then,” said Breslin, wheeling swiftly round to the table and picking up the sheet of yellow parchment which lay where Felstead had carelessly thrown it, “where did you get that?”
Felstead, after staring for a few seconds at the parchment, wilted and slumped slowly back in his chair
“That is my proof,” Breslin resumed. “You see, everything pointed to you. Your knowledge of the safe, the keys, and—” Breslin thumped his hand on the arm of his chair—“I told not a soul but you that I bad the Dragon. You weren’t aware of that?”
Felstead made a slight writhing movement but said nothing.
“And the yarn you told at the club only increased my suspicion,” Breslin went on. “Still, I came to question, not to accuse you. But the first thing I saw when I entered this room was this bit of parchment. I knew then, of course, that you were guilty, for it never left the case since I got the Dragon.”
Felstead’s head drooped forward on his chest. But it: was not shame that loosened his neck. It was despair.. For Breslin’s words amounted to a sentence of death. They wiped out his last hope of restoring the missing funds.
“Well, this finishes me,” he said at length, in a low,, beaten voice. “When it gets out, I’ll be completely ruined.”
Breslin smacked the parchment down on the table. His eyes sparked angrily.
MacLean s Magazine, January 15, 1Q29
“Dammit, who said it would get out?” he retorted gruffly. “No one but my secretary knows of the loss yet, and I’ll take care that John doesn’t hear of this.” A sudden gleam lit Felstead’s eye. “And not a soul knows I am here to-night,” Breslin resumed, lettjng his eyes wander again to the fire, “John wanted to know where I was going. He’s in a boiling fury, and he has been trying to find out where my suspicions pointed. And believe me, Felstead,” he added, “it would go hard with you if he found out that you had laid hands on the Dragon.” Felstead merely shrugged his shoulders and Breslin went on: “But I side-tracked him. I drove to the club, and left the car there. I came out by street-car and walked the rest of the way here. I am going;
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back the same way. Friendship, even when smashed, still has certain claims, you know. So—■” the gruffness returned to his voice—“you needn’t worry about it getting out.”
Felstead’s hands had slowly clenched. The fingers tightened until the fists and forearms quivered with the tension. Had he looked up, Breslin might have wondered at the powerful emotion that was racking him.
Slowly his hands relaxed. With head still bent he murmured something, which Breslin assumed to be words of thanks.
“Thank one who is dead, if you like, Felstead,” he said. “You were her friend as well as mine. For her sake I don’t want a fuss any more than you do. Now give me the trinket and let me go.”
Felstead stood up. Breslin saw that his hands were shaking as he picked up one of the lamps. But he did not see the knitted brows, the clamped jaws, or the glittering eyes, for Felstead kept his face averted.
“Wait here,” he said, in a thick voice, and walked quickly from the room.
With swift, jerky steps he hurried to the vast kitchen, where great rusty'ovens evidenced the lavish tables of other days, and from it to the flagged cellars that ran like catacombs under the house.
Across the now empty spaces, heavy with the indefinable smell of the past, the supporting pillars threw inky swathes of shadow. The hollow reverberations of his footsteps echoed eerily as he made his way to a thick, iron-studded door. From a crevice above it he took a big key and unlocked the door, disclosing the empty bins of a wine cellar.
With a single heave of his powerful arms he raised a broad flagstone at the farther end and stood it against the wall. Uneven stone steps sank into the black gap beneath. At the bottom Felstead was in a narrow tunnel, roughly excavated, and shored with stout wooden beams. The tunnel, about a hundred feet long, ended in a small stone cell with a thick iron door.
This mysterious cell, probably a hiding place for valuables, had given Felstead the greatest thrill of his long treasure-hunt. But it had yielded nothing else. Still, the marks on the sides of the tunnel, the rough condition of the floor, and the new shovel lying on it, showed that had taken nothing for granted.
He stepped inside the cell and took the green jewel case from a shelf, threw one wild glance around and hastened away.
"DRESLIN, already feeling anxious at Felstead’s long absence, rose at his entrance. Felstead held the jewel case in his hand, open. In its silken interior lay the magnificent Lao Tai Dragon. A thing of life it seemed, writhing and twisting with the slightest movement. He handed it to Breslin without a word.
Breslin snapped it shut, placed it in an inside pocket and buttoned up his coat. After pressing on the cloth cap he wore, he turned to Felstead who was leaning against the mantelpiece.
“This, of course, must end our friendship, Felstead,” he said.
Felstead was silent, and he went on:
“No one will hear of this episode”—he tapped his breast-pocket—“through me. But I think you should take a trip abroad —a prolonged one.”
