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CHAPTER IX

 

HOW THEY BROUGHT THE BAD NEWS FROM ARAGO TO  QUINCAMPOIX: AND WHAT ACTION WAS TAKEN THEREUPON

 

     JUST as Lord Antony Bowling turned into the Grands Boulevards from the Faubourg Montmartre, Akbar Pasha was leaving them. The Turk did not see the genially flourished cane; he was preoccupied -- and perhaps he did not wish to be recognized. For he dodged among the obscure and dangerous streets of "The Belly of Paris" with many a look behind him. To be sure, this is but a reasonable precaution in a district so favourable to Apache activities. At last he came out into the great open square of the markets; and, crossing obliquely, came to a drinking den of the type which seeks to attract foreigners, preferably Americans. It bore the quite incongruous name "Au Pere Tranquille." Akbar mounted the stairs. It was too early for revellers; even the musicians had not arrived; but an old man sat in one corner of the room, sipping a concoction of gin, whisky and rum which goes in certain circles by the name of a Nantucket Cocktail.

     This individual was of some sixty years of age; his hair and beard were white; his dress was that of a professional man, and he endeavoured to give dignity to his appearance by the assumption of a certain paternal or even patriarchal manner. But his eye was pale and cold as a murderer's, shifty and furtive as a thief's. His hands trembled continually [117] with a kind of palsy; and the white knuckles told a tale of gout. Self-indulgence had bloated his body; unhealthy fat was everywhere upon him.

     The trembling of his hands seemed in sympathy with that of his mind; one would have said that he was in deadly fear, or the prey to a consuming anxiety.

     At the Turk's entrance he rose clumsily, then fell back into his chair. He was more than half intoxicated.

     Akbar took the chair opposite to him. "We couldn't get it," he said; in a whisper, though there was nobody within earshot. "Oh, Dr. Balloch, Dr. Balloch! do try to understand! It was impossible. We tried all sorts of ways."

     The doctor's voice had a soft suavity. Though a licensed physician, he had long since abandoned legitimate practice, and under the guise of homeopathy pursued various courses which would have been but ill regarded by more regular practitioners.

     His reply was horrible, uttered as it was in feline falseness, like a caress. "You foul ass!" he said. "I have to take this up with S.R.M.D., you know! What will he say and do?"

     "I tell you I couldn't. There was an old man there who spoilt everything, in my idea."

     "An old man?" Dr. Balloch almost dropped his hypocritical bedside voice in his rage. "Oh curse, oh curse it all!" He leant over to the Turk, caught his beard, and deliberately pulled it. There is no grosser insult that you can offer to a Mussulman, but Akbar accepted it without resentment. Yet so savage was the assault that a sharp cry of pain escaped him.

      You dog! you Turkish swine!" hissed Balloch. "Do you know what has happened? S.R.M.D. sent a Watcher -- a bit of himself, do you understand what that means, you piece of dirt? -- and it hasn't returned. It must have been killed, but we can't find out how, [118] and S.R.M.D. is lying half dead in his house. You pig! Why didn't you come with your storry at once? I know now what is wrong."

     "You know I don't know your address," said the Turk humbly. "Please, oh please, leave go of my beard!"

     Balloch contemptuously released his victim -- who was a brave enough man in an ordinary way, and would have had the blood of his own Sultan, though he knew that the guards would cut him to pieces within the next ten seconds, for the least of such words as had been addressed to him. But Balloch was his Superior in the Black Lodge, which rules by terror and by torture; its first principle was to enslave its members. The bully Balloch became a whimpering cur at the slightest glance of the dreaded S.R.M.D.

     "Tell me what the old man was like," he said. "Did you get his name?"

     "Yes," said Akbar, "I got that. It was Simon Iff."

     Balloch dashed his glass upon the ground. "Oh hell! Oh hell! Oh hell!" he said, not so much as a curse but as an invocation. "Hear, oh hear this creature! The ignorant, blind swine! You had him -- Him! -- under your hand; oh hell, you fool, you fool!"

     I felt sure he was somebody," said Akbar, "but I had no orders."

     "And no brains, no brains," snarled the other. "Look here; I'll tell you how to get your step in the Lodge if you'll give me a hundred pounds."

