Part 5 out of 5
might have deterred many men, since it was inexplicable and
"My attention was drawn to the phenomenon by a sudden cessation
of chatter amongst the bearers seated around their fire. I became
aware that an absolute stillness had fallen, and in the eyes of
the Brahmin who sat facing me I saw a look of exaltation, of wild
"I jerked my head around, looking back over my shoulder, and what
I saw I shall never forget, nor to this day have I been able to
explain the means by which the illusion was produced.
"Moving downward toward me through the jungle darkness, slowly,
evenly, but at a height above the ground of what I judged to be
about fifteen feet, was a sort of torch or flambeau, visible
because it was faintly luminous; and surmounting it was a darting
tongue of blue flame!
"At the moment that I set eyes upon this apparently supernatural
spectacle the bearers, crying some word in Hindustani which I did
not understand, rose and fled in a body.
"I may say here that I never saw any of them again; although,
considering that they took nothing with them, how they regained
the nearest village is a mystery which I have never solved.
"Gentlemen, I know the East as few of my fellow-citizens know it.
I know something of the powers which are latent in some Orientals
and active in others. That my Brahmin guide was a hypnotist and
an illusionist, I have since thought.
"For, even as the pattering footsteps of the bearers grew faint
in the distance, the fiery torch disappeared as if by magic, and
a silken cord was about my throat!
"As I began a desperate fight for life, I realized that, whatever
else Vadi might be, he was certainly an expert thug. The jungle,
the rocks, seemed to swim around me as I crashed to the ground
and felt the Brahmin's knee in the small of my back."
CHAPTER XXXI. STORY OF THE CITY OF FIRE (CONTINUED)
"How I managed to think of any defense against such an attack,
and especially in the circumstances, is a matter I have often
wondered about since. How, having thought of it, I succeeded in
putting it into execution, is probably more wondertul still. But
I will just state what happened.
"You may observe that I have large hands. Their size and strength
served me well on this occasion At the moment that the rope
tightened about my throat I reached up and grasped the Brahmin's
left thumb. Desperation gave me additional strength, and I
snapped it like a stick of candy.
"Just in the nick of time I felt the cord relax, and, although
the veins in my head seemed to be bursting, I managed to get my
fingers under that damnable rope. To this very hour I can hear
Vadi's shriek of pain as I broke his thumb, and it brings the
whole scene back to me.
"Clutching the rope with my left hand, I groaned and lay still.
The Brahmin slightly shifted his position, which was what I
wanted him to do. The brief respite had been sufficient. As he
moved, I managed to draw my knees up, very slightly, for he was a
big, heavy man, but sufficiently to enable me to throw him off
and roll over.
"Then, gentlemen, I dealt with him as he had meant to deal with
me; only I used my bare hands and made a job of it.
"I stood up, breathing heavily, and looked down at him where he
lay in the shadows at my feet. Dusk had come with a million
stars, and almost above my head were flowering creepers festooned
from bough to bough. The two campfires danced up and cast their
red light upon the jagged rocks of the hillock, which started up
from the very heart of the thicket, to stand out like some giant
pyramid against the newly risen moon.
"There were night things on the wing, and strange whispering
sounds came from the forests clothing the hills. Then came a
distant, hollow booming like the sound of artillery, which echoed
down the mountain gorges and seemed to roll away over the lowland
swamps and die, inaudible, by the remote river. Yet I stood
still, looking down at the dead man at my feet. For this strange,
mysterious artillery was a phenomenon I had already met with on
this fateful march--weird enough and inexplicable, but no novelty
to me, for I had previously met with it in the Shan Hills of
"I was thinking rapidly. It was clear enough now why I had
hitherto been unmolested. To Vadi the task had been allotted by
the mysterious organization of which he was a member, of removing
me quietly and decently, under circumstances which would lead to
no official inquiry. Although only animals, insects, and reptiles
seemed to be awake about me, yet I could not get rid of the idea
that I was watched.
