Brood of the Witch Queen/Chapter 24
FLOWERING OF THE LOTUS
Dr. Cairn led the way into the library, switching on the reading-lamp upon the large table. His son stood just within the doorway, his arms folded and his chin upon his breast.
The doctor sat down at the table, watching the other.
Suddenly Robert spoke:
"Is it possible, sir, is it possible—" his voice was barely audible—"that her illness can in any way be due to the orchids?"
Dr. Cairn frowned thoughtfully.
"What do you mean, exactly?" he asked.
"Orchids are mysterious things. They come from places where there are strange and dreadful diseases. Is it not possible that they may convey—"
"Some sort of contagion?" concluded Dr. Cairn. "It is a point that I have seen raised, certainly. But nothing of the sort has ever been established. I have heard something, to-night, though, which—"
"What have you heard, sir?" asked his son eagerly, stepping forward to the table.
"Never mind at the moment, Rob; let me think."
He rested his elbow upon the table, and his chin in his hand. His professional instincts had told him that unless something could be done—something which the highest medical skill in London had thus far been unable to devise—Myra Duquesne had but four hours to live. Somewhere in his mind a memory lurked, evasive, taunting him. This wild suggestion of his son's, that the girl's illness might be due in some way to her contact with the orchids, was in part responsible for this confused memory, but it seemed to be associated, too, with the story of Crombie the gardener—and with Antony Ferrara. He felt that somewhere in the darkness surrounding him there was a speck of light, if he could but turn in the right direction to see it. So, whilst Robert Cairn walked restlessly about the big room, the doctor sat with his chin resting in the palm of his hand, seeking to concentrate his mind upon that vague memory, which defied him, whilst the hand of the library clock crept from twelve towards one; whilst he knew that the faint life in Myra Duquesne was slowly ebbing away in response to some mysterious condition, utterly outside his experience.
Distant clocks chimed One! Three hours only!
Robert Cairn began to beat his fist into the palm of his left hand convulsively. Yet his father did not stir, but sat there, a black-shadowed wrinkle between his brows....
The doctor sprang to his feet, and with feverish haste began to fumble amongst a bunch of keys.
"What is it, sir! What is it?"
The doctor unlocked the drawer of the big table, and drew out a thick manuscript written in small and exquisitely neat characters. He placed it under the lamp, and rapidly began to turn the pages.
"It is hope, Rob!" he said with quiet self-possession.
Robert Cairn came round the table, and leant over his father's shoulder.
"Sir Michael Ferrara's writing!"
"His unpublished book, Rob. We were to have completed it, together, but death claimed him, and in view of the contents, I—perhaps superstitiously—decided to suppress it.... Ah!"
He placed the point of his finger upon a carefully drawn sketch, designed to illustrate the text. It was evidently a careful copy from the Ancient Egyptian. It represented a row of priestesses, each having her hair plaited in a thick queue, standing before a priest armed with a pair of scissors. In the centre of the drawing was an altar, upon which stood vases of flowers; and upon the right ranked a row of mummies, corresponding in number with the priestesses upon the left.
"By God!" repeated Dr. Cairn, "we were both wrong, we were both wrong!"
"What do you mean, sir? for Heaven's sake, what do you mean?"
"This drawing," replied Dr. Cairn, "was copied from the wall of a certain tomb—now reclosed. Since we knew that the tomb was that of one of the greatest wizards who ever lived in Egypt, we knew also that the inscription had some magical significance. We knew that the flowers represented here, were a species of the extinct sacred Lotus. All our researches did not avail us to discover for what purpose or by what means these flowers were cultivated. Nor could we determine the meaning of the cutting off,"—he ran his fingers over the sketch—"of the priestesses' hair by the high priest of the goddess—"
"What goddess, sir?"
"A goddess, Rob, of which Egyptology knows nothing!—a mystical religion the existence of which has been vaguely suspected by a living French savant ... but this is no time—"
Dr. Cairn closed the manuscript, replaced it and relocked the drawer. He glanced at the clock.
"A quarter past one," he said. "Come, Rob!"
Without hesitation, his son followed him from the house. The car was waiting, and shortly they were speeding through the deserted streets, back to the house where death in a strange guise was beckoning to Myra Duquesne. As the car started—
"Do you know," asked Dr. Cairn, "if Saunderson has bought any orchids—quite recently, I mean?"
"Yes," replied his son dully; "he bought a small parcel only a fortnight ago."
"A fortnight!" cried Dr. Cairn excitedly—"you are sure of that? You mean that the purchase was made since Ferrara—"
"Ceased to visit the house? Yes. Why!—it must have been the very day after!"
Dr. Cairn clearly was labouring under tremendous excitement.
"Where did he buy these orchids?" he asked, evenly.
"From someone who came to the house—someone he had never dealt with before."