     "Do you mean it?" cried Akbar, entirely his own man in a moment, for abject fear and obsessing ambition combined to make his advancement the tyrant of his whole tormented mind. "Will you swear it?" [119]

     Balloch made an ugly face. "By the black sow's udder, I will."

     His whole frame trembling with excitement, Akbar Pasha drew a cheque-book from his pocket, and filled in a blank for the required sum.

     Balloch snatched it greedily. "This is worth your money," he said. "That man Iff is in the second grade, perhaps even the first, of their dirty Order; and we sometimes think he's the most powerful of the whole damned crew. That fool Grey's a child to him. I know now how the Watcher was destroyed. Oh! S.R.M.D. will pay somebody for this! But listen, man -- you bring that old beast's head on a charger -- or Grey's, either! -- and you can have any grade you dare ask for! And that's no lie, curse it! Why," he went on with increasing vehemence, "the whole thing's a plant of ours. Monet-Knott's one of us; we use him to blackmail Lavinia King -- about all he's fit for, the prig! And we got him to drag that dago woman in front of Master Grey's dog nose! And  now they bring in Simon Iff. Oh, it s too much! We've even lost their trail. Ten to one they're safe in their Abbey to-night. Be off! No, wait for me here; I'll bring back orders. And while I'm gone, get that son of yours here -- he's got more sense than you. We'll have to trace Grey somehow -- and astral watchers won't do the trick when Simon Iff's about."

     Balloch rose to his feet, buttoned his coat around him, put on a tall silk hat, and was gone without wasting another word upon his subordinate.

     The Turk would have given his ears to have dared to follow him. The mystery of S.R.M.D.'s personality and abode were shrouded in the blackest secrecy. Akbar had but the vaguest ideas of the man; he was a formless ideal of terrific power and knowledge, a sort of incarnated Satan, the epitome of successful [120] iniquity. The episode of the "Watcher" had not diminished the chief's prestige in his eyes; it was evidently an "accident"; S.R.M.D. had sent out a patrol and it had been ambushed by a whole division, as it were. So trivial a "regrettable incident" was negligibly normal.

     Akbar had no thought but of S.R.M.D. as a Being infinitely great in himself; he had no conception of the price paid by the members of the Black Lodge. The truth is, that as its intimates advance, their power and knowledge becomes enormously greater; but such progress is not a mark of general growth, as it is in the case of the White Brotherhood; it is like a cancer, which indeed grows apace, but at the expense of the man on whom it feeds, and will destroy both him and itself in the long run. The process may be slow; it may extend over a series of incarnations; but it is sure enough. The analogy of the cancer is a close one; for the man knows his doom, suffers continual torture; but to this is added the horrible delusion that if only the disease can be induced to advance far enough, all is saved. Thus he hugs the fearful growth, cherishes it as his one dearest possession, stimulates it by every means in his power. Yet all the time he nurses in his heart an agonizing certainty that this is the way of death.

     Balloch knew S.R.M.D. well; had known him for years. He hoped to supplant him, and while he feared him with hideous and unmanly fear, hated him with most hellish hatred. He was under no delusion as to the nature of the Path of the Black Lodge. Akbar Pasha, a mere outsider, without a crime on his hands as yet, was a rich and honoured officer in the service of the Sultan; he, Balloch, was an ill-reputed doctor, living on the fears of old maids, on doubtful and even criminal services to foolish people from the supply of morphia to the suppression of [121] the evidence of scandal, and on the harvest of half-disguised blackmail that goes with such pursuits. But he was  respectability itself compared to S.R.M.D.

     This man, who called himself the Count Macgregor of Glenlyon, was in reality a Hampshire man, of lowland Scottish extraction, of the name of Douglas. He had been well educated, became a good scholar, and developed an astounding taste and capacity for magic. For some time he had kept straight; then he had fallen, chosen the wrong road. His powers had increased at a bound; but they were solely used for base ends. He had established the Black Lodge far more firmly than ever before, jockeyed his seniors out of office by superior villainy, and proceeded to forge the whole weapon to his own liking. He had had one terrible set-back.

     Cyril Grey, when only twenty years of age, a free-lance magician, had entered the Lodge; for it worked to attract innocent people under a false pretence of wisdom and of virtue. Cyril, discovering the trick, had not withdrawn; he had played the game of the Lodge, and made himself Douglas's right-hand man. This being achieved, he had suddenly put a match to the arsenal.