"I remembered the phantom light, and that memory was an
unpleasant one. For ten minutes or more I stood there watching
and listening, but nothing molested me, nothing human approached.
With a rifle resting across my knees, I sat down in the entrance
to my tent to await the dawn.
"Later in the night, those phantom guns boomed out again, and
again their booming died away in the far valleys. The fires
burned lower and lower, but I made no attempt to replenish them;
and because I sat there so silent, all kinds of jungle creatures
crept furtively out of the shadows and watched me with their
glittering eyes. Once a snake crossed almost at my feet, and once
some large creature of the cat species, possibly a puma, showed
like a silhouette upon the rocky slopes above.
"So the night passed, and dawn found me still sitting there, the
dead man huddled on the ground not three paces from me. I am a
man who as a rule thinks slowly, but when the light came my mind
was fully made up.
"From the man who had died in Nagpur I had learned more about the
location of the City of Fire than I had confided to Vadi. In
fact, I thought I could undertake to find the way. Upon the most
important point of all, however, I had no information: that is to
say, I had no idea how to obtain entrance to the place; for I had
been given to understand that the way in was a secret known only
to the initiated.
"Nevertheless, I had no intention of turning back; and, although
I realized that from this point onward I must largely trust to
luck, I had no intention of taking unnecessary chances.
Accordingly, I dressed myself in Vadi's clothes, and, being very
tanned at this time, I think I made a fairly creditable native.
"Faintly throughout the night, above the other sounds of the
jungle, I had heard that of distant falling water. Now, my
informant at Nagpur, in speaking of the secret temple, had used
"'Whoever would see the fire must quit air and pass through
"This mysterious formula he had firmly declined to translate into
comprehensible English; but during my journey I had been
considering it from every angle, and I had recently come to the
conclusion that the entrance to this mysterious place was in some
way concealed by water. Recollecting the gallery under Niagara
Falls, I wondered if some similar natural formation was to be
looked for here.
"Now, in the light of the morning sun, looking around me from the
little plateau upon which I stood, and remembering a vague
description of the country which had been given to me, I decided
that I was indeed in the neighbourhood of the Temple of Fire.
"We had followed a fairly well-defined path right to this
plateau, and that it was nothing less than the high road to the
citadel of Fire-Tongue, I no longer doubted. Beneath me stretched
a panorama limned in feverish greens and unhealthy yellows.
Scarlike rocks triated the jungle clothing the foothills, and
through the dancing air, viewed from the arid heights, they had
the appearance of running water.
"Swamps to the southeast showed like unhealing wounds upon the
face of the landscape. Beyond them spread the lower river waters,
the bank of the stream proper being discernible only by reason of
a greater greenness in the palm-tops. Venomous green slopes
beyond them again, a fringe of dwarf forest, and the brazen
"On the right, and above me yet, the path entered a district of
volcanic rocks, gnarled, twisted, and contorted as with the
agonies of some mighty plague which in a forgotten past had
seized on the very bowels of the world and had contorted whole
mountains and laid waste vast forests and endless plains. Above,
the sun, growing hourly more cruel; ahead, more plague-twisted
rocks and the scars dancing like running water; and all around
the swooning stillness of the tropics.
"The night sounds of the jungle had ceased, giving place to the
ceaseless humming of insects. North, south, east, and west lay
that haze of heat, like a moving mantle clothing hills and
valleys. The sound of falling water remained perceptible.
"And now, gentlemen, I must relate a discovery which I had made
in the act of removing Vadi's clothing. Upon his right forearm
was branded a mark resembling the apparition which I had
witnessed in the night, namely, a little torch, or flambeau,
surmounted by a tongue of fire. Even in the light of the morning,
amid that oppressive stillness, I could scarcely believe in my
own safety, for that to Vadi the duty of assassinating me had
been assigned by this ever-watchful, secret organization, whose
stronghold I had dared to approach, was a fact beyond dispute.
