Book IV. In Pursuit
Chapter XLIII. The Murder at Mrs 'Enderson's
It is something of a drive from Waterloo to Limehouse,--it seems longer when all your nerves are tingling with anxiety to reach your journey's end; and the cab I had hit upon proved to be not the fastest I might have chosen. For some time after our start, we were silent. Each was occupied with his own thoughts.
Then Lessingham, who was sitting at my side, said to me,
'Mr Champnell, you have that report.'
'Will you let me see it once more?'
I gave it to him. He read it once, twice,--and I fancy yet again. I purposely avoided looking at him as he did so. Yet all the while I was conscious of his pallid cheeks, the twitched muscles of his mouth, the feverish glitter of his eyes,--this Leader of Men, whose predominate characteristic in the House of Commons was immobility, was rapidly approximating to the condition of a hysterical woman. The mental strain which he had been recently undergoing was proving too much for his physical strength. This disappearance of the woman he loved bade fair to be the final straw. I felt convinced that unless something was done quickly to relieve the strain upon his mind he was nearer to a state of complete mental and moral collapse than he himself imagined. Had he been under my orders I should have commanded him to at once return home, and not to think; but conscious that, as things were, such a direction would be simply futile, I decided to do something else instead. Feeling that suspense was for him the worst possible form of suffering I resolved to explain, so far as I was able, precisely what it was I feared, and how I proposed to prevent it.
Presently there came the question for which I had been waiting, in a harsh, broken voice which no one who had heard him speak on a public platform, or in the House of Commons, would have recognised as his.
'Mr Champnell,--who do you think this person is of whom the report from Vauxhall Station speaks as being all in rags and tatters?'
He knew perfectly well,--but I understood the mental attitude which induced him to prefer that the information should seem to come from me.
'I hope that it will prove to be Miss Lindon.'
'Hope!' He gave a sort of gasp.
'Yes, hope,--because if it is I think it possible, nay probable, that within a few hours you will have her again enfolded in your arms.'
'Pray God that it may be so! pray God!--pray the good God!'
I did not dare to look round for, from the tremor which was in his tone, I was persuaded that in the speaker's eyes were tears. Atherton continued silent. He was leaning half out of the cab, staring straight ahead, as if he saw in front a young girl's face, from which he could not remove his glance, and which beckoned him on.
After a while Lessingham spoke again, as if half to himself and half to me.
'This mention of the shrieks on the railway, and of the wailing noise in the cab,--what must this wretch have done to her? How my darling must have suffered!'
That was a theme on which I myself scarcely ventured to allow my thoughts to rest. The notion of a gently-nurtured girl being at the mercy of that fiend incarnate, possessed--as I believed that so-called Arab to be possessed--of all the paraphernalia of horror and of dread, was one which caused me tangible shrinkings of the body. Whence had come those shrieks and yells, of which the writer of the report spoke, which had caused the Arab's fellow-passengers to think that murder was being done? What unimaginable agony had caused them? what speechless torture? And the 'wailing noise,' which had induced the prosaic, indurated London cabman to get twice off his box to see what was the matter, what anguish had been provocative of that? The helpless girl who had already endured so much, endured, perhaps, that to which death would have been preferred!--shut up in that rattling, jolting box on wheels, alone with that diabolical Asiatic, with the enormous bundle, which was but the lurking place of nameless terrors,--what might she not, while being borne through the heart of civilised London, have been made to suffer? What had she not been made to suffer to have kept up that continued 'wailing noise'?
It was not a theme on which it was wise to permit one's thoughts to linger,--and particularly was it clear that it was one from which Lessingham's thoughts should have been kept as far as possible away.
'Come, Mr Lessingham, neither you nor I will do himself any good by permitting his reflections to flow in a morbid channel. Let us talk of something else. By the way, weren't you due to speak in the House to-night?'
'Due!--Yes, I was due,--but what does it matter?'
'But have you acquainted no one with the cause of your non- attendance?'
'Acquaint!--whom should I acquaint?'
'My good sir! Listen to me, Mr Lessingham. Let me entreat you very earnestly, to follow my advice. Call another cab,--or take this! and go at once to the House. It is not too late. Play the man, deliver the speech you have undertaken to deliver, perform your political duties. By coming with me you will be a hindrance rather than a help, and you may do your reputation an injury from which it never may recover. Do as I counsel you, and I will undertake to do my very utmost to let you have good news by the time your speech is finished.'
