Brood of the Witch Queen/Chapter 25

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Not the least of the trials which Robert Cairn experienced during the time that he and his father were warring with their supernaturally equipped opponent was that of preserving silence upon this matter which loomed so large in his mind, and which already had changed the course of his life.

Sometimes he met men who knew Ferrara, but who knew him only as a man about town of somewhat evil reputation. Yet even to these he dared not confide what he knew of the true Ferrara; undoubtedly they would have deemed him mad had he spoken of the knowledge and of the deeds of this uncanny, this fiendish being. How would they have listened to him had he sought to tell them of the den of spiders in Port Said; of the bats of Méydûm; of the secret incense and of how it was made; of the numberless murders and atrocities, wrought by means not human, which stood to the account of this adopted son of the late Sir Michael Ferrara?

So, excepting his father, he had no confidant; for above all it was necessary to keep the truth from Myra Duquesne—from Myra around whom his world circled, but who yet thought of the dreadful being who wielded the sorcery of forgotten ages, as a brother. Whilst Myra lay ill—not yet recovered from the ghastly attack made upon her life by the man whom she trusted—whilst, having plentiful evidence of his presence in London, Dr. Cairn and himself vainly sought for Antony Ferrara; whilst any night might bring some unholy visitant to his rooms, obedient to the will of this modern wizard; whilst these fears, anxieties, doubts, and surmises danced, impish, through his brain, it was all but impossible to pursue with success, his vocation of journalism. Yet for many reasons it was necessary that he should do so, and so he was employed upon a series of articles which were the outcome of his recent visit to Egypt—his editor having given him that work as being less exacting than that which properly falls to the lot of the Fleet Street copy-hunter.

He left his rooms about three o'clock in the afternoon, in order to seek, in the British Museum library, a reference which he lacked. The day was an exceedingly warm one, and he derived some little satisfaction from the fact that, at his present work, he was not called upon to endue the armour of respectability. Pipe in mouth, he made his way across the Strand towards Bloomsbury.

As he walked up the steps, crossed the hall-way, and passed in beneath the dome of the reading-room, he wondered if, amid those mountains of erudition surrounding him, there was any wisdom so strange, and so awful, as that of Antony Ferrara.

He soon found the information for which he was looking, and having copied it into his notebook, he left the reading-room. Then, as he was recrossing the hall near the foot of the principal staircase, he paused. He found himself possessed by a sudden desire to visit the Egyptian Rooms, upstairs. He had several times inspected the exhibits in those apartments, but never since his return from the land to whose ancient civilisation they bore witness.

Cairn was not pressed for time in these days, therefore he turned and passed slowly up the stairs.

There were but few visitors to the grove of mummies that afternoon. When he entered the first room he found a small group of tourists passing idly from case to case; but on entering the second, he saw that he had the apartment to himself. He remembered that his father had mentioned on one occasion that there was a ring in this room which had belonged to the Witch-Queen. Robert Cairn wondered in which of the cases it was exhibited, and by what means he should be enabled to recognise it.

Bending over a case containing scarabs and other amulets, many set in rings, he began to read the inscriptions upon the little tickets placed beneath some of them; but none answered to the description, neither the ticketed nor the unticketed. A second case he examined with like results. But on passing to a third, in an angle near the door, his gaze immediately lighted upon a gold ring set with a strange green stone, engraved in a peculiar way. It bore no ticket, yet as Robert Cairn eagerly bent over it, he knew, beyond the possibility of doubt, that this was the ring of the Witch-Queen.

Where had he seen it, or its duplicate?

With his eyes fixed upon the gleaming stone, he sought to remember. That he had seen this ring before, or one exactly like it, he knew, but strangely enough he was unable to determine where and upon what occasion. So, his hands resting upon the case, he leant, peering down at the singular gem. And as he stood thus, frowning in the effort of recollection, a dull white hand, having long tapered fingers, glided across the glass until it rested directly beneath his eyes. Upon one of the slim fingers was an exact replica of the ring in the case!

Robert Cairn leapt back with a stifled exclamation.

Antony Ferrara stood before him!

"The Museum ring is a copy, dear Cairn," came the huskily musical, hateful voice; "the one upon my finger is the real one."

Cairn realised in his own person, the literal meaning of the overworked phrase, "frozen with amazement." Before him stood the most dangerous man in Europe; a man who had done murder and worse; a man only in name, a demon in nature. His long black eyes half-closed, his perfectly chiselled ivory face expressionless, and his blood-red lips parted in a mirthless smile, Antony Ferrara watched Cairn—Cairn whom he had sought to murder by means of hellish art.

Despite the heat of the day, he wore a heavy overcoat, lined with white fox fur. In his right hand—for his left still rested upon the case—he held a soft hat. With an easy nonchalance, he stood regarding the man who had sworn to kill him, and the latter made no move, uttered no word. Stark amazement held him inert.

"I knew that you were in the Museum, Cairn," Ferrara continued, still having his basilisk eyes fixed upon the other from beneath the drooping lids, "and I called to you to join me here."

Still Cairn did not move, did not speak.

"You have acted very harshly towards me in the past, dear Cairn; but because my philosophy consists in an admirable blending of that practised in Sybaris with that advocated by the excellent Zeno; because whilst I am prepared to make my home in a Diogenes' tub, I, nevertheless, can enjoy the fragrance of a rose, the flavour of a peach—"

The husky voice seemed to be hypnotising Cairn; it was a siren's voice, thralling him.

