Brood of the Witch Queen/Chapter 13
THE SCORPION WIND
This sudden and appalling change of weather had sadly affected the mood of the gathering. That part of the carnival planned to take place in the garden was perforce abandoned, together with the firework display. A halfhearted attempt was made at dancing, but the howling of the wind, and the omnipresent dust, perpetually reminded the pleasure-seekers that Khamsîn raged without—raged with a violence unparalleled in the experience of the oldest residents. This was a full-fledged sand-storm, a terror of the Sahara descended upon Cairo.
But there were few departures, although many of the visitors who had long distances to go, especially those from Mena House, discussed the advisability of leaving before this unique storm should have grown even worse. The general tendency, though, was markedly gregarious; safety seemed to be with the crowd, amid the gaiety, where music and laughter were, rather than in the sand-swept streets.
"Guess we've outstayed our welcome!" confided an American lady to Sime. "Egypt wants to drive us all home now."
"Possibly," he replied with a smile. "The season has run very late, this year, and so this sort of thing is more or less to be expected."
The orchestra struck up a lively one-step, and a few of the more enthusiastic dancers accepted the invitation, but the bulk of the company thronged around the edge of the floor, acting as spectators.
Cairn and Sime wedged a way through the heterogeneous crowd to the American Bar.
"I prescribe a 'tango,'" said Sime.
"A 'tango' is—?"
"A 'tango,'" explained Sime, "is a new kind of cocktail sacred to this buffet. Try it. It will either kill you or cure you."
Cairn smiled rather wanly.
"I must confess that I need bucking up a bit," he said: "that confounded sand seems to have got me by the throat."
Sime briskly gave his orders to the bar attendant.
"You know," pursued Cairn, "I cannot get out of my head the idea that there was someone wearing a crocodile mask in the garden a while ago."
"Look here," growled Sime, studying the operations of the cocktail manufacturer, "suppose there were—what about it?"
"Well, it's odd that nobody else saw him."
"I suppose it hasn't occurred to you that the fellow might have removed his mask?"
Cairn shook his head slowly.
"I don't think so," he declared; "I haven't seen him anywhere in the hotel."
"Seen him?" Sime turned his dull gaze upon the speaker. "How should you know him?"
Cairn raised his hand to his forehead in an oddly helpless way.
"No, of course not—it's very extraordinary."
They took their seats at a small table, and in mutual silence loaded and lighted their pipes. Sime, in common with many young and enthusiastic medical men, had theories—theories of that revolutionary sort which only harsh experience can shatter. Secretly he was disposed to ascribe all the ills to which flesh is heir primarily to a disordered nervous system. It was evident that Cairn's mind persistently ran along a particular groove; something lay back of all this erratic talk; he had clearly invested the Mask of Set with a curious individuality.
"I gather that you had a stiff bout of it in London?" Sime said suddenly.
"Beastly stiff. There is a lot of sound reason in your nervous theory, Sime. It was touch and go with me for days, I am told; yet, pathologically, I was a hale man. That would seem to show how nerves can kill. Just a series of shocks—horrors—one piled upon another, did as much for me as influenza, pneumonia, and two or three other ailments together could have done."
Sime shook his head wisely; this was in accordance with his ideas.
"You know Antony Ferrara?" continued Cairn. "Well, he has done this for me. His damnable practices are worse than any disease. Sime, the man is a pestilence! Although the law cannot touch him, although no jury can convict him—he is a murderer. He controls—forces—"
Sime was watching him intently.
"It will give you some idea, Sime, of the pitch to which things had come, when I tell you that my father drove to Ferrara's rooms one night, with a loaded revolver in his pocket—"
"For"—Sime hesitated—"for protection?"
"No." Cairn leant forward across the table—"to shoot him, Sime, shoot him on sight, as one shoots a mad dog!"
"Are you serious?"
"As God is my witness, if Antony Ferrara had been in his rooms that night, my father would have killed him!"
"It would have been a shocking scandal."
"It would have been a martyrdom. The man who removes Antony Ferrara from the earth will be doing mankind a service worthy of the highest reward. He is unfit to live. Sometimes I cannot believe that he does live; I expect to wake up and find that he was a figure of a particularly evil dream."
"This incident—the call at his rooms—occurred just before your illness?"
