The Blue Thorn of Kashgar
THE BLUE THORN OF KASHGAR
By Edward Boltwood
STARTLED by his word of annoyance, Madelon Wroxeter leaned to one side, the better to observe her husband across the narrow circle of damask where the trio sat at dinner. A scarlet lamp beamed dully over the table, and in its light Mrs. Wroxeter's attitude revealed a curving line of perfect beauty between her neck and shoulders. Ellis Drake thought he had been surfeited by the girl's perfections, but he noted the line with shameless eagerness.
"What in the world has happened, David?" said she.
"A sharp corner in the rim of the claret glass, dear." Wroxeter pressed a serviette to his mouth. "I nicked my clumsy lip. You have allowed our tableware to suffer during my absence from civilization. 'He who leaves his home unlocked will find his wine running, his dishes broke, his women—' It is an Arabian proverb of great wisdom. I sha'n't finish it."
Drake laughed, readily, but Mrs. Wroxeter's eyebrows drew together in a charming frown.
"Hélas! ever your Arabians!" she sighed, in her pretty French-English.
"Jealousy, you see, David," commented Drake, smiling.
Wroxeter nodded, and adjusted his spectacles. Newspaper artists found the famous explorer a poor subject. He was a slight, dark man, with a sparse and grizzled beard. Only at the third or fourth glance might one catch the wiry energy in his grave face.
"Anything so unpleasant as jealousy is out of place here, Madelon," he said, sententiously. "Is it not the night of my home-coming to New York, and to my beautiful young wife, and to my trusted friend? That is an occasion, I fancy. I pledge you." He raised his glass, but set it down untasted. "My lip smarts like fire. In Turkestan, one might be poisoned so."
Drake was courteously interested.
"Oh, a cup with a barb to prick your tongue is a familiar trick," went on Wroxeter. "The blue thorn of Kashgar would have done my business here, swiftly and certainly. In a minute, I'd be twisted and burning on the carpet. I saw a man die of the blue thorn at Fort Yaryn. When he was dead, he was like a black, swollen hoop; he——"
"David!" Mrs. Wroxeter shuddered, appealingly.
"No, it is not a nice anecdote," he admitted. "Quebec pleased you last Autumn, did it not, Ellis? Madelon tells me that you were there while she was revisiting madame, her mother. Now, the tobacco, Mifflin."
Cigars were offered by the old butler, gray in his master's service, and over the boxes Drake hesitated silently before replying. To his relief, however, Mrs. Wroxeter took up the conversation.
Drake leaned back in his chair, amused at her ingenuousness. Apparently, she was as naïve as if she were ignorant of the passion in the heart of her husband's friend, as if Drake had not sent her that mad letter a few days since, in which his love had broken the bonds of his calculating discretion for the first and only time. His note was in no way acknowledged, neither was it reproved. To-night, her manner convinced Drake that he must win.
"Let us go to the library," said Wroxeter, rising.
"But surely an intruder—at this reunion—" protested Drake.
"Not a bit of it!" Wroxeter slipped one brown hand within Drake's elbow, and laid the other on his wife's exquisite shoulder. "The library, by all means."
The room had once been a studio; two years ago, it was full of left-over artists' trappery when Wroxeter brought to the house the wife whom he had taken, in his middle-age, from the Canadian convent school. Here, among the pictures, Drake had met her—herself, he thought, the very picture of a growing flower.
Wroxeter turned out the gay canvases, and made the cavernous apartment as somber as a vault. Dusky tapestries shrouded the walls, and throttled the windows. Among them peered the mounted heads of monstrous beasts; a hideous idol brooded malevolently in one corner; in another grinned the effigy of an ancient Chinese executioner in his red-and-yellow armor. Ranged above the low book-cases, gleamed the celebrated Wroxeter fighting knives. The collection was reputed priceless—poniard, creese and yataghan, assagai and dirk, bowie, claymore and machete. The single green-shaded lamp glimmered on an enormous table, littered with charts and documents. In front of the blinking coals in the grate, a divan was covered with lustrous bearskin. Drake sat beside Madelon; Wroxeter leaned idly against the repulsive figurehead of an African war-canoe, flanking the fireplace.
To Drake, the sight of the girl's tender beauty in this room was always a fantasy of the incongruous. And typical of her incongruous marriage? The comparison occurred to Drake's mind as he bent forward and warmed his hands thoughtfully over Wroxeter's hearthstone.
In the meantime, Madelon had insisted that David must be made to tell of all his wanderings. Wroxeter was a graceless talker, with neither humor nor imagination. When there was a logical halt in the narrative, Drake rose to go.
"Incidentally, my pet collection has been favored." The traveler indicated an oblong packet on the table. "There is a rarity, I believe, sent me by a border chieftain in Aksu. I haven't opened it yet."
Drake remained while Wroxeter unwound the wrappings, pungent with the mysterious aroma of the Orient. A broad dagger was disclosed. The blade was clouded with a gossamer device of curling dragons, and the heavy hilt was carved ivory, yellowed by age. Madelon touched the metal with a venturesome finger.
"What is it called?" she asked.
Wroxeter caressed the hilt in his palm. "The name can't be translated politely," he said. "'Love knife,' perhaps, will serve."
"Love knife?" repeated Madelon, wide-eyed.