"Because," continued Ferrara evenly, "in common with all humanity I am compound of man and woman, I can resent the enmity which drives me from shore to shore, but being myself a connoisseur of the red lips and laughing eyes of maidenhood—I am thinking, more particularly of Myra—I can forgive you, dear Cairn—"

Then Cairn recovered himself.

"You white-faced cur!" he snarled through clenched teeth; his knuckles whitened as he stepped around the case. "You dare to stand there mocking me—"

Ferrara again placed the case between himself and his enemy.

"Pause, my dear Cairn," he said, without emotion. "What would you do? Be discreet, dear Cairn; reflect that I have only to call an attendant in order to have you pitched ignominiously into the street."

"Before God! I will throttle the life from you!" said Cairn, in a voice savagely hoarse.

He sprang again towards Ferrara. Again the latter dodged around the case with an agility which defied the heavier man.

"Your temperament is so painfully Celtic, Cairn," he protested mockingly. "I perceive quite clearly that you will not discuss this matter judicially. Must I then call for the attendant?"

Cairn clenched his fists convulsively. Through all the tumult of his rage, the fact had penetrated—that he was helpless. He could not attack Ferrara in that place; he could not detain him against his will. For Ferrara had only to claim official protection to bring about the complete discomfiture of his assailant. Across the case containing the duplicate ring, he glared at this incarnate fiend, whom the law, which he had secretly outraged, now served to protect. Ferrara spoke again in his huskily musical voice.

"I regret that you will not be reasonable, Cairn. There is so much that I should like to say to you; there are so many things of interest which I could tell you. Do you know in some respects I am peculiarly gifted, Cairn? At times I can recollect, quite distinctly, particulars of former incarnations. Do you see that priestess lying there, just through the doorway? I can quite distinctly remember having met her when she was a girl; she was beautiful, Cairn. And I can even recall how, one night beside the Nile—but I see that you are growing impatient! If you will not avail yourself of this opportunity, I must bid you good-day—"

He turned and walked towards the door. Cairn leapt after him; but Ferrara, suddenly beginning to run, reached the end of the Egyptian Room and darted out on to the landing, before his pursuer had time to realise what he was about.

At the moment that Ferrara turned the corner ahead of him, Cairn saw something drop. Coming to the end of the room, he stooped and picked up this object, which was a plaited silk cord about three feet in length. He did not pause to examine it more closely, but thrust it into his pocket and raced down the steps after the retreating figure of Ferrara. At the foot, a constable held out his arm, detaining him. Cairn stopped in surprise.

"I must ask you for your name and address," said the constable, gruffly.

"For Heaven's sake! what for?"

"A gentleman has complained—"

"My good man!" exclaimed Cairn, and proffered his card—"it is—it is a practical joke on his part. I know him well—"

The constable looked at the card and from the card, suspiciously, back to Cairn. Apparently the appearance of the latter reassured him—or he may have formed a better opinion of Cairn, from the fact that half-a-crown had quickly changed hands.

"All right, sir," he said, "it is no affair of mine; he did not charge you with anything—he only asked me to prevent you from following him."

"Quite so," snapped Cairn irritably, and dashed off along the gallery in the hope of overtaking Ferrara.

But, as he had feared, Ferrara had made good use of his ruse to escape. He was nowhere to be seen; and Cairn was left to wonder with what object he had risked the encounter in the Egyptian Room—for that it had been deliberate, and not accidental, he quite clearly perceived.

He walked down the steps of the Museum, deep in reflection. The thought that he and his father for months had been seeking the fiend Ferrara, that they were sworn to kill him as they would kill a mad dog; and that he, Robert Cairn, had stood face to face with Ferrara, had spoken with him; and had let him go free, unscathed, was maddening. Yet, in the circumstances, how could he have acted otherwise?

With no recollection of having traversed the intervening streets, he found himself walking under the archway leading to the court in which his chambers were situated; in the far corner, shadowed by the tall plane tree, where the worn iron railings of the steps and the small panes of glass in the solicitor's window on the ground floor called up memories of Charles Dickens, he paused, filled with a sort of wonderment. It seemed strange to him that such an air of peace could prevail, anywhere, whilst Antony Ferrara lived and remained at large.

He ran up the stairs to the second landing, opened the door, and entered his chambers. He was oppressed to-day with a memory, the memory of certain gruesome happenings whereof these rooms had been the scene. Knowing the powers of Antony Ferrara he often doubted the wisdom of living there alone, but he was persuaded that to allow these fears to make headway, would be to yield a point to the enemy. Yet there were nights when he found himself sleepless, listening for sounds which had seemed to arouse him; imagining sinister whispers in his room—and imagining that he could detect the dreadful odour of the secret incense.

Seating himself by the open window, he took out from his pocket the silken cord which Ferrara had dropped in the Museum, and examined it curiously. His examination of the thing did not serve to enlighten him respecting its character. It was merely a piece of silken cord, very closely and curiously plaited. He threw it down on the table, determined to show it to Dr. Cairn at the earliest opportunity. He was conscious of a sort of repugnance; and prompted by this, he carefully washed his hands as though the cord had been some unclean thing. Then, he sat down to work, only to realise immediately, that work was impossible until he had confided in somebody his encounter with Ferrara.

Lifting the telephone receiver, he called up Dr. Cairn, but his father was not at home.

He replaced the receiver, and sat staring vaguely at his open notebook.