"Since I seemed to be quite alone on the plateau, I could only
suppose that the issue had been regarded as definitely settled,
that no doubt had been entertained by Vadi's instructors
respecting his success. The plateau upon which I stood was one of
a series of giant steps, and on the west was a sheer descent to a
dense jungle, where banks of rotten vegetation, sun-dried upon
the top, lay heaped about the tree stems.
"Dragging the heavy body of Vadi to the brink of this precipice,
I toppled it over, swaying dizzily as I watched it crash down
into the poisonous undergrowth two hundred feet below.
"I made a rough cache, where I stored the bulk of my provisions;
and, selecting only such articles as I thought necessary for my
purpose, I set out again northward, guided by the sound of
falling water, and having my face turned toward the silver
pencillings in the blue sky, which marked the giant peaks of the
"At midday the heat grew so great that a halt became imperative.
The path was still clearly discernible; and in a little cave
beside it, which afforded grateful shelter from the merciless
rays of the sun, I unfastened my bundle and prepared to take a
"I was so employed, gentlemen, when I heard the sound of
approaching footsteps on the path behind me--the path which I had
"Hastily concealing my bundle, I slipped into some dense
undergrowth by the entrance to the cave, and crouched there,
waiting and watching. I had not waited very long before a
yellow-robed mendicant passed by, carrying a bundle not unlike my
own, whereby I concluded that he had come some distance. There
was nothing remarkable in his appearance except the fact of his
travelling during the hottest part of the day. Therefore I did
not doubt that he was one of the members of the secret
organization and was bound for headquarters.
"I gave him half an hour's start and then resumed my march. If he
could travel beneath a noonday sun, so could I.
"In this fashion I presently came out upon a larger and higher
plateau, carpeted with a uniform, stunted undergrowth, and
extending, as flat as a table, to the very edge of a sheer
precipice, which rose from it to a height of three or four
hundred feet--gnarled, naked rock, showing no vestige of
"By this time the sound of falling water had become very loud,
and as I emerged from the gorge through which the path ran on to
this plateau I saw, on the further side of this tableland, the
yellow robe of the mendicant. He was walking straight for the
face of the precipice, and straight for the spot at which, from a
fissure in the rock, a little stream leapt out, to fall sheerly
ten or fifteen feet into a winding channel, along which it
bubbled away westward, doubtless to form a greater waterfall
"The mendicant was fully half a mile away from me, but in that
clear tropical air was plainly visible; and, fearing that he
might look around, I stepped back into the comparative shadow of
the gorge and watched.
"Gentlemen, I saw a strange thing. Placing his bundle upon his
head, he walked squarely into the face of the waterfall and
CHAPTER XXXII. STORY OF THE CITY OF FIRE (CONTINUED)
"'Quitting air, must pass through water.' The meaning of those
words became apparent enough. I stood at the foot of the
waterfall, looking up at the fissure from which it issued.
"Although the fact had been most artistically disguised, I could
not doubt that this fissure was artificial. A tunnel had been
hewn through the rock, and a mountain stream diverted into it.
Indeed, on close inspection, I saw that it was little more than a
thin curtain of water, partly concealing what looked like the
entrance of a cave.
"A great deal of mist arose from it. But I could see that, beyond
a ducking, I had little to fear; and, stepping down into the bed
of the little stream which frothed and bubbled pleasantly about
my bare legs, I set my bundle on my head as the mendicant had
done, and plunged through the waterfall, into a place of
"A strange greenish light prevailed here and directly before me I
saw a flight of stone steps leading upward through a tunnel in
the rock. By the light of a pocket torch with which I had
provided myself, I began to ascend the steps. These, as I have
said, were hewn out of the solid rock, and as they numbered
something like seven hundred, the labour expended upon the making
of this extraordinary staircase must have been stupendous.
"At first the character of the surrounding tunnel suggested that
it was, in part at least, a natural cavern. But as I mounted
higher and higher, solid masonry appeared in places, some of it
displaying unusual carvings, of a character with which I was
quite unfamiliar. I concluded that it was very ancient.
