Brood of the Witch Queen/Chapter 4
AT FERRARRA'S CHAMBERS
Dr. Bruce Cairn swung around in his chair, lifting his heavy eyebrows interrogatively, as his son, Robert, entered the consulting-room. Half-Moon Street was bathed in almost tropical sunlight, but already the celebrated physician had sent those out from his house to whom the sky was overcast, whom the sun would gladden no more, and a group of anxious-eyed sufferers yet awaited his scrutiny in an adjoining room.
"Hullo, Rob! Do you wish to see me professionally?"
Robert Cairn seated himself upon a corner of the big table, shaking his head slowly.
"No, thanks sir; I'm fit enough; but I thought you might like to know about the will—"
"I do know. Since I was largely interested, Jermyn attended on my behalf; an urgent case detained me. He rang up earlier this morning."
"Oh, I see. Then perhaps I'm wasting your time; but it was a surprise—quite a pleasant one—to find that Sir Michael had provided for Myra—Miss Duquesne."
Dr. Cairn stared hard.
"What led you to suppose that he had not provided for his niece? She is an orphan, and he was her guardian."
"Of course, he should have done so; but I was not alone in my belief that during the—peculiar state of mind—which preceded his death, he had altered his will—"
"In favour of his adopted son, Antony?"
"Yes. I know you were afraid of it, sir! But as it turns out they inherit equal shares, and the house goes to Myra. Mr. Antony Ferrara"—he accentuated the name—"quite failed to conceal his chagrin."
"Rather. He was there in person, wearing one of his beastly fur coats—a fur coat, with the thermometer at Africa!—lined with civet-cat, of all abominations!"
Dr. Cairn turned to his table, tapping at the blotting-pad with the tube of a stethoscope.
"I regret your attitude towards young Ferrara, Rob."
His son started.
"Regret it! I don't understand. Why, you, yourself brought about an open rupture on the night of Sir Michael's death."
"Nevertheless, I am sorry. You know, since you were present, that Sir Michael has left his niece—to my care—"
"Thank God for that!"
"I am glad, too, although there are many difficulties. But, furthermore, he enjoined me to—"
"Keep an eye on Antony! Yes, yes—but, heavens! he didn't know him for what he is!"
Dr. Cairn turned to him again.
"He did not; by a divine mercy, he never knew—what we know. But"—his clear eyes were raised to his son's—"the charge is none the less sacred, boy!"
The younger man stared perplexedly.
"But he is nothing less than a——"
His father's upraised hand checked the word on his tongue.
"I know what he is, Rob, even better than you do. But cannot you see how this ties my hands, seals my lips?"
Robert Cairn was silent, stupefied.
"Give me time to see my way clearly, Rob. At the moment I cannot reconcile my duty and my conscience; I confess it. But give me time. If only as a move—as a matter of policy—keep in touch with Ferrara. You loathe him, I know; but we must watch him! There are other interests—"
"Myra!" Robert Cairn flushed hotly. "Yes, I see. I understand. By heavens, it's a hard part to play, but—"
"Be advised by me, Rob. Meet stealth with stealth. My boy, we have seen strange ends come to those who stood in the path of someone. If you had studied the subjects that I have studied you would know that retribution, though slow, is inevitable. But be on your guard. I am taking precautions. We have an enemy; I do not pretend to deny it; and he fights with strange weapons. Perhaps I know something of those weapons, too, and I am adopting—certain measures. But one defence, and the one for you, is guile—stealth!"
Robert Cairn spoke abruptly.
"He is installed in palatial chambers in Piccadilly."
"Have you been there?"
"Call upon him. Take the first opportunity to do so. Had it not been for your knowledge of certain things which happened in a top set at Oxford we might be groping in the dark now! You never liked Antony Ferrara—no men do; but you used to call upon him in college. Continue to call upon him, in town."
Robert Cairn stood up, and lighted a cigarette.
"Right you are, sir!" he said. "I'm glad I'm not alone in this thing! By the way, about—?"
