Brood of the Witch Queen/Chapter 14

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Dr. Bruce Cairn stepped into the boat which was to take him ashore, and as it swung away from the side of the liner sought to divert his thoughts by a contemplation of the weird scene. Amid the smoky flare of many lights, amid rising clouds of dust, a line of laden toilers was crawling ant-like from the lighters into the bowels of the big ship; and a second line, unladen, was descending by another gangway. Above, the jewelled velvet of the sky swept in a glorious arc; beyond, the lights of Port Said broke through the black curtain of the night, and the moving ray from the lighthouse intermittently swept the harbour waters; whilst, amid the indescribable clamour, the grimily picturesque turmoil, so characteristic of the place, the liner took in coal for her run to Rangoon.

Dodging this way and that, rounding the sterns of big ships, and disputing the water-way with lesser craft, the boat made for shore.

The usual delay at the Custom House, the usual soothing of the excited officials in the usual way, and his arabîyeh was jolting Dr. Cairn through the noise and the smell of those rambling streets, a noise and a smell entirely peculiar to this clearing-house of the Near East.

He accepted the room which was offered to him at the hotel, without troubling to inspect it, and having left instructions that he was to be called in time for the early train to Cairo, he swallowed a whisky and soda at the buffet, and wearily ascended the stairs. There were tourists in the hotel, English and American, marked by a gaping wonderment, and loud with plans of sightseeing; but Port Said, nay all Egypt, had nothing of novelty to offer Dr. Cairn. He was there at great inconvenience; a practitioner of his repute may not easily arrange to quit London at a moment's notice. But the business upon which he was come was imperative. For him the charm of the place had not existence, but somewhere in Egypt his son stood in deadly peril, and Dr. Cairn counted the hours that yet divided them. His soul was up in arms against the man whose evil schemes had led to his presence in Port Said, at a time when many sufferers required his ministrations in Half-Moon Street. He was haunted by a phantom, a ghoul in human shape; Antony Ferrara, the adopted son of his dear friend, the adopted son, who had murdered his adopter, who whilst guiltless in the eyes of the law, was blood-guilty in the eyes of God!

Dr. Cairn switched on the light and seated himself upon the side of the bed, knitting his brows and staring straight before him, with an expression in his clear grey eyes whose significance he would have denied hotly, had any man charged him with it. He was thinking of Antony Ferrara's record; the victims of this fiendish youth (for Antony Ferrara was barely of age) seemed to stand before him with hands stretched out appealingly.

"You alone," they seemed to cry, "know who and what he is! You alone know of our awful wrongs; you alone can avenge them!"

And yet he had hesitated! It had remained for his own flesh and blood to be threatened ere he had taken decisive action. The viper had lain within his reach, and he had neglected to set his heel upon it. Men and women had suffered and had died of its venom; and he had not crushed it. Then Robert, his son, had felt the poison fang, and Dr. Cairn, who had hesitated to act upon the behalf of all humanity, had leapt to arms. He charged himself with a parent's selfishness, and his conscience would hear no defence.

Dimly, the turmoil from the harbour reached him where he sat. He listened dully to the hooting of a syren—that of some vessel coming out of the canal.

His thoughts were evil company, and, with a deep sigh, he rose, crossed the room and threw open the double windows, giving access to the balcony.

Port Said, a panorama of twinkling lights, lay beneath him. The beam from the lighthouse swept the town searchingly like the eye of some pagan god lustful for sacrifice. He imagined that he could hear the shouting of the gangs coaling the liner in the harbour; but the night was full of the remote murmuring inseparable from that gateway of the East. The streets below, white under the moon, looked empty and deserted, and the hotel beneath him gave up no sound to tell of the many birds of passage who sheltered within it. A stunning sense of his loneliness came to him; his physical loneliness was symbolic of that which characterised his place in the world. He, alone, had the knowledge and the power to crush Antony Ferrara. He, alone, could rid the world of the unnatural menace embodied in the person bearing that name.

The town lay beneath his eyes, but now he saw nothing of it; before his mental vision loomed—exclusively—the figure of a slim and strangely handsome young man, having jet black hair, lustreless, a face of uniform ivory hue, long dark eyes wherein lurked lambent fires, and a womanish grace expressed in his whole bearing and emphasised by his long white hands. Upon a finger of the left hand gleamed a strange green stone.

Antony Ferrara! In the eyes of this solitary traveller, who stood looking down upon Port Said, that figure filled the entire landscape of Egypt!

With a weary sigh, Dr. Cairn turned and began to undress. Leaving the windows open, he switched off the light and got into bed. He was very weary, with a weariness rather of the spirit than of the flesh, but it was of that sort which renders sleep all but impossible. Around and about one fixed point his thoughts circled; in vain he endeavoured to forget, for a while, Antony Ferrara and the things connected with him. Sleep was imperative, if he would be in fit condition to cope with the matters which demanded his attention in Cairo.

Yet sleep defied him. Every trifling sound from the harbour and the canal seemed to rise upon the still air to his room. Through a sort of mist created by the mosquito curtains, he could see the open windows, and look out upon the stars. He found himself studying the heavens with sleepless eyes, and idly working out the constellations visible. Then one very bright star attracted the whole of his attention, and, with the dogged persistency of insomnia, he sought to place it, but could not determine to which group it belonged.

So he lay with his eyes upon the stars until the other veiled lamps of heaven became invisible, and the patch of sky no more than a setting for that one white orb.

In this contemplation he grew restful; his thoughts ceased feverishly to race along that one hateful groove; the bright star seemed to soothe him. As a result of his fixed gazing, it now appeared to have increased in size. This was a common optical delusion, upon which he scarcely speculated at all. He recognised the welcome approach of sleep, and deliberately concentrated his mind upon the globe of light.

Yes, a globe of light indeed—for now it had assumed the dimensions of a lesser moon; and it seemed to rest in the space between the open windows. Then, he thought that it crept still nearer. The realities—the bed, the mosquito curtain, the room—were fading, and grateful slumber approached, and weighed upon his eyes in the form of that dazzling globe. The feeling of contentment was the last impression which he had, ere, with the bright star seemingly suspended just beyond the netting, he slept.