He turned on me with a bitterness for which I was unprepared.
'If I were to go down to the House, and try to speak in the state in which I am now, they would laugh at me, I should be ruined.'
'Do you not run an equally great risk of being ruined by staying away?'
He gripped me by the arm.
'Mr Champnell, do you know that I am on the verge of madness? Do you know that as I am sitting here by your side I am living in a dual world? I am going on and on to catch that--that fiend, and I am back again in that Egyptian den, upon that couch of rugs, with the Woman of the Songs beside me, and Marjorie is being torn and tortured, and burnt before my eyes! God help me! Her shrieks are ringing in my ears!'
He did not speak loudly, but his voice was none the less impressive on that account. I endeavoured my hardest to be stern.
'I confess that you disappoint me, Mr Lessingham. I have always understood that you were a man of unusual strength; you appear instead, to be a man of extraordinary weakness; with an imagination so ill-governed that its ebullitions remind me of nothing so much as feminine hysterics, Your wild language is not warranted by circumstances. I repeat that I think it quite possible that by to-morrow morning she will be returned to you.'
'Yes,--but how? as the Marjorie I have known, as I saw her last,-- or how?'
That was the question which I had already asked myself, in what condition would she be when we had succeeded in snatching her from her captor's grip? It was a question to which I had refused to supply an answer. To him I lied by implication.
'Let us hope that, with the exception of being a trifle scared, she will be as sound and hale and hearty as even in her life.'
'Do you yourself believe that she'll be like that,--untouched, unchanged, unstained?'
Then I lied right out,--it seemed to me necessary to calm his growing excitement.
'Do you think that I can't see your face and read in it the same thoughts which trouble me? As a man of honour do you care to deny that when Marjorie Lindon is restored to me,--if she ever is!--you fear she will be but the mere soiled husk of the Marjorie whom I knew and loved?'
'Even supposing that there may be a modicum of truth in what you say,--which I am far from being disposed to admit--what good purpose do you propose to serve by talking in such a strain?'
'None,--no good purpose,--unless it be the desire of looking the truth in the face. For, Mr Champnell, you must not seek to play with me the hypocrite, nor try to hide things from me as if I were a child. If my life is ruined--it is ruined,--let me know it, and look the knowledge in the face. That, to me, is to play the man.'
I was silent.
The wild tale he had told me of that Cairene inferno, oddly enough--yet why oddly, for the world is all coincidence!--had thrown a flood of light on certain events which had happened some three years previously and which ever since had remained shrouded in mystery. The conduct of the business afterwards came into my hands,--and briefly, what had occurred was this:
Three persons,--two sisters and their brother, who was younger than themselves, members of a decent English family, were going on a trip round the world. They were young, adventurous, and--not to put too fine a point on it--foolhardy. The evening after their arrival in Cairo, by way of what is called 'a lark,' in spite of the protestations of people who were better informed than themselves, they insisted on going, alone, for a ramble through the native quarter.
They went,--but they never returned. Or, rather the two girls never returned. After an interval the young man was found again,-- what was left of him. A fuss was made when there were no signs of their re-appearance, but as there were no relations, nor even friends of theirs, but only casual acquaintances on board the ship by which they had travelled, perhaps not so great a fuss as might have been was made. Anyhow, nothing was discovered. Their widowed mother, alone in England, wondering bow it was that beyond the receipt of a brief wire, acquainting her with their arrival at Cairo, she had heard nothing further of their wanderings, placed herself in communication with the diplomatic people over there,-- to learn that, to all appearances, her three children had vanished from off the face of the earth.
Then a fuss was made,--with a vengeance. So far as one can judge the whole town and neighbourhood was turned pretty well upside down. But nothing came of it,--so far as any results were concerned, the authorities might just as well have left the mystery of their vanishment alone. It continued where it was in spite of them.
However, some three months afterwards a youth was brought to the British Embassy by a party of friendly Arabs who asserted that they had found him naked and nearly dying in some remote spot in the Wady Haifa desert. It was the brother of the two lost girls. He was as nearly dying as he very well could be without being actually dead when they brought him to the Embassy,--and in a state of indescribable mutilation. He seemed to rally for a time under careful treatment, but he never again uttered a coherent word. It was only from his delirious ravings that any idea was formed of what had really occurred.