The doctor, his hands resting upon his knees, was rapidly drumming with his fingers.
"And—did he cultivate them?"
"Two only proved successful. One is on the point of blooming—if it is not blooming already. He calls it the 'Mystery.'"
At that, the doctor's excitement overcame him. Suddenly leaning out of the window, he shouted to the chauffeur:
"Quicker! Quicker! Never mind risks. Keep on top speed!"
"What is it, sir?" cried his son. "Heavens! what is it?"
"Did you say that it might have bloomed, Rob?"
"Myra"—Robert Cairn swallowed noisily—"told me three days ago that it was expected to bloom before the end of the week."
"What is it like?"
"A thing four feet high, with huge egg-shaped buds."
"Merciful God grant that we are in time," whispered Dr. Cairn. "I could believe once more in the justice of Heaven, if the great knowledge of Sir Michael Ferrara should prove to be the weapon to destroy the fiend whom we raised!—he and I—may we be forgiven!"'
Robert Cairn's excitement was dreadful.
"Can you tell me nothing?" he cried. "What do you hope? What do you fear?"
"Don't ask me, Rob," replied his father; "you will know within five minutes."
The car indeed was leaping along the dark suburban roads at a speed little below that of an express train. Corners the chauffeur negotiated in racing fashion, so that at times two wheels thrashed the empty air; and once or twice the big car swung round as upon a pivot only to recover again in response to the skilled tactics of the driver.
They roared down the sloping narrow lane to the gate of Mr. Saunderson's house with a noise like the coming of a great storm, and were nearly hurled from their seats when the brakes were applied, and the car brought to a standstill.
Dr. Cairn leapt out, pushed open the gate and ran up to the house, his son closely following. There was a light in the hall and Miss Saunderson who had expected them, and had heard their stormy approach, already held the door open. In the hall—
"Wait here one moment," said Dr. Cairn.
Ignoring Saunderson, who had come out from the library, he ran upstairs. A minute later, his face very pale, he came running down again.
"She is worse?" began Saunderson, "but—"
"Give me the key of the orchid-house!" said Dr. Cairn tersely.
"Don't hesitate. Don't waste a second. Give me the key."
Saunderson's expression showed that he thought Dr. Cairn to be mad, but nevertheless he plunged his hand into his pocket and pulled out a key-ring. Dr. Cairn snatched it in a flash.
"Which key?" he snapped.
"The Chubb, but—"
"Follow me, Rob!"
Down the hall he raced, his son beside him, and Mr. Saunderson following more slowly. Out into the garden he went and over the lawn towards the shrubbery.
The orchid-houses lay in dense shadow; but the doctor almost threw himself against the door.
"Strike a match!" he panted. Then—"Never mind—I have it!"
The door flew open with a bang. A sickly perfume swept out to them.
"Matches! matches, Rob! this way!"
They went stumbling in. Robert Cairn took out a box of matches—and struck one. His father was further along, in the centre building.
"Your knife, boy—quick! quick!"
As the dim light crept along the aisle between the orchids, Robert Cairn saw his father's horror-stricken face ... and saw a vivid green plant growing in a sort of tub, before which the doctor stood. Four huge, smooth, egg-shaped buds grew upon the leafless stems; two of them were on the point of opening, and one already showed a delicious, rosy flush about its apex.
Dr. Cairn grasped the knife which Robert tremblingly offered him. The match went out. There was a sound of hacking, a soft swishing, and a dull thud upon the tiled floor.
As another match fluttered into brief life, the mysterious orchid, severed just above the soil, fell from the tub. Dr. Cairn stamped the swelling buds under his feet. A profusion of colourless sap was pouring out upon the floor.
Above the intoxicating odour of the place, a smell like that of blood made itself perceptible.
The second match went out.
Dr. Cairn's voice rose barely above a whisper. With fingers quivering, Robert Cairn managed to light a third match. His father, from a second tub, tore out a smaller plant and ground its soft tentacles beneath his feet. The place smelt like an operating theatre. The doctor swayed dizzily as the third match became extinguished, clutching at his son for support.
"Her life was in it, boy!" he whispered. "She would have died in the hour that it bloomed! The priestesses—were consecrated to this.... Let me get into the air—"
Mr. Saunderson, silent with amazement, met them.
"Don't speak," said Dr. Cairn to him. "Look at the dead stems of your 'Mystery.' You will find a thread of bright hair in the heart of each!..."
Dr. Cairn opened the door of the sick-room and beckoned to his son, who, haggard, trembling, waited upon the landing.
"Come in, boy," he said softly—"and thank God!"
Robert Cairn, on tiptoe, entered. Myra Duquesne, pathetically pale but with that dreadful, ominous shadow gone from her face, turned her wistful eyes towards the door; and their wistfulness became gladness.
"Rob!" she sighed—and stretched out her arms.