"Yes. They come usually in pairs, like dueling pistols. One you give to your adversary, and with the other——"
"An affectionate title for such a weapon," said Drake, preparing to roll a cigarette. "'Love' seems hardly appropriate."
"Why not? In Turkestan, the duello is rare, except when two men love the same woman. A satisfactory blow, like this——"
Drake looked up from the trembling cigarette-paper. The dagger was on the floor, and Wroxeter, smiling uncertainly, was gripping the ball of his thumb with his other hand.
"I'm in the line of accidents this evening," he said; "scratched myself again, somehow."
"On this, David?" Madelon picked up the knife, and carried it to the lamp. "Oh, the villainy!" she gasped.
The men crossed to the table where she had dropped the weapon. From the upper end of the hilt now protruded a needle, less than an inch long, bluish in tint. With a smothered oath, the explorer retreated into the shadow.
"What's that point there?" blurted Drake, breathlessly. "What is it?—that point. Not the—the——?"
"The blue Kashgar thorn. Damnation, yes!"
His wife and his friend sought Wroxeter's countenance, inscrutable in the darkness. For an instant, the three were statues. The fall of pallor on Madelon's cheeks was like snow on roses. "Ciel! it frightens me!" she murmured.
"Don't be concerned, child," said Wroxeter, but with the faintest quiver of an alarm. "To draw out any poison there, is simple." And he put the hand to his mouth.
Drake caught his forearm. "Remember the broken wine-glass—the skin is cut."
"By God! that's so! Thank you, Ellis." Wroxeter's mechanical laugh grated, and he took a fresh grip on his wrist. "The devil is in the mess. I wonder—well, I must ask your help, my friend." He laughed again, more softly than before.
In Drake's fingers, the futile tissue-paper still fluttered, as he folded and refolded it, corner to corner. Wroxeter wrinkled his forehead, perplexed. "I must ask your help, Ellis," he echoed.
"My part is to help—mine!" cried Madelon, springing forward.
"We cannot well allow you to risk it, can we, Drake? Come, make haste!"
Drake tried hard to reason; his brain simmered, uncontrollably. He moistened his dry lips, and shifted his gaze to the leering image in the corner, missing the dawn of horror and amazement on the white face of Madelon.
"We must send for a doctor," said Drake, thickly, as if to the idol. "Of course, there is no danger, David. This is New York—not an Asian desert."
"Ah, yes," rejoined Wroxeter, in a voice of silk. "A stray savage in the desert would suck this wound, unless——"
Drake made a vague gesture of protest.
"Unless," pursued the other, "he wished to make a widow. Madelon, I beg—" for his wife was on her knees, fighting her sobs bravely, reaching for his hand. Wroxeter held, it aloft.
"Your admirable caution suggests a doctor, Drake," said he. "Averill is clever, and close by. If you will be so kind."
"I don't want you to think I—" stammered Drake. "I want you to know——"
"I do. Time presses."
Moving stiffly, after the fashion of an automaton, the younger man hurried to the telephone in the hall. Averill promised speed, and Drake clicked the receiver to its place, turning slowly on his heel. His glance fell on the closed door of the library, and hung there, singularly fascinated. From minute to minute, the grim, black panels became potential, tragic, terrible. He fumbled at the knob, and reeled once, drunkenly. Watching the sinister door, he sidled to the stair-head, and called for Mifflin. There was no response, but the sound of his own speech nerved him; he reëntered the library. Wroxeter stood on the hearth-rug with arms folded, facing the entrance.
"You did not hurry, Ellis," he complained.
Drake leaned heavily against the table. Wroxeter broke into a queer chuckle, and darted to the lamp, thrusting his hand under its rays.
"Behold!" he said. "I find that I have not been injured. Do you see? I made a mistake. The thorn didn't bite me in the least. Do you see? Eh?"
"You are not hurt? You are not—?" Drake straightened himself, and brought his fist down on the desk. "Then, what was all this precious nonsense?" he demanded, sullenly; "a joke?" He pulled up his shoulders. "Your humor is delicate."
"Well, that is as it may be," retorted Wroxeter. "My humor is my own. So, if you will allow the conceit, is my wife. Madelon!"
She advanced out of the gloom into the ring of light. Drake could not meet her blazing eyes.
"You have the base and evil heart of a coward," said she.
"A coward!" Drake's shrill voice belied his defiant swagger. "Oh, you mean David's tomfoolery with the dagger? Have you only now seen the trick? Somewhat stupid and crude, but——"
"I mean that—and this." She flung a letter at his feet.
"Well, there it is for you, Ellis Drake," Wroxeter drawled. "Mifflin intercepted the sweet composition, and gave it to me unopened. He is a faithful soul, with some knowledge of men and women. I have just read the letter to Madelon. She and I know you now for the first time. The little episode of my prearranged poison was an effective prelude to our knowledge, as the event proves. And what do you say?"
"I say that you chose to insult me in your own house," Drake snarled.
"That is soon remedied," laughed Wroxeter, drily. "I hear the bell of the street door. It is Averill, I dare say, who possibly will be glad to drive you home. Before we terminate our acquaintance, Drake, do me this last service—pray make my apologies to the doctor. Shall I ring for my butler to escort you to the carriage? No? Perhaps you are right. You have been always considerate, my dear friend."