"The thing which he had attempted that night was the last straw, Sime; it broke me down. From the time that he left Oxford, Antony Ferrara has pursued a deliberate course of crime, of crime so cunning, so unusual, and based upon such amazing and unholy knowledge that no breath of suspicion has touched him. Sime, you remember a girl I told you about at Oxford one evening, a girl who came to visit him?"
Sime nodded slowly.
"Well—he killed her! Oh! there is no doubt about it; I saw her body in the hospital."
"How had he killed her, then?"
"How? Only he and the God who permits him to exist can answer that, Sime. He killed her without coming anywhere near her—and he killed his adoptive father, Sir Michael Ferrara, by the same unholy means!"
Sime watched him, but offered no comment.
"It was hushed up, of course; there is no existing law which could be used against him."
"They are ruled out, Sime, the laws that could have reached him; but he would have been burnt at the stake in the Middle Ages!"
"I see." Sime drummed his fingers upon the table. "You had those ideas about him at Oxford; and does Dr. Cairn seriously believe the same?"
"He does. So would you—you could not doubt it, Sime, not for a moment, if you had seen what we have seen!" His eyes blazed into a sudden fury, suggestive of his old, robust self. "He tried night after night, by means of the same accursed sorcery, which everyone thought buried in the ruins of Thebes, to kill me! He projected—things—"
"Suggested these—things, to your mind?"
"Something like that. I saw, or thought I saw, and smelt—pah!—I seem to smell them now!—beetles, mummy-beetles, you know, from the skull of a mummy! My rooms were thick with them. It brought me very near to Bedlam, Sime. Oh! it was not merely imaginary. My father and I caught him red-handed." He glanced across at the other. "You read of the death of Lord Lashmore? It was just after you came out."
"It was his heart, yes—but Ferrara was responsible! That was the business which led my father to drive to Ferrara's rooms with a loaded revolver in his pocket."
The wind was shaking the windows, and whistling about the building with demoniacal fury as if seeking admission; the band played a popular waltz; and in and out of the open doors came and went groups representative of many ages and many nationalities.
"Ferrara," began Sime slowly, "was always a detestable man, with his sleek black hair, and ivory face. Those long eyes of his had an expression which always tempted me to hit him. Sir Michael, if what you say is true—and after all, Cairn, it only goes to show how little we know of the nervous system—literally took a viper to his bosom."
"He did. Antony Ferrara was his adopted son, of course; God knows to what evil brood he really belongs."
Both were silent for a while. Then:
Cairn started to his feet so wildly as almost to upset the table.
"Look, Sime! look!" he cried.
Sime was not the only man in the bar to hear, and to heed his words. Sime, looking in the direction indicated by Cairn's extended finger, received a vague impression that a grotesque, long-headed figure had appeared momentarily in the doorway opening upon the room where the dancers were; then it was gone again, if it had ever been there, and he was supporting Cairn, who swayed dizzily, and had become ghastly pale. Sime imagined that the heated air had grown suddenly even more heated. Curious eyes were turned upon, his companion, who now sank back into his chair, muttering:
"The Mask, the Mask!"
"I think I saw the chap who seems to worry you so much," said Sime soothingly. "Wait here; I will tell the waiter to bring you a dose of brandy; and whatever you do, don't get excited."
He made for the door, pausing and giving an order to a waiter on his way, and pushed into the crowd outside. It was long past midnight, and the gaiety, which had been resumed, seemed of a forced and feverish sort. Some of the visitors were leaving, and a breath of hot wind swept in from the open doors.
A pretty girl wearing a yashmak, who, with two similarly attired companions, was making her way to the entrance, attracted his attention; she seemed to be on the point of swooning. He recognised the trio for the same that had pelted Cairn and himself with confetti earlier in the evening.
"The sudden heat has affected your friend," he said, stepping up to them. "My name is Dr. Sime; may I offer you my assistance?"
The offer was accepted, and with the three he passed out on to the terrace, where the dust grated beneath the tread, and helped the fainting girl into an arabîyeh. The night was thunderously black, the heat almost insufferable, and the tall palms in front of the hotel bowed before the might of the scorching wind.
As the vehicle drove off, Sime stood for a moment looking after it. His face was very grave, for there was a look in the bright eyes of the girl in the yashmak which, professionally, he did not like. Turning up the steps, he learnt from the manager that several visitors had succumbed to the heat. There was something furtive in the manner of his informant's glance, and Sime looked at him significantly.