     The Lodge was always seething with hate; Theosophists themselves might have taken lessons from this exponent; and the result of Cyril's intervention had been to disintegrate the entire structure. Douglas found his prestige gone, and his income with it. Addiction to drink, which had accompanied his magical fall, now became an all-absorbing vice. He was never able to rebuild his Lodge on its former lines; but those who thirsted for knowledge and power and these he still possessed in ever increasing abundance as he himself decayed -- clung to him, hating and envying him, as a young ruffian of the [122] streets will envy the fame of some robber or murderer who happens to fill the public eye.

     It was with this clot of perverse feelings that Balloch approached the Rue Quincampoix, one of the lowest streets in Paris, and turned in at the den where Douglas lodged.

     S.R.M.D. was lying on a torn soiled sofa, his face white as death; a mottled and empurpled nose, still showing trace of its original aggressive and haughty model, alone made for colour. For his eyes were even paler than the doctor's. In his hand was a bottle half full of raw whisky, with which he was seeking to restore his vitality.

     "I brought you some whisky," said Balloch, who knew the way to favour.

     "Put it down, over there. You've got some money."

     Balloch did not dare to lie. S.R.M.D. had spotted the fact without a word.

     Only a cheque. You shall have half to-morrow when I've cashed it."

     "Come here at noon.

     Despite the obvious degradation of his whole being, S.R.M.D. was still somebody. He was a wreck, but he was the wreck of something indubitably big. He had not only the habit of command, but the tone of fine manners. In his palmy days he had associated with some very highly placed people. It was said that the Third Section of the Russian Police Bureau had once found a use for him.

     "Is the Countess at home?" asked Balloch, apparently in courtesy.

     "She's on the Boulevard. Where else should she be, at this time of night?"

     It was the vilest thing charged against that vile parody of a man, his treatment of his wife, a young, beautiful, talented, and charming girl, the sister of [123] a famous Professor at the Sorbonne. He had delighted to reduce her to the bedraggled street-walker that she now was.

     Nobody knew what Douglas did with his money. The contributions of his Lodge were large; blackmail and his wife's earnings aided the exchequer; he had probably a dozen other sources of income. Yet he never extricated himself from his sordidness; and he was always in need of money. It was no feigned need, either; for he was sometimes short of whisky.

     The man's knowledge of the minds of others was uncanny; he read Balloch at a gesture.

     "Grey never struck the Watcher," he said; "it was not his style; who was it?"

     "Simon Iff."

     "I shall see to that."

     Balloch understood that, though S.R.M.D. feared Iff and loathed him, his great preoccupation was with Cyril Grey. He hated the young magician with a perfect hatred; he would never forget his ruin at those boyish hands. Also, he forgave nothing, from a kindness to an insult; he was malignant for the sake of malice.

     "They will have gone over to their house on Montmartre," continued Douglas, in a voice of absolute certitude. "We must have the exits watched by Abdul Bey and his men. But I know what Grey will do as well as if he had told me; he will bolt somewhere warm for his damned honeymoon. You and Akbar watch the Gare de Lyon. Now, look here! with a bit of luck, we'll finish off this game; I'm weary of it. Mark me well!"

     Douglas rose. The whisky he had drunk was impotent to affect him, head or legs. He went over to a small table on which were painted certain curious figures. He took a saucer, poured some [124] whisky into it, and dropped a five-franc piece into the middle. Then he began to make weird gestures, and to utter a long conjuration, harsh-sounding, and apparently in gibberish. Lastly, he set fire to the whisky in the saucer. When it was nearly burnt through, he blew it out. He took the coin, wrapped it in a piece of dark-red silk, and gave it to his pupil.

     "When Grey boards a traiin," he ordered, "go up to the engine-driver, give him this, and tell him to drive carefully. Let me know what the fellow looks like; get his name, if you can; say you want to drink his health. Then come straight here in a cab."

     Balloch nodded. The type of magic proposed was familiar enough to him. He took the coin and made off.