"I should explain, gentlemen, that this ascending tunnel
zigzagged in a peculiar fashion, which may have been due to the
natural formation of the volcanic rock, or may have been part of
the design of the original builder. I had ascended more than five
hundred steps, and felt that a rest would shortly be necessary,
when I reached a sort of cavern, or interior platform, from which
seven corridors branched out like the spokes of a wheel. The top
of this place was lost in shadows, which the ray of my torch
failed to penetrate; and here I paused, setting down my bundle
and wondering what my next move should be.
"To the damp coolness of the lower stairs an oppressive heat had
now succeeded, and I became aware of a continuous roaring sound,
which I found myself unable to explain.
"Attached to a belt beneath my native dress I carried a Colt
revolver; and therefore, leaving my rifle and bundle in a corner
of the cavern, I selected one of these corridors more or less at
random, and set out to explore. This corridor proved to slope
very gently upward from the platform, and I could not fail to
notice that at every step the heat grew greater and greater. A
suffocating, sulphurous smell became perceptible also, and the
roaring sound grew almost deafening. It became possible to
discern the walls of the corridor ahead because of a sort of
eerie bluish light which had now become visible.
"Gentlemen, I don't say that I hesitated in a physical sense: I
went right on walking ahead. But a voice somewhere deep down
inside me was whispering that this was the road to hell.
"At a point where the heat and the smell were almost unendurable
the corridor was blocked by massive iron bars beyond which the
reflection of some gigantic fire danced upon the walls of a vast
"The heat was so great that my garments, saturated by the curtain
of water through which I had passed, were now bone dry, and I
stood peering through those bars at a spectacle which will remain
with me to the merciful day of my death.
"A hundred feet beneath me was a lake of fire! That is the only
way I can describe it: a seething, bubbling lake of fire. And
above, where the roof of the cavern formed a natural cone, was a
square section formed of massive stone blocks, and quite
obviously the handiwork of man. The bars were too hot to touch,
and the heat was like that of a furnace, but while I stood,
peering first upward and then downward, a thing happened which I
almost hesitate to describe, for it sounds like an incident from
"Heralded by a rumbling sound which was perceptible above the
roar of the fire below, the centre block in the roof slid open. A
tremendous draught of air swept along the passage in which I was
standing, and doubtless along other passages which opened upon
"As if conjured up by magic, a monstrous column of blue flame
arose, swept up scorchingly, and licked like the tongue of a
hungry dragon upon the roof of the cavern. Instantly the trap was
closed again; the tongue of fire dropped back into the lake from
which it had arisen on the draught of air.
"And right past me where I stood, rigid with horror, looking
through those bars, fell a white-robed figure--whether man or
woman I could not determine! Down, down into the fiery pit, a
hundred feet below!
"One long-drawn, dying shriek reached my ears.
"Of my return to the place at which I had left my bundle and
rifle I retain absolutely not one recollection. I was aroused
from a sort of stupor of horror by the sight of a faint light
moving across the platform ahead of me, as I was about to emerge
from the tunnel.
"It was the light of a lantern, carried by a man who might have
been the double of that yellow-robed mendicant who had first
unconsciously led me to this accursed place.
"I won't deny that, up to the moment of sighting him, my one idea
had been to escape, to return, to quit this unholy spot. But now,
as I watched the bearer of the lantern cross the platform and
enter one of the seven corridors, that old, unquenchable thirst
for new experiences got me by the throat again.
"As the light of the lantern was swallowed up in the passage, I
found my bundle and rifle and set out to follow the man. Four
paces brought me to the foot of more steps. I walked barefooted,
frequently pausing to listen. There were many carvings upon the
walls, but I had no leisure to examine them.
"Contrary to my anticipations, however, there were no branches in
this zigzag staircase, which communicated directly with the top
of the lofty plateau. When presently I felt the fresh mountain
air upon my face, I wondered why I could perceive no light ahead
of me. Yet the reason was simple enough.
