Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer - HTML preview
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11. The Purple Stain
For more than an hour Harley sat alone, smoking, neglectful of the routine duties which should have claimed his attention. His face was set and grim, and his expression one of total abstraction. In spirit he stood again in that superheated room at the Savoy. Sometimes, as he mused, he would smoke with unconscious vigour, surrounding himself with veritable fog banks. An imaginary breath of hyacinths would have reached him, to conjure up vividly the hateful, perfumed environment of Ormuz Khan.
He was savagely aware of a great mental disorderliness. He recognized that his brain remained a mere whirlpool from which Phyllis Abingdon, the deceased Sir Charles, Nicol Brinn, and another, alternately arose to claim supremacy. He clenched his teeth upon the mouthpiece of his pipe.
But after some time, although rebelliously, his thoughts began to marshal themselves in a certain definite formation. And outstanding, alone, removed from the ordinary, almost from the real, was the bizarre personality of Ormuz Khan.
The data concerning the Oriental visitor, as supplied by Inspector Wessex, had led him to expect quite a different type of character. Inured as Paul Harley was to surprise, his first sentiment as he had set eyes upon the man had been one of sheer amazement.
"Something of a dandy," inadequately described the repellent sensuousness of this veritable potentate, who could contrive to invest a sitting room in a modern hotel with the atmosphere of a secret Eastern household. To consider Ormuz Khan in connection with matters of international finance was wildly incongruous, while the manicurist incident indicated an inherent cruelty only possible in one of Oriental race.
In a mood of complete mental detachment Paul Harley found himself looking again into those black, inscrutable eyes and trying to analyze the elusive quality of their regard. They were unlike any eyes that he had met with. It were folly to count their possessor a negligible quantity. Nevertheless, it was difficult, because of the fellow's scented effeminacy, to believe that women could find him attractive. But Harley, wise in worldly lore, perceived that the mystery surrounding Ormuz Khan must make a strong appeal to a certain type of female mind. He was forced to admit that some women, indeed many, would be as clay in the hands of the man who possessed those long-lashed, magnetic eyes.
He thought of the pretty manicurist. Mortification he had read in her white face, and pain; but no anger. Yes, Ormuz Khan was dangerous.
In what respect was he dangerous?
"Phil Abingdon!" Harley whispered, and, in the act of breathing the name, laughed at his own folly.
In the name of reason, he mused, what could she find to interest her in a man of Ormuz Khan's type? He was prepared to learn that there was a mystic side to her personality--a phase in her character which would be responsive to the outre and romantic. But he was loath to admit that she could have any place in her affections for the scented devotee of hyacinths.
Thus, as always, his musings brought him back to the same point. He suppressed a groan and, standing up, began to pace the room. To and fro he walked, before the gleaming cabinet, and presently his expression underwent a subtle change. His pipe had long since gone out, but he had failed to observe the fact. His eyes had grown unusually bright--and suddenly he stepped to the table and stooping made a note upon the little writing block.
He rang the bell communicating with the outer office. Innes came in. "Innes," he said, rapidly, "is there anything of really first-rate importance with which I should deal personally?"
"Well," replied the secretary, glancing at some papers which he carried, "there is nothing that could not wait until to-morrow at a pinch."
"The pinch has come," said Harley. "I am going to interview the two most important witnesses in the Abingdon case."
"To whom do you refer, Mr. Harley?"
Innes stared rather blankly, as he made the inquiry, whereupon:
"I have no time to explain," continued Harley. "But I have suddenly realized the importance of a seemingly trivial incident which I witnessed. It is these trivial incidents, Innes, which so often contain the hidden clue."
"What! you really think you have a clue at last?"
"I do." The speaker's face grew grimly serious. "Innes, if I am right, I shall probably proceed to one of two places: the apartments of Ormuz Khan or the chambers of Nicol Brinn. Listen. Remain here until I phone--whatever the hour."
"Shall I advise Wessex to stand by?"
Harley nodded. "Yes--do so. You understand, Innes, I am engaged and not to be disturbed on any account?"
"I understand. You are going out by the private exit?"
As Innes retired, quietly closing the door, Harley took up the telephone and called Sir Charles Abingdon's number. He was answered by a voice which he recognized.
"This is Paul Harley speaking," he said. "Is that Benson?"
"Yes, sir," answered the butler. "Good morning, sir.”
"Good morning, Benson. I have one or two questions to ask you, and there is something I want you to do for me. Miss Abingdon is out, I presume?"
"Yes, sir," replied Benson, sadly. "At the funeral, sir."
"Is Mrs. Howett in?”
"She is, sir."
"I shall be around in about a quarter of an hour, Benson. In the meantime, will you be good enough to lay the dining table exactly as it was laid on the night of Sir Charles's death?”
Benson could be heard nervously clearing his throat, then: "Perhaps, sir," he said, diffidently, "I didn't quite understand you. Lay the table, sir, for dinner?"
"For dinner--exactly. I want everything to be there that was present on the night of the tragedy; everything. Naturally you will have to place different flowers in the vases, but I want to see the same vases. From the soup tureen to the serviette rings, Benson, I wish you to duplicate the dinner table as I remember it, paying particular attention to the exact position of each article. Mrs. Howett will doubtless be able to assist you in this."