     At the Sign of the Tranquil Father, Akbar was awaiting him with his son Abdul Bey. The latter was in charge of the Turkish Secret Service in Paris, and he did not hesitate to use the facilities thus at his disposal to his own magical advancement. All his resources were constantly at the service of Balloch. Now that S.R.M.D. himself was employing him, he was beside himself with pride and pleasure.

     Balloch gave his instructions. An hour later the house where Lisa was even then undergoing her ordeal would be surrounded by spies; additional men would be placed at all the big terminals of Paris; for Abdul Bey meant to do the thing thoroughly. He would not take a chance; for all his fanatical faith in Douglas, he thought it prudent to provide against the possibility of an error in the chief's occult calculations. Also, his action would prove his zeal. Besides, Cyril might deliberately lay a false trail -- was almost sure to play some trick of the sort.

     Balloch and Akbar Pasha were stationed in a [125] restaurant facing the Gare de Lyon, ready to answer the telephone at any moment." Now," said Abdul, "Have you photographs of these people to show my men?"

     Balloch produced them.

     "I've seen this man Grey somewhere," remarked the young Turk casually. And then he gave a sudden and terrible cry. In Lisa he  recognized an unknown woman whom he had admired the year before at a dance -- and whom he had craved ever since. "Tell S.R.M.D.," he roared, "that I'm in this thing for life or death; but I ask the girl for a trophy."

     "You'll get that, or anything else," said Balloch, "if you can put an end to the activities of Mr. Cyril Grey."

     Abdul Bey rushed off without another word spoken; and Balloch and the Pasha went to the rendezvous appointed. They passed that night and the next day in alternate bouts of drink and sleep. About half-past eight on the following evening the telephone rang. Douglas had judged rightly; the lovers had arrived at the Gare de Lyon.

     Balloch and his pupil sprang to life -- fresh and vigorous at the prick of the summons to action.

     It was easy to mark the tall figure of the magician, with the lovely girl upon his arm; at the barrier their distinction touched the humanity of the collector. Tickets through to Rome -- and no luggage! Most evidently an elopement!

     With romantic sympathy, the kind man determined to oppose the passage of Balloch, whom he supposed to he an angry father or an outraged husband. But the manner of the Englishman disarmed him; besides, he had a ticket to Dijon.

     Concealing himself as best he could, the doctor walked rapidly to the head of the train. There, assuming the character of a timid old man, he [126] implored the driver, with the gift of the bewitched "cart-wheel," to be sure to drive carefully. He would drink the good fellow's health, to be sure -- what name? Oh! Marcel Dufour. "Of the furnace -- that is appropriate!" laughed the genial passenger, apparently reassured as to his security.

     But he did not enter the train. He dashed out of the station, and into a motor-cab, overjoyed to return to Douglas with so clean a record of work accomplished.

     He never gave the Turk another thought.

     But Akbar Pasha had had an idea. Balloch had taken a ticket for Dijon -- he would take one, too. And he would go -- he would retrieve his error of yesterday. He was not in the least afraid of that cub Grey, when Simon Iff was not there to back him. It would go hard, but he should get a drop of Lisa's blood -- if he had to bribe the wagon-lit man. Then -- who knows? -- there might even be a chance to kill Grey. He waited till the last moment before he boarded the train.

     The train would stop at Moret-les-Sablons; by that time the beds would be made up; he would have plenty of time to act; he could go on to Rome if necessary.

     Cyril Grey, away from the influence of Simon Iff, had become the sarcastic sphinx once more. He was wearing a travelling suit with knickerbockers, but he still affected the ultra-pontifical diplomatist.

     "The upholstery of these cars is revolting," he said to Lisa, with a glance of disgust. And he suddenly opened the door away from the platform and lifted her on to the permanent way; thence into a stuffy compartment in the train that was standing at the next "Voie."

     "A frosty moonlight night like this," he said, pulling a large black pipe from his pocket and filling [127] it, "indicates (to romantic lovers like ourselves) the propriety of a descent at Moret, a walk to Barbizon through the forest, a return to Moret by a similar route in a day or so, and the pursuance of our journey to Naples. See Naples and die!" he added musingly, "decidedly a superior programme."

     Lisa would have listened to a proposition to begin their travels by swimming the Seine, on the ground that the day after to-morrow would be Friday; so she raised no objection. But she could not help saying that they would have reached Moret more quickly by the rapide.