Felstead did not raise his head. He answered only with a gesture of his hands.
Expecting, perhaps, no more definite answer, and struck with a sudden pity for the downcast man before him, Breslin turned abruptly to the chair and took up his coat. *
The instant he turned Felstead jerked up his head. In one lightning movement he drew a short, thick iron bar from his pocket, lunged forward, and brought it down with terrific force on Breslin’s head.
OROFOUND stillness followed the thud
of the falling body. Felstead stood motionless, a grotesque figure, with shoulders hunched, knees bent, and the hand that held the weapon still extended.
A gentle night breeze sighed softly against the windows, rattling the worn casements. Felstead started at the sound, and the heavy iron club slid from his fingers. The crash startled him into motion.
Mechanically he walked toward the fire, passing a trembling hand across his forehead and looking apprehensively around the room.
His roving glance fell on the files of papers, and some obscure mental reaction urged him to sit down at once and go on with his work on them. But first he had business in the stone cell at the end of the tunnel. None would find the body there at least, while its discovery would be a menace to him.
While he stood hesitating, the horn of a motor car blared out a sudden, raucous blast. In the stillness the sound seemed to come from a car at his very door.
He jumped forward in a panic. With feverish haste he straightened the body and wrapped the overcoat around it, fastening it with the buttons. A dark stain on the hearthrug caught his eye. He added the rug to the overcoat and swung the unwieldy burden to his shoulder.
It was only when half way to the kitchen that he remembered the sharp bend in the road, at the main gates, where motor traffic usually screamed its warning at night. Reassured, he slowed his progress. But the rhythmic rise and fall of the limp weight on his shoulder drove him forward again like the sting of a whip.
Twisting painfully through the black hole in the floor of the wine-cellar, he pounded down the steps into the tunnel. The lamp in his hand, feebly bending the clutching blackness, showed his lips twisted with the physical strain and great beads of sweat studding his knitted brows.
Stumbling grimly on, with shortened breath and quivering muscles, he reached the cell. Swaying, he stooped to place the lamp on the floor. Weighted as he was he lurched to one side, the body slid forward, and the cheek rested against his own.
With a gasping intake of breath he jerked his head aside, as if it had been stung, and jumped back. His load, unsupported, seemed to totter uncertainly before collapsing.
Almost as it reached the floor Felstead was outside the cell. The iron door swung to with a funereal clang, the bolt rasped home, and Felstead leaned against it, wiping his streaming forehead.
His rest was only a matter of seconds, for he had more to do. Removing his coat he picked up the shovel, lying a few feet away, and began to heap the soft earth against the door. Material was plentiful, for the floor of the tunnel was mostly sand, and the heavy supporting beams made it safe to dig from the sides as well.
From the flying shovel the rising tide of earth crept steadily up the door, until a sloping mound reached from floor to roof, wiping out all traces of the little cell that was now a tomb. At last the evidence of his crime was securely hidden.
The broad flagstone dropped into its place with a hollow boom. Felstead covered it with a thick layer of the broken plaster and ancient dust that covered the floor of the wine cellar. With the same material he obliterated his own footmarks as he backed out.
TIRED though he was, Felstead did not dare to rest.
He built a fresh fire, removed all traces of his recent labors and plunged into his interrupted work. It was exacting work, as well as supremely urgent, and gradu-
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ally he succeeded in pinning his whole
attention to it.
Hour after hour passed, and the silent worker’s busy pen flew on. The night had all but gone when a sharp sound pulled Felstead out of his absorption. It was that ghostly herald of the dawn, the shrill crowing of a cock, one of the most disquieting sounds on earth.
It was no new sound to Felstead, for it had been a whim of his to retain some of the poultry his uncle had left. Yet the wailing notes were like the prick of a needle to him.
He looked confusedly about him, like a man aroused suddenly from sleep. Then, swiftly, a change came, and terror leaped into his eyes. At last the distraction of work had failed, and he saw his crime with merciless clearness.
He jumped from his chair, staggering, and wincing with the pain of stiffened muscles. With lurching strides he began to pace the room. For the first time in his life he knew what real fear was. Not the sharp sting of alarm that stimulates, but something that raced through his body like an icy fluid and produced a loosening of the knees.
Doubts began to pyramid in his mind. Had Breslin been sure that no one knew of his visit? He should have drawn him out and made sure. If some trivial circumstance sent the police in his direction — what? His precautions had seemed so perfect a few hours ago, but now . .
The hue and cry would be started at once. Every friend of Breslin’s would be questioned. What kind of a showing would he himself make before a keen-eyed detective?