"Very good, sir," said Benson--but his voice betokened bewilderment. "I will see Mrs. Howett at once, sir."
Replacing the receiver, Harley took a bunch of keys from his pocket and, crossing the office, locked the door. He then retired to his private apartments and also locked the communicating door. A few moments later he came out of "The Chancery Agency" and proceeded in the direction of the Strand. Under cover of the wire-gauze curtain which veiled the window he had carefully inspected the scene before emerging. But although his eyes were keen and his sixth sense whispered "Danger-danger!" he had failed to detect anything amiss.
This constant conflict between intuition and tangible evidence was beginning to tell upon him. Either his sixth sense had begun to play tricks or he was the object of the most perfectly organized and efficient system of surveillance with which he had ever come in contact. Once, in the past, he had found himself pitted against the secret police of Moscow, and hitherto he had counted their methods incomparable. Unless he was the victim of an unpleasant hallucination, those Russian spies had their peers in London.
As he alighted from a cab before the house of the late Sir Charles, Benson opened the door. "We have just finished, sir," he said, as Harley ran up the steps. "But Mrs. Howett would like to see you, sir.”
"Very good, Benson," replied Harley, handing his hat and cane to the butler. "I will see her in the dining room, please."
Benson throwing open the door, Paul Harley walked into the room which so often figured in his vain imaginings. The table was laid for dinner in accordance with his directions. The chair which he remembered to have occupied was in place and that in which Sir Charles had died was set at the head of the table.
Brows contracted, Harley stood just inside the room, looking slowly about him. And, as he stood so, an interrogatory cough drew his gaze to the doorway. He turned sharply, and there was Mrs. Howett, a pathetic little figure in black.
"Ah, Mrs. Howett," said Harley; kindly, "please try to forgive me for this unpleasant farce with its painful memories. But I have a good reason. I think you know this. Now, as I am naturally anxious to have everything clear before Miss Abingdon returns, will you be good enough to tell me if the table is at present set exactly as on the night that Sir Charles and I came in to dinner?"
"No, Mr. Harley," was the answer, "that was what I was anxious to explain. The table is now laid as Benson left it on that dreadful night."
"Ah, I see. Then you, personally, made some modifications?"
"I rearranged the flowers and moved the centre vase so." The methodical old lady illustrated her words. "I also had the dessert spoons changed. You remember, Benson?"
Benson inclined his head. From a sideboard he took out two silver spoons which he substituted for those already set upon the table.
"Anything else, Mrs. Howett?"
"The table is now as I left it, sir, a few minutes before your arrival. Just after your arrival I found Jones, the parlourmaid--a most incompetent, impudent girl-- altering the position of the serviettes. At least, such was my impression."
"Of the serviettes?" murmured Harley.
"She denied it," continued the housekeeper, speaking with great animation; "but she could give no explanation. It was the last straw. She took too many liberties altogether."
As Harley remained silent, the old lady ran on animatedly, but Harley was no longer listening.
"This is not the same table linen?" he asked, suddenly.
"Why, no, sir," replied Benson. "Last week's linen will be at the laundry."
"It has not gone yet," interrupted Mrs. Howett. "I was making up the list when you brought me Mr. Harley's message."
Paul Harley turned to her.
"May I ask you to bring the actual linen used at table on that occasion, Mrs. Howett?" he said. "My request must appear singular, I know, but I assure you it is no idle one."
Benson looked positively stupid, but Mrs. Howett, who had conceived a sort of reverence for Paul Harley, hurried away excitedly.
"Finally, Benson," said Harley, "what else did you bring into the room after Sir Charles and I had entered?"
"Soup, sir. Here is the tureen, on the sideboard, and all the soup plates of the service in use that night. Of course, sir, I can't say which were the actual plates used."
Paul Harley inspected the plates, a set of fine old Derby ware, and gazed meditatively at the silver ladle. "Did the maid, Jones, handle any of these?" he asked.
"No, sir"--emphatically. "She was preparing to bring the trout from the kitchen."
"But I saw her in the room.”
"She had brought in the fish plates, a sauce boat, and two toast racks, sir. She put them here, on the sideboard. But they were never brought to the table.”
"H'm. Has Jones left?"
"Yes, sir. She was under notice. But after her rudeness, Mrs. Howett packed her off right away. She left the very next day after poor Sir Charles died."
"Where has she gone?"
"To a married sister, I believe, until she finds a new job. Mrs. Howett has the address."
At this moment Mrs. Howett entered, bearing a tablecloth and a number of serviettes.
"This was the cloth," she said, spreading it out, "but which of the serviettes were used I cannot say."
"Allow me to look," replied Paul Harley.
One by one he began to inspect the serviettes, opening each in turn and examining it critically.
"What have we here!" he exclaimed, presently. "Have blackberries been served within the week, Mrs. Howett?"
"We never had them on the table, Mr. Harley. Sir Charles--God rest him--said they irritated the stomach. Good gracious!" She turned to Benson. "How is it I never noticed those stains, and what can have caused them?"
The serviette which Paul Harley held outstretched was covered all over with dark purple spots.