"Khamsîn brings clouds of septic dust with it," he said. "Let us hope that these attacks are due to nothing more than the unexpected rise in the temperature."
An air of uneasiness prevailed now throughout the hotel. The wind had considerably abated, and crowds were leaving, pouring from the steps into the deserted street, a dreamlike company.
Colonel Royland took Sime aside, as the latter was making his way back to the buffet. The Colonel, whose regiment was stationed at the Citadel, had known Sime almost from childhood.
"You know, my boy," he said, "I should never have allowed Eileen" (his daughter) "to remain in Cairo, if I had foreseen this change in the weather. This infernal wind, coming right through the native town, is loaded with infection."
"Has it affected her, then?" asked Sime anxiously.
"She nearly fainted in the ball-room," replied the Colonel. "Her mother took her home half an hour ago. I looked for you everywhere, but couldn't find you."
"Quite a number have succumbed," said Sime.
"Eileen seemed to be slightly hysterical," continued the Colonel. "She persisted that someone wearing a crocodile mask had been standing beside her at the moment that she was taken ill."
Sime started; perhaps Cairn's story was not a matter of imagination after all.
"There is someone here, dressed like that, I believe," he replied, with affected carelessness. "He seems to have frightened several people. Any idea who he is?"
"My dear chap!" cried the Colonel, "I have been searching the place for him! But I have never once set eyes upon him. I was about to ask if you knew anything about it!"
Sime returned to the table where Cairn was sitting. The latter seemed to have recovered somewhat; but he looked far from well. Sime stared at him critically.
"I should turn in," he said, "if I were you. Khamsîn is playing the deuce with people. I only hope it does not justify its name and blow for fifty days."
"Have you seen the man in the mask!" asked Cairn.
"No," replied Sime, "but he's here alright; others have seen him."
Cairn stood up rather unsteadily, and with Sime made his way through the moving crowd to the stairs. The band was still playing, but the cloud of gloom which had settled upon the place, refused to be dissipated.
"Good-night, Cairn," said Sime, "see you in the morning."
Robert Cairn, with aching head and a growing sensation of nausea, paused on the landing, looking down into the court below. He could not disguise from himself that he felt ill, not nervously ill as in London, but physically sick. This superheated air was difficult to breathe; it seemed to rise in waves from below.
Then, from a weary glancing at the figures beneath him, his attitude changed to one of tense watching.
A man, wearing the crocodile mask of Set, stood by a huge urn containing a palm, looking up to the landing!
Cairn's weakness left him, and in its place came an indescribable anger, a longing to drive his fist into that grinning mask. He turned and ran lightly down the stairs, conscious of a sudden glow of energy. Reaching the floor, he saw the mask making across the hall, in the direction of the outer door. As rapidly as possible, for he could not run, without attracting undesirable attention, Cairn followed. The figure of Set passed out on to the terrace, but when Cairn in turn swung open the door, his quarry had vanished.
Then, in an arabîyeh just driving off, he detected the hideous mask. Hatless as he was, he ran down the steps and threw himself into another. The carriage-controller was in attendance, and Cairn rapidly told him to instruct the driver to follow the arabîyeh which had just left. The man lashed up his horses, turned the carriage, and went galloping on after the retreating figure. Past the Esbekîya Gardens they went, through several narrow streets, and on to the quarter of the Mûski. Time after time he thought he had lost the carriage ahead, but his own driver's knowledge of the tortuous streets enabled him always to overtake it again. They went rocking along lanes so narrow that with outstretched arms one could almost have touched the walls on either side; past empty shops and unlighted houses. Cairn had not the remotest idea of his whereabouts, save that he was evidently in the district of the bazaars. A right-angled corner was abruptly negotiated—and there, ahead of him, stood the pursued vehicle! The driver was turning his horses around, to return; his fare was disappearing from sight into the black shadows of a narrow alley on the left.
Cairn leaped from the arabîyeh, shouting to the man to wait, and went dashing down the sloping lane after the retreating figure. A sort of blind fury possessed him, but he never paused to analyse it, never asked himself by what right he pursued this man, what wrong the latter had done him. His action was wholly unreasoning; he knew that he wished to overtake the wearer of the mask and to tear it from his head; upon that he acted!
He discovered that despite the tropical heat of the night, he was shuddering with cold, but he disregarded this circumstance, and ran on.