"Myra? For the present she remains at the house. There is Mrs. Hume, and all the old servants. We shall see what is to be done, later. You might run over and give her a look-up, though."
"I will, sir! Good-bye."
"Good-bye," said Dr. Cairn, and pressed the bell which summoned Marston to usher out the caller, and usher in the next patient.
In Half-Moon Street, Robert Cairn stood irresolute; for he was one of those whose mental moods are physically reflected. He might call upon Myra Duquesne, in which event he would almost certainly be asked to stay to lunch; or he might call upon Antony Ferrara. He determined upon the latter, though less pleasant course.
Turning his steps in the direction of Piccadilly, he reflected that this grim and uncanny secret which he shared with his father was like to prove prejudicial to his success in journalism. It was eternally uprising, demoniac, between himself and his work. The feeling of fierce resentment towards Antony Ferrara which he cherished grew stronger at every step. He was the spider governing the web, the web that clammily touched Dr. Cairn, himself, Robert Cairn, and—Myra Duquesne. Others there had been who had felt its touch, who had been drawn to the heart of the unclean labyrinth—and devoured. In the mind of Cairn, the figure of Antony Ferrara assumed the shape of a monster, a ghoul, an elemental spirit of evil.
And now he was ascending the marble steps. Before the gates of the lift he stood and pressed the bell.
Ferrara's proved to be a first-floor suite, and the doors were opened by an Eastern servant dressed in white.
"His beastly theatrical affectation again!" muttered Cairn. "The man should have been a music-hall illusionist!"
The visitor was salaamed into a small reception room. Of this apartment the walls and ceiling were entirely covered by a fretwork in sandalwood, evidently Oriental in workmanship. In niches, or doorless cup-boards; stood curious-looking vases and pots. Heavy curtains of rich fabric draped the doors. The floor was of mosaic, and a small fountain played in the centre. A cushioned divan occupied one side of the place, from which natural light was entirely excluded and which was illuminated only by an ornate lantern swung from the ceiling. This lantern had panes of blue glass, producing a singular effect. A silver mibkharah, or incense-burner, stood near to one corner of the divan and emitted a subtle perfume. As the servant withdrew:
"Good heavens!" muttered Cairn, disgustedly; "poor Sir Michael's fortune won't last long at this rate!" He glanced at the smoking mibkharah. "Phew! effeminate beast! Ambergris!"
No more singular anomaly could well be pictured than that afforded by the lean, neatly-groomed Scotsman, with his fresh, clean-shaven face and typically British air, in this setting of Eastern voluptuousness.
The dusky servitor drew back a curtain and waved him to enter, bowing low as the visitor passed. Cairn found himself in Antony Ferrara's study. A huge fire was blazing in the grate, rendering the heat of the study almost insufferable.
It was, he perceived, an elaborated copy of Ferrara's room at Oxford; infinitely more spacious, of course, and by reason of the rugs, cushions and carpets with which its floor was strewn, suggestive of great opulence. But the littered table was there, with its nameless instruments and its extraordinary silver lamp; the mummies were there; the antique volumes, rolls of papyrus, preserved snakes and cats and ibises, statuettes of Isis, Osiris and other Nile deities were there; the many photographs of women, too (Cairn had dubbed it at Oxford "the zenana"); above all, there was Antony Ferrara.
He wore the silver-grey dressing-gown trimmed with white swansdown in which Cairn had seen him before. His statuesque ivory face was set in a smile, which yet was no smile of welcome; the over-red lips smiled alone; the long, glittering dark eyes were joyless; almost, beneath the straightly-pencilled brows, sinister. Save for the short, lustreless hair it was the face of a handsome, evil woman.
"My dear Cairn—what a welcome interruption. How good of you!"
There was strange music in his husky tones. He spoke unemotionally, falsely, but Cairn could not deny the charm of that unique voice. It was possible to understand how women—some women—would be as clay in the hands of the man who had such a voice as that.