Shorthand notes were taken of some of the utterances of his delirium. Afterwards they were submitted to me. I remembered the substance of them quite well, and when Mr Lessingham began to tell me of his own hideous experiences they came back to me more clearly still. Had I laid those notes before him I have little doubt but that he would have immediately perceived that seventeen years after the adventure which had left such an indelible scar upon his own life, this youth--he was little more than a boy--had seen the things which he had seen, and suffered the nameless agonies and degradations which he had suffered. The young man was perpetually raving about some indescribable den of horror which was own brother to Lessingham's temple and about some female monster, whom he regarded with such fear and horror that every allusion he made to her was followed by a convulsive paroxysm which taxed all the ingenuity of his medical attendants to bring him out of. He frequently called upon his sisters by name, speaking of them in a manner which inevitably suggested that he had been an unwilling and helpless witness of hideous tortures which they had undergone; and then he would rise in bed, screaming, 'They're burning them! they're burning them! Devils! devils!' And at those times it required all the strength of those who were in attendance to restrain his maddened frenzy.
The youth died in one of these fits of great preternatural excitement, without, as I have previously written, having given utterance to one single coherent word, and by some of those who were best able to judge it was held to have been a mercy that he did die without having been restored to consciousness. And, presently, tales began to be whispered, about some idolatrous sect, which was stated to have its headquarters somewhere in the interior of the country--some located it in this neighbourhood, and some in that--which was stated to still practise, and to always have practised, in unbroken historical continuity, the debased, unclean, mystic, and bloody rites, of a form of idolatry which had had its birth in a period of the world's story which was so remote, that to all intents and purposes it might be described as pre-historic.
While the ferment was still at its height, a man came to the British Embassy who said that he was a member of a tribe which had its habitat on the banks of the White Nile. He asserted that he was in association with this very idolatrous sect,--though he denied that he was one of the actual sectaries. He did admit, however, that he had assisted more than once at their orgies, and declared that it was their constant practice to offer young women as sacrifices--preferably white Christian women, with a special preference, if they could get them, to young English women. He vowed that he himself had seen with his own eyes, English girls burnt alive. The description which he gave of what preceded and followed these foul murders appalled those who listened. He finally wound up by offering, on payment of a stipulated sum of money, to guide a troop of soldiers to this den of demons, so that they should arrive there at a moment when it was filled with worshippers, who were preparing to participate in an orgie which was to take place during the next few days.
His offer was conditionally accepted. He was confined in an apartment with one man on guard inside and another on guard outside the room. That night the sentinel without was startled by hearing a great noise and frightful screams issuing from the chamber in which the native was interned. He summoned assistance. The door was opened. The soldier on guard within was stark, staring mad,--he died within a few months, a gibbering maniac to the end. The native was dead. The window, which was a very small one, was securely fastened inside and strongly barred without. There was nothing to show by what means entry had been gained. Yet it was the general opinion of those who saw the corpse that the man had been destroyed by some wild beast. A photograph was taken of the body after death, a copy of which is still in my possession. In it are distinctly shown lacerations about the neck and the lower portion of the abdomen, as if they had been produced by the claws of some huge and ferocious animal. The skull is splintered in half-a-dozen places, and the face is torn to rags.
That was more than three years ago. The whole business has remained as great a mystery as ever. But my attention has once or twice been caught by trifling incidents, which have caused me to more than suspect that the wild tale told by that murdered native had in it at least the elements of truth; and which have even led me to wonder if the trade in kidnapping was not being carried on to this very hour, and if women of my own flesh and blood were not still being offered up on that infernal altar. And now, here was Paul Lessingham, a man of world-wide reputation, of great intellect, of undoubted honour, who had come to me with a wholly unconscious verification of all my worst suspicions!
That the creature spoken of as an Arab,--and who was probably no more an Arab than I was, and whose name was certainly not Mohamed el Kheir!--was an emissary from that den of demons, I had no doubt. What was the exact purport of the creature's presence in England was another question, Possibly part of the intention was the destruction of Paul Lessingham, body, soul and spirit; possibly another part was the procuration of fresh victims for that long-drawn-out holocaust. That this latter object explained the disappearance of Miss Lindon I felt persuaded. That she was designed by the personification of evil who was her captor, to suffer all the horrors at which the stories pointed, and then to be burned alive, amidst the triumphant yells of the attendant demons, I was certain. That the wretch, aware that the pursuit was in full cry, was tearing, twisting, doubling, and would stick at nothing which would facilitate the smuggling of the victim out of England, was clear.