The pursued stopped before an iron-studded door, which was opened instantly; he entered as the runner came up with him. And, before the door could be reclosed, Cairn thrust his way in.
Blackness, utter blackness, was before him. The figure which he had pursued seemed to have been swallowed up. He stumbled on, gropingly, hands outstretched, then fell—fell, as he realised in the moment of falling, down a short flight of stone steps.
Still amid utter blackness, he got upon his feet, shaken but otherwise unhurt by his fall. He turned about, expecting to see some glimmer of light from the stairway, but the blackness was unbroken. Silence and gloom hemmed him in. He stood for a moment, listening intently.
A shaft of light pierced the darkness, as a shutter was thrown open. Through an iron-barred window the light shone; and with the light came a breath of stifling perfume. That perfume carried his imagination back instantly to a room at Oxford, and he advanced and looked through into the place beyond. He drew a swift breath, clutched the bars, and was silent—stricken speechless.
He looked into a large and lofty room, lighted by several hanging lamps. It had a carpeted divan at one end and was otherwise scantily furnished, in the Eastern manner. A silver incense-burner smoked upon a large praying-carpet, and by it stood the man in the crocodile mask. An Arab girl, fantastically attired, who had evidently just opened the shutters, was now helping him to remove the hideous head-dress.
She presently untied the last of the fastenings and lifted the thing from the man's shoulders, moving away with the gliding step of the Oriental, and leaving him standing there in his short white tunic, bare-legged and sandalled.
The smoke of the incense curled upward and played around the straight, slim figure, drew vaporous lines about the still, ivory face—the handsome, sinister face, sometimes partly veiling the long black eyes and sometimes showing them in all their unnatural brightness. So the man stood, looking towards the barred window.
It was Antony Ferrara!
"Ah, dear Cairn—" the husky musical voice smote upon Cairn's ears as the most hated sound in nature—"you have followed me. Not content with driving me from London, you would also render Cairo—my dear Cairo—untenable for me."
Cairn clutched the bars but was silent.
"How wrong of you, Cairn!" the soft voice mocked. "This attention is so harmful—to you. Do you know, Cairn, the Sudanese formed the extraordinary opinion that I was an efreet, and this strange reputation has followed me right down the Nile. Your father, my dear friend, has studied these odd matters, and he would tell you that there is no power, in Nature, higher than the human will. Actually, Cairn, they have ascribed to me the direction of the Khamsîn, and so many worthy Egyptians have made up their minds that I travel with the storm—or that the storm follows me—that something of the kind has really come to pass! Or is it merely coincidence, Cairn? Who can say?"
Motionless, immobile, save for a slow smile, Antony Ferrara stood, and Cairn kept his eyes upon the evil face, and with trembling hands clutched the bars.
"It is certainly odd, is it not," resumed the taunting voice, "that Khamsîn, so violent, too, should thus descend upon the Cairene season? I only arrived from the Fayûm this evening, Cairn, and, do you know, they have the pestilence there! I trust the hot wind does not carry it to Cairo; there are so many distinguished European and American visitors here. It would be a thousand pities!"
Cairn released his grip of the bars, raised his clenched fists above his head, and in a voice and with a maniacal fury that were neither his own, cursed the man who stood there mocking him. Then he reeled, fell, and remembered no more.
"All right, old man—you'll do quite nicely now."
It was Sime speaking.
Cairn struggled upright ... and found himself in bed! Sime was seated beside him.
"Don't talk!" said Sime, "you're in hospital! I'll do the talking; you listen. I saw you bolt out of Shepheard's last night—shut up! I followed, but lost you. We got up a search party, and with the aid of the man who had driven you, ran you to earth in a dirty alley behind the mosque of El-Azhar. Four kindly mendicants, who reside upon the steps of the establishment, had been awakened by your blundering in among them. They were holding you—yes, you were raving pretty badly. You are a lucky man, Cairn. You were inoculated before you left home?"
Cairn nodded weakly.
"Saved you. Be all right in a couple of days. That damned Khamsîn has brought a whiff of the plague from somewhere! Curiously enough, over fifty per cent. of the cases spotted so far are people who were at the carnival! Some of them, Cairn—but we won't discuss that now. I was afraid of it, last night. That's why I kept my eye on you. My boy, you were delirious when you bolted out of the hotel!"
"Was I?" said Cairn wearily, and lay back on the pillow. "Perhaps I was."