     "My infant child!" he returned; " the celebrated Latin poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus has observed, for our edification and behoof, 'Festina lente.' This epigram has been translated by a famous Spanish author, 'manana.' Dante adds his testimony to truth in his grandiose outburst, 'Domani.' Also, an Arab philosopher, whom I personally revere, remarks, if we may trust the assertion of Sir Richard Francis Burton, K.C.M.G. -- and why should we not? -- 'Conceal thy tenets, thy treasure, and thy travelling!' This I do. More so," he concluded cryptically, "than you imagine!"

     They were still waiting for their local funeral (which the French grandiloquently describe as a train) to start when Dr. Balloch returned radiant to the Rue Quincampoix.

     Douglas was on the alert to receive him. The news took only a second to communicate.

     "Marcel Dufour!" cried S.R.M.D. "We shall drink for him, as he may not drink on duty."

     He carefully opened two bottles of whisky, mixed the stale spirit in the magic saucer with their contents, and bade Balloch join him at the table.

     "Your very good health, Marcel Dufour!" cried Douglas. "And mind you drive carefully!" [128] Balloch and he now set to work steadily to drain the two bottles -- a stiff nip every minute -- but the stuff had no effect on them. It was far otherwise with the man on the engine.

     Almost before he had well left Paris behind him, he began to fret about the furnace, and told his fireman to keep up the fullest head of steam. At Melun the train should have slackened speed; instead, it increased it. The signalman at Fontainebleau was amazed to see the rapide rush through the station, eight minutes ahead of time, against the signals. He saw the driver grappling with the fireman, who was thrown from the foot-plate a moment after, but escaped with a broken leg.

     "My mate went suddenly mad," the injured man explained later. "He held up a five-franc piece which some old gentleman had given him, and  swore that the devil had promised him another if he made Dijon in two hours. (And, as you know, it is five, what horror!)."

     He grew afraid, saw the signals set at danger, and sprang to the lever. Then that poor crazed Dufour had thrown him off the train.

     The guard was new to that section of the line, and so, no doubt, too timid to take the initiative; he certainly should have applied the brakes, even at Melun.

     An hour later Cyril Grey and Lisa and all their fellow passengers were turned out at Fontainebleau. There had been a terrible disaster to the Paris-Rome rapide at Moret. The line would be blocked all night.

     "This contretemps," said Cyril, as if he had heard of a change of programme at a theatre, "will add appreciably to the length -- and, may I add, to the romance -- of our proposed walk.

     When they reached Moret more than three hours [129] later, they found the rapide inextricably tangled with a heavy freight train. It had left the line at the curve and crashed into the slower train. Cyril Grey had still a surprise in store. He produced a paper of some sort from his pocket, which the officer of the police cordon received in the manner of the infant Samuel when overwhelmed by the gift of prophecy. He made way for them with proud deference.

     They had not to walk far before the magician found what he was seeking. Beneath the ruins of the rear compartment were the remains of the late Akbar Pasha.

     "I wonder how that happened," he said. "However, here is a guess at your epitaph: 'a little learning is a dangerous thing.' I think, Lisa, that we should sup at the Cheval Blanc before we start our walk to Barbizon. It is a long way, especially at night, and we want to cut away to the west so as to avoid Fontainebleau, for the sake of the romance of the thing."

     Lisa did not mind whether she supped at the White Horse, or on one. She realized that she had hold of a man of strength, wisdom, and foresight, far more than a match for their enemies.

     He stopped to speak to the officer in charge of the cordon as they passed him. "Among the dead: Mr. and Mrs. Cyril Grey. English people. No flowers. Service of the minister."

     The officer promised to record the lie officially. His deference was amazing. Lisa perceived that her lover had been at the pains to arm himself with more than one kind of weapon.

     Lisa pressed his arm, and murmured her appreciation of his cleverness.

     "It won't deceive Douglas for two minutes, if he be, as I suspect, the immediate Hound of the Baskervilles, but he may waste some time rejoicing [130] over my being such an ass as to try it; and that's always a gain."

     Lisa began to wonder whether her best chance of ever saying the right thing would not be to choose the wrong. His point of view was always round the corner of her street! [131]