After an hour’s restless pacing he realized that there was no chance of an enquirer reaching him for hours yet. And in the meantime, if he could get it, sleep would steady him.
Sleep, of course. He went straight to his bedroom, connected by a narrow corridor with the den, and flung himself, fully dressed as he was, on the bed. It did not take him many minutes to realize that normal sleep was out of the question. For the instant his body was at rest his mind became more painfully active than ever.
But he had a remedy, a blue bottle that he took from a cabinet on the wall.
“I must have sleep,” he said, as if in excuse for the drug.
The liquid was quick in its action. In a few minutes a pleasant drowsiness stole over him. His fears began to lose their sting. His features relaxed; a slow smile stole over them. Without a thought of undressing or lowering the window blinds, he threw himself heavily on the bed and drew up the covers.
IT WAS evening again, but silence no longer hung over Felstead Manor. It was quivering and creaking under the assaults of a tearing north-wester.
A roaring blast thudded against the walls, like a heavy wave breaking against a ship’s side. Felstead stirred, his lips moved as if in answer, and his eyes opened. The light from the windows completed his awakening.
For a time he lay thinking, staring at the ceiling, while the daylight rapidly died. His fears had vanished. Felstead Manor was, of course, the last place the police would think of visiting. If they did, their enquiries would be only perfunctory anyway. Besides, what man could unearth the slightest evidence of his crime?
“But, after all, was it a crime?” he murmured. “No, I don’t think it was. Self-defence it was, when you analyze it. Breslin had already sentenced me to death; and he would have plugged me if he’d had half a chance. Else why the gun? I just got in first.”
His thoughts surged along too rapidly for words. After a pause he went on: “The only place I can sell all those stones is Europe—Amsterdam, I guess. I could never get rid of them on this side.”
Still a few had to be sold at once, to replace the stolen funds.
“I’ll get the Dragon, now, and dig out some of the stones,” he grunted, with a smile, making a move to get up.
But .he stopped, resting on his elbow. Then he sank slowly back again, frowning.
Where had he put the Dragon, after . .?
He stiffened suddenly. His very breath stopped. The gloating smile was now replaced by a look of utter consternation. His lips moved, framing some words of incredulous dismay.
For he remembered that the Dragon was in the inner pocket of the coat that was buttoned across the dead man’s breast! Breslin, he recalled all too vividly now, had put it there just before he was struck down. And by some incredible mischance he had laid it away in the vault with the body.
He sat up, grasping his head in his hands. Must he open the vault again, that vault against which he had hurled tons of earth? Desecrate the tomb of the man he had murdered? Enter like a ghoul and break his last rest? And rob him again?
“My God!” he whispered, finally, “what spell am I under? First the parchment, then this—this ghastly blunder.”
The parchment! Was that cursed thing more than a fantastic legend, then, after all? What else—the conviction suddenly leaped at him—what else could be influencing him in such a subtle way, leading him steadily to disaster?
Stories of the sinister sorcery of the East came back to him, stories of the occult powers of religious emblems such as the Dragon. If the words of the parchment were true, what might not happen when he went below to rob the dead?
Or was it all imagination?
He raised his head. His now despairing eyes wandered toward two heavy portieres that covered the bedroom door and—the final proof confronted him.
Between the folds was a yellow, wrinkled face, the face of a Chinaman, steady and motionless, as if hung on the dark cloth. The small, black, slanting eyes, glittering venomously, were fixed on his in an unwavering stare.
The waning light slightly dimmed the face, but the eyes burned with a light of their own. Felstead leaned forward, straining to get a better view. No hallucination that; he could almost feel the glare of the eyes.
Flinging the covers aside, he sprang from the bed. His eyes left the portières for no more than a couple of seconds, but when he looked again nothing was there. Nothing but the dull, blank folds, hanging heavy and motionless.
The passage, too, when he reached it, was black as ink, for the curtains in the den at the other end were still drawn.
A double peril menaced him now. Bad enough to face the laws of man, but this thing, subtle, deadly—what chance had he against it? His nerve began to go again. The trembling of his fingers as he lit the lamp filled him with a sort of angry dismay.
“But I’ve got to go through with it,” he muttered, taking up the lamp.
He had just reached the portières when a lull occurred in the storm. In the momentary silence something in the den went down with a loud, splintering crash.
Felstead drew back. That was not imagination, certainly. Things did not fall of their own accord. What—who was out there? If it was a mere burglar—good. It was almost with relief that he opened a drawer and took out a revolver.