His visitor nodded shortly. Cairn was a poor actor; already his rôle was oppressing him. Whilst Ferrara was speaking one found a sort of fascination in listening, but when he was silent he repelled. Ferrara may have been conscious of this, for he spoke much, and well.
"You have made yourself jolly comfortable," said Cairn.
"Why not, my dear Cairn? Every man has within him something of the Sybarite. Why crush a propensity so delightful? The Spartan philosophy is palpably absurd; it is that of one who finds himself in a garden filled with roses and who holds his nostrils; who perceives there shady bowers, but chooses to burn in the sun; who, ignoring the choice fruits which tempt his hand and court his palate, stoops to pluck bitter herbs from the wayside!"
"I see!" snapped Cairn. "Aren't you thinking of doing any more work, then?"
"Work!" Antony Ferrara smiled and sank upon a heap of cushions. "Forgive me, Cairn, but I leave it, gladly and confidently, to more robust characters such as your own."
He proffered a silver box of cigarettes, but Cairn shook his head, balancing himself on a corner of the table.
"No; thanks. I have smoked too much already; my tongue is parched."
"My dear fellow!" Ferrara rose. "I have a wine which, I declare, you will never have tasted but which you will pronounce to be nectar. It is made in Cyprus—"
Cairn raised his hand in a way that might have reminded a nice observer of his father.
"Thank you, nevertheless. Some other time, Ferrara; I am no wine man."
"A whisky and soda, or a burly British B. and S., even a sporty 'Scotch and Polly'?"
There was a suggestion of laughter in the husky voice, now, of a sort of contemptuous banter. But Cairn stolidly shook his head and forced a smile.
"Many thanks; but it's too early."
He stood up and began to walk about the room, inspecting the numberless oddities which it contained. The photographs he examined with supercilious curiosity. Then, passing to a huge cabinet, he began to peer in at the rows of amulets, statuettes and other, unclassifiable, objects with which it was laden. Ferrara's voice came.
"That head of a priestess on the left, Cairn, is of great interest. The brain had not been removed, and quite a colony of Dermestes Beetles had propagated in the cavity. Those creatures never saw the light, Cairn. Yet I assure you that they had eyes. I have nearly forty of them in the small glass case on the table there. You might like to examine them."
Cairn shuddered, but felt impelled to turn and look at these gruesome relics. In a square, glass case he saw the creatures. They lay in rows on a bed of moss; one might almost have supposed that unclean life yet survived in the little black insects. They were an unfamiliar species to Cairn, being covered with unusually long, black hair, except upon the root of the wing-cases where they were of brilliant orange.
"The perfect pupæ of this insect are extremely rare," added Ferrara informatively.
"Indeed?" replied Cairn.
He found something physically revolting in that group of beetles whose history had begun and ended in the skull of a mummy.
"Filthy things!" he said. "Why do you keep them?"
Ferrara shrugged his shoulders.
"Who knows?" he answered enigmatically. "They might prove useful, some day."
A bell rang; and from Ferrara's attitude it occurred to Cairn that he was expecting a visitor.
"I must be off," he said accordingly.
And indeed he was conscious of a craving for the cool and comparatively clean air of Piccadilly. He knew something of the great evil which dwelt within this man whom he was compelled, by singular circumstances, to tolerate. But the duty began to irk.
"If you must," was the reply. "Of course, your press work no doubt is very exacting."
The note of badinage was discernible again, but Cairn passed out into the mandarah without replying, where the fountain plashed coolly and the silver mibkharah sent up its pencils of vapour. The outer door was opened by the Oriental servant, and Ferrara stood and bowed to his departing visitor. He did not proffer his hand.
"Until our next meeting. Cairn, es-selâm aleykûm!" (peace be with you) he murmured, "as the Moslems say. But indeed I shall be with you in spirit, dear Cairn."
There was something in the tone wherein he spoke those last words that brought Cairn up short. He turned, but the doors closed silently. A faint breath of ambergris was borne to his nostrils.