Brood of the Witch Queen/Chapter 17
THE STORY OF ALI MOHAMMED
Saluting each of the three in turn, the tall Egyptian passed from Dr. Cairn's room. Upon his exit followed a brief but electric silence. Dr. Cairn's face was very stern and Sime, with his hands locked behind him, stood staring out of the window into the palmy garden of the hotel. Robert Cairn looked from one to the other excitedly.
"What did he say, sir?" he cried, addressing his father. "It had something to do with—"
Dr. Cairn turned. Sime did not move.
"It had something to do with the matter which has brought me to Cairo," replied the former—"yes."
"You see," said Robert, "my knowledge of Arabic is nil—"
Sime turned in his heavy fashion, and directed a dull gaze upon the last speaker.
"Ali Mohammed," he explained slowly, "who has just left, had come down from the Fayûm to report a singular matter. He was unaware of its real importance, but it was sufficiently unusual to disturb him, and Ali Mohammed es-Suefi is not easily disturbed."
Dr. Cairn dropped into an armchair, nodding towards Sime.
"Tell him all that we have heard," he said. "We stand together in this affair."
"Well," continued Sime, in his deliberate fashion, "when we struck our camp beside the Pyramid of Méydûm, Ali Mohammed remained behind with a gang of workmen to finish off some comparatively unimportant work. He is an unemotional person. Fear is alien to his composition; it has no meaning for him. But last night something occurred at the camp—or what remained of the camp—which seems to have shaken even Ali Mohammed's iron nerve."
Robert Cairn nodded, watching the speaker intently.
"The entrance to the Méydûm Pyramid—," continued Sime.
"One of the entrances," interrupted Dr. Cairn, smiling slightly.
"There is only one entrance," said Sime dogmatically.
Dr. Cairn waved his hand.
"Go ahead," he said. "We can discuss these archæological details later."
Sime stared dully, but, without further comment, resumed:
"The camp was situated on the slope immediately below the only known entrance to the Méydûm Pyramid; one might say that it lay in the shadow of the building. There are tumuli in the neighbourhood—part of a prehistoric cemetery—and it was work in connection with this which had detained Ali Mohammed in that part of the Fayûm. Last night about ten o'clock he was awakened by an unusual sound, or series of sounds, he reports. He came out of the tent into the moonlight, and looked up at the pyramid. The entrance was a good way above his head, of course, and quite fifty or sixty yards from the point where he was standing, but the moonbeams bathed that side of the building in dazzling light so that he was enabled to see a perfect crowd of bats whirling out of the pyramid."
"Bats!" ejaculated Robert Cairn.
"Yes. There is a small colony of bats in this pyramid, of course; but the bat does not hunt in bands, and the sight of these bats flying out from the place was one which Ali Mohammed had never witnessed before. Their concerted squeaking was very clearly audible. He could not believe that it was this which had awakened him, and which had awakened the ten or twelve workmen who also slept in the camp, for these were now clustering around him, and all looking up at the side of the pyramid.
"Fayûm nights are strangely still. Except for the jackals and the village dogs, and some other sounds to which one grows accustomed, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—audible.
"In this stillness, then, the flapping of the bat regiment made quite a disturbance overhead. Some of the men were only half awake, but most, of them were badly frightened. And now they began to compare notes, with the result that they determined upon the exact nature of the sound which had aroused them. It seemed almost certain that this had been a dreadful scream—the scream of a woman in the last agony."
He paused, looking from Dr. Cairn to his son, with a singular expression upon his habitually immobile face.
"Go on," said Robert Cairn.
Slowly Sime resumed:
"The bats had begun to disperse in various directions, but the panic which had seized upon the camp does not seem to have dispersed so readily. Ali Mohammed confesses that he himself felt almost afraid—a remarkable admission for a man of his class to make. Picture these fellows, then, standing looking at one another, and very frequently up at the opening in the side of the pyramid. Then the smell began to reach their nostrils—the smell which completed the panic, and which led to the abandonment of the camp—"
"The smell—what kind of smell?" jerked Robert Cairn.
Dr. Cairn turned himself in his chair, looking fully at his son.
"The smell of Hades, boy!" he said grimly, and turned away again.
"Naturally," continued Sime, "I can give you no particulars on the point, but it must have been something very fearful to have affected the Egyptian native! There was no breeze, but it swept down upon them, this poisonous smell, as though borne by a hot wind."
"Was it actually hot?"
"I cannot say. But Ali Mohammed is positive that it came from the opening in the pyramid. It was not apparently in disgust, but in sheer, stark horror, that the whole crowd of them turned tail and ran. They never stopped and never looked back until they came to Rekka on the railway."
A short silence followed. Then:
"That was last night?" questioned Cairn.
His father nodded.
"The man came in by the first train from Wasta," he said, "and we have not a moment to spare!"
Sime stared at him.
"I don't understand—"
"I have a mission," said Dr. Cairn quietly. "It is to run to earth, to stamp out, as I would stamp out a pestilence, a certain thing—I cannot call it a man—Antony Ferrara. I believe, Sime, that you are at one with me in this matter?"
Sime drummed his fingers upon the table, frowning thoughtfully, and looking from one to the other of his companions under his lowered brows.
"With my own eyes," he said, "I have seen something of this secret drama which has brought you, Dr. Cairn, to Egypt; and, up to a point, I agree with you regarding Antony Ferrara. You have lost all trace of him?"
"Since leaving Port Said," said Dr. Cairn, "I have seen and heard nothing of him; but Lady Lashmore, who was an intimate—and an innocent victim, God help her—of Ferrara in London, after staying at the Semiramis in Cairo for one day, departed. Where did she go?"
"What has Lady Lashmore to do with the matter?" asked Sime.
"If what I fear be true—" replied Dr. Cairn. "But I anticipate. At the moment it is enough for me that, unless my information be at fault, Lady Lashmore yesterday left Cairo by the Luxor train at 8.30."
Robert Cairn looked in a puzzled way at his father.
"What do you suspect, sir?" he said.
"I suspect that she went no further than Wasta," replied Dr. Cairn.
"Still I do not understand," declared Sime.
"You may understand later," was the answer. "We must not waste a moment. You Egyptologists think that Egypt has little or nothing to teach you; the Pyramid of Méydûm lost interest directly you learnt that apparently it contained no treasure. How, little you know what it really contained, Sime! Mariette did not suspect; Sir Gaston Maspero does not suspect! The late Sir Michael Ferrara and I once camped by the Pyramid of Méydûm, as you have camped there, and we made a discovery—"
"Well?" said Sime, with growing interest.
"It is a point upon which my lips are sealed, but—do you believe in black magic?"
"I am not altogether sure that I do—"
"Very well; you are entitled to your opinion. But although you appear to be ignorant of the fact, the Pyramid of Méydûm was formerly one of the strong-holds—the second greatest in all the land of the Nile—of Ancient Egyptian sorcery! I pray heaven I may be wrong, but in the disappearance of Lady Lashmore, and in the story of Ali Mohammed, I see a dreadful possibility. Ring for a time-table. We have not a moment to waste!"