He found the passage empty. Cautiously he tiptoed to the den. It was only after circling it that he found the cause of the crash. A tall cabinet, which had stood in a recess near the door, was down, its three glass sides shivered to pieces. It had contained Felstead Manor’s only art pieces—a tall blue vase, a magnificent example of Chinese art, and a
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couple of smaller ones, thick, squat, ugly things, that had always aroused Felstead’s mirth. The blue Chinese vase was in fragments, the two ugly ones intact.
Felstead bent over the wreck. Immediately he recoiled from it, or, rather, from the smashed blue Chinese vase.
Chinese! And it alone had been singled out for the destruction! Singled out, clearly, for the fall of the cabinet had been no accident. The four spindly legs had not even been injured by the fall.
The cold dread of a spectral enemy gripped him afresh. No burglar would advertise his presence by flinging furniture about.
There was only one thing to do; search the house before he went into the tunnel. He could not fight a spectre, but there might be a housebreaker, or—or—but the police would be more direct in their methods.
HESITATION would double fear, he knew, so he started on his search at once, combing with the greatest care the gloomy rooms and tortuous passages of the ground floor.
In half-an-hour Felstead was certain that there was no human being hiding on the main floor. He ascended by one of the numerous staircases to the second. There the violence of the storm was more evident.
But he saw nothing, human or ghostly on the second floor either. He mounted to the top. The empty, mouldering rooms there yielded nothing but clouds of dust.
Felstead’s satisfaction was only negative, for the ruling out of a burglar only left the field open for that other thing, whatever it was.
On his way to the main floor he approached a large pier-glass, set on a landing, and commanding the stairs he had just descended. Glancing at it, he suddenly stiffened. At the top of the reflected stairs stood a figure, dim and shadowy. The face was clearer, but the two motionless, gleaming eyes, fiercely meeting his own, were bright as life.
It was the face he had seen at the portières!
Felstead whirled round, swinging the lamp in a wide arc, and almost putting it out. When the flame steadied again, and lit up the stairs, the figure had vanished. He raced up again to the corridor. It was empty.
Again that icy shiver ran up and down his spine. No hallucination this time. He had clearly seen figure as well as face. And the thing had vanished like a breath blown on the glass he had faced.
Panic-stricken, he rushed from room to room, over ground that he had already covered; savagely ripped rotting hangings from recessed windows and alcoves, and even peered up the wide chimneys, in which the wind was growling like some deep-throated, prisoned beast.
But—nothing; and an extra half hour had been wasted. With tingling nerves and pounding heart he approached the great staircase leading to the main hall. The lamplight streaked down the worn banister, and glinted off the round, polished head of the massive newel post at the bottom.
And there, at the edge of the newel post, was the face again. It was more distinct than ever, and more terrifying. The upturned eyes, their oriental slant accentuated and showing sharp corners of white, seemed to flash both a menace and a challenge.
Dropping bis poised foot on the step below, Felstead swung up the revolver and fired. But even as the red flame spurted he was aware that the face had melted into the ebony, blackness that filled the hall.
He could doubt no longer. His punishment, through some malignant Chinese agency, had begun. A wave of despair flowed over him, loosening his knees and numbing his brain. He slumped down on the stairs. For a long time he sat motionless, his head on his chest, his arms hang-
ing loosely. And, gradually, as doubt changed to certainty, his self-command came back.
He had his ghoulish work to do in that black tunnel, even if fifty spectres were hounding him. Still trembling, but determined, he slowly descended the stairs, the revolver poised, ready to fire at anything that moved.
HE REACHED the wine-cellar safely and lifted the stone. Then he hesitated. It might be useless, but perhaps the kitchen door should be locked. He went back.
His first glance was at the open kitchen door. It was there, framed in the blackness, the same yellow face, with its glittering, unwinking eyes. With a subtle difference, however, for the eyes now held an aggravating gleam of triumph.
It affected Felstead like a blow in the face. A sudden blinding rage seized him, smothering every other feeling. With a roar he rushed across the kitchen.
Instantly the face vanished. But Felstead tore into the passage, firing into the darkness ahead as he ran. The reports echoed like thunder, rising above the booming of the storm.
Snorting with rage he leaped through the door of the den, his feet crashing on the wrecked cabinet, and emptied the remaining chambers of his revolver across the room.
Then, the breath still whistling in his nostrils, he raised the lamp and glared about him. Nothing stirred. He flung the empty revolver into the darkest corner of the room, and stooped, instinctively, for another weapon. His fingers found one of the two squat vases that had survived the fall of the cabinet. It was small, heavy, an excellent missile if needed.