My interest in the quest was already far other than a merely professional one. The blood in my veins tingled at the thought of such a woman as Miss Lindon being in the power of such a monster. I may assuredly claim that throughout the whole business I was urged forward by no thought of fee or of reward. To have had a share in rescuing that unfortunate girl, and in the destruction of her noxious persecutor, would have been reward enough for me.
One is not always, even in strictly professional matters, influenced by strictly professional instincts.
The cab slowed. A voice descended through the trap door.
'This is Commercial Road, sir,--what part of it do you want?'
'Drive me to Limehouse Police Station.'
We were driven there. I made my way to the usual inspector behind the usual pigeon-hole.
'My name is Champnell. Have you received any communication from Scotland Yard to-night having reference to a matter in which I am interested?'
'Do you mean about the Arab? We received a telephonic message about half an hour ago.'
'Since communicating with Scotland Yard this has come to hand from the authorities at Vauxhall Station. Can you tell me if anything has been seen of the person in question by the men of your division?'
I handed the Inspector the 'report.' His reply was laconic.
'I will inquire.'
He passed through a door into an inner room and the 'report' went with him.
'Beg pardon, sir, but was that a Harab you was a-talking about to the Hinspector?'
The speaker was a gentleman unmistakably of the gutter-snipe class. He was seated on a form. Close at hand hovered a policeman whose special duty it seemed to be to keep an eye upon his movements.
'Why do you ask?'
'I beg your pardon, sir, but I saw a Harab myself about a hour ago,--leastways he looked like as if he was a Harab.'
'What sort of a looking person was he?'
'I can't 'ardly tell you that, sir, because I didn't never have a proper look at him,--but I know he had a bloomin' great bundle on 'is 'ead. ... It was like this, 'ere. I was comin' round the corner, as he was passin', I never see 'im till I was right atop of 'im, so that I haccidentally run agin 'im,--my heye! didn't 'e give me a downer! I was down on the back of my 'ead in the middle of the road before I knew where I was and 'e was at the other end of the street. If 'e 'adn't knocked me more'n 'arf silly I'd been after 'im, sharp,--I tell you! and hasked 'im what 'e thought 'e was a-doin' of, but afore my senses was back agin 'e was out o' sight,--clean!'
'You are sure he had a bundle on his head?'
'I noticed it most particular.'
'How long ago do you say this was? and where?'
'About a hour ago,--perhaps more, perhaps less.'
'Was he alone?'
'It seemed to me as if a cove was a follerin' 'im, leastways there was a bloke as was a-keepin' close at 'is 'eels,--though I don't know what 'is little game was, I'm sure. Ask the pleesman--he knows, he knows everything the pleesman do.'
I turned to the 'pleesman.'
'Who is this man?'
The 'pleesman' put his hands behind his back, and threw out his chest. His manner was distinctly affable.
'Well,--he's being detained upon suspicion. He's given us an address at which to make inquiries, and inquiries are being made. I shouldn't pay too much attention to what he says if I were you. I don't suppose he'd be particular about a lie or two.'
This frank expression of opinion re-aroused the indignation of the gentleman on the form.
'There you hare! at it again! That's just like you peelers,-- you're all the same! What do you know about me?--Nuffink! This gen'leman ain't got no call to believe me, not as I knows on,-- it's all the same to me if 'e do or don't, but it's trewth what I'm sayin', all the same.'
At this point the Inspector re-appeared at the pigeon-hole. He cut short the flow of eloquence.
'Now then, not so much noise outside there!' He addressed me. 'None of our men have seen anything of the person you're inquiring for, so far as we're aware. But, if you like, I will place a man at your disposal, and he will go round with you, and you will be able to make your own inquiries.'
A capless, wildly excited young ragamuffin came dashing in at the street door. He gasped out, as clearly as he could for the speed which he had made:
'There's been murder done, Mr Pleesman,--a Harab's killed a bloke.'
'Mr Pleesman' gripped him by the shoulder.