He pounded down to the cellar, plunged into the gaping tunnel entrance, and raced stumblingly toward the mound of earth he had raised. Felstead was not far, now, from physical exhaustion, but the tumult of his emotions lent him almost superhuman strength. The flying shovel was not long in exposing the iron door.
He took the lamp and the heavy vase. Shooting back the bolt, he wrenched the door open and hurried inside.
He had put the lamp on the floor, still holding the vase, and was bending over Breslin’s body when his eye caught a movement at the door. Straightening up, he half lifted the vase to throw. Then he staggered back against the wall.
In the doorway stood a man, a Chinaman. The solemn, yellow face, with its glittering eyes, was the face that had haunted him in the gloom above The man was swinging something in one of his hands.
White-faced and speechless, Felstead cowered against the wall and stared at him. At last he spoke.
“Who are you?” he gasped.
“I am John Wong, the secretary of the man you murdered,” the Chinaman answered, in almost perfect English, inclining his head slightly toward the body of Breslin. The voice was low, almost gentle, but there was a hint of inexorable purpose in it that, chilled Felstead.
“Breslin’s secretary! A Chinaman!” Felstead seemed dazed. “He never told me.”
“I followed my master here last night,” the Chinaman went on. “When he did not return I came back this morning, and I found—this.”
He held up the object in his hand. It was Breslin’s cloth cap, now still and darkly stained.
Felstead looked at the muffled body. The head was bare. And he thought he had left no clue! He swayed suddenly, the heavy vase crashed on the stone floor and broke into several pieces.
Felstead looked down at them. After a second wide-eyed look he clutched at the wall, and a low moan broke from his lips. The edges of the broken fragments were
studded with diamonds that glittered and sparkled in the lamplight.
He had found the hiding-place of his uncle’s wealth at last!
He muttered a few words, glanced at the sparkling stones, then at the swathed body of Breslin, and slid unconscious to the floor.
When he recovered, John Wong was standing in the doorway, the lamp in his hand. His eyes were fixed sorrowfully on the body of his master. Felstead looked in the same direction and saw that the cap had been reverently placed over the dead face. He struggled dizzily to his feet. John Wong’s eyes were turned on him with a level, inscrutable look. He waited for Felstead to speak.
“The—the ghost?” Felstead said, half to himself. John Wong smiled faintly.
“The parchment made the ghost for you. I only made it real,” he said, adding in explanation: “It was easy for me
because all day, while you slept, I learned the many ways of your house. And the storm, too, helped.”
“And you threw down the cabinet?” “Yes, when you did awake, you were slow to come from your room to find the Dragon.”
“But—what did you play the ghost for?”
“When the guilt is great, men fear easily, and men in fear act unwisely,” John Wong answered. “When I saw that you feared it, I knew you would fly from the ghost, but first you would take the Dragon from its hiding-place. Then I would have killed you.”
“Oh, you would!” Reaction had chased away Felstead’s fear. In changing his position his eyes once more encountered the diamond studded fragments of the vase. A vision of limitless wealth shot a thrill through him, like the thrill of a powerful drug. A wicked look gathered in his eyes as they measured the small stature of the Chinaman. John Wong seemed unaware of it.
“Now it is not necessary,” he said calmly, adding, in a slightly interrogative tone: “It is strange that you left the Dragon there?” He pointed to the body.
“More than strange, believe me,” Felstead answered grimly, making a move toward it, “but it won’t—”
John Wong stopped him with a gesture. “The Dragon is no longer there,” he said.
Felstead turned fiercely on him, “Where is it, then?”
John Wong touched the pocket of his overcoat.
“It is here,” he replied, quietly. “In an hour it will be again in the safe.”
“Give it to me,” Felstead shouted, gathering himself for a spring.
John Wong held up his hand, and Felstead stayed his rush.
“It would be useless,” said the Chinaman. “Where you are going you could not take it with you.” His hand dropped swiftly and he pointed again to the body. “Look! On his breast.”
Felstead turned his head and looked. On the grey overcoat that enveloped the body he saw an automatic lying.
“It was his,” John Wong said. “If you grow tired of waiting, use it.”
As he spoke, he stepped backward and laid a hand on the bolt of the door. Felstead turned his head in time to see the action.
“What are you going to do?” he cried, his voice rising suddenly, almost to a scream.
In his low voice John Wong answered just one word:
Felstead sprang as utter blackness engulfed him. The clang of the iron door and the rasp of the bolt were almost simultaneous.
In a few minutes the doomed man ceased his frantic screams and futile beatings on the door, and listened.
The dull thudding of loose earth against the massive iron was the only sound.
The thudding became softer . . . softer still . . . and died away.