"Since I had passed through that strange watergate to the City of
Fire, the day had ended: it was night. And when, finding no
further steps ahead of me, I passed along a level, narrow
corridor for some ten paces and, looking upward, saw the stars, I
"The yellow-robed man had disappeared, and I stood alone, looking
down upon that secret city which I had come so far to see.
"I found myself standing in deep undergrowth, and, pressing this
gently aside, I saw a wonderful spectacle. Away to my left was a
great white marble building, which I judged to be a temple; and
forming a crescent before it was a miniature town, each
white-walled house surrounded by a garden. It was Damascus
reduced to fairy dimensions, a spectacle quite unforgettable.
"The fact which made the whole thing awesome and unreal was the
presence, along the top of the temple (which, like that of
Hatshepsu at Deir elBahari, seemed to be hewn out of the living
rock but was faced with white marble) of seven giant flambeaux,
each surmounted by a darting tongue of blue flame!
"Legend had it that this was the temple built by Zoroaster and
preserved intact by that wonderful secretiveness of the Orient
through the generations, by a cult who awaited the coming of
Zoroaster's successor, of that Fire-Tongue who was to redeem and
revolutionize the world.
"I was afraid to move too far from the mouth of the tunnel, but
nevertheless was anxious to obtain a good view of the little city
at my feet. Gingerly I moved farther forward and forward, ever
craning out for a glimpse of the buildings more immediately below
me, forgetful of the fact that I walked upon the brink of a
"Suddenly my outstretched foot failed to touch ground. I clutched
wildly at the bushes around me. Their roots were not firm in the
shallow soil, and, enveloped like some pagan god in a mass of
foliage, I toppled over the cliff and fell!"
CHAPTER XXXIII. STORY OF THE CITY OF FIRE (CONTINUED)
"My awakening was as strange as anything which had befallen me. I
lay upon a silken bed in a pavilion which was furnished with
exquisite, if somewhat barbaric, taste.
"A silken shaded lamp hung upon a golden chain near to my couch,
but it was dimmed by the rosy light streaming in through the open
door--a light which I believed to be that of dawn. I ached in
every limb and felt weak and ill. There was a bandage about my
head, too, but this great physical weakness numbed my curiosity,
and I just lay still, looking out through the doorway into a
lovely garden. I could form no impression of what had happened,
and the ceaseless throbbing in my head rendered any attempt to do
so very painful.
"I was lying there, in this curious and apathetic state, when the
curtains draped in the doorway were pulled more widely aside and
a woman came in.
"Gentlemen, I will not endeavour to describe her, except to say
that she was so darkly lovely that I doubted the evidence of my
senses; tall and lithe, with the grace of some beautiful jungle
"When she saw that I was awake, she paused and lowered her head
in confusion. She wore a gossamer robe of sheeny golden silk,
and, standing there with the light of the dawn behind her, she
made a picture that I think would have driven a painter crazy.
"I am supposed to be an unimpressionable man, and perhaps it is
true; but there at that moment, as the glance of her dark eyes
met the wondering look in mine, I knew that my hour had come for
good or ill.
"This is not the time nor the place for personal reminiscences. I
am here for another purpose. One of those accidents which are
really due to the hand of fate had precipitated me into the
garden of the house of Naida, and she in her great compassion had
tended me and sheltered me, keeping my presence secret from those
who would have dealt with me in summary fashion, and, indeed, who
were actually on the look-out for my arrival.
"Yes, so Naida informed me. To my great surprise she spoke almost
perfect English, and that sort of understanding sprang up between
us immediately which, in the case of a man and a beautiful woman
thrown together as we were, can only terminate in one way.
"She was some sort of priestess of the temple which I had seen
from the top of the cliff. What else she was I very shortly
"In accordance with one of the many strange customs of the City
of Fire, her personal servants, or rather slaves, were blind
mutes! Gentlemen, I warned you that my story was tough. Doubtless
you are beginning to appreciate the fact that I spoke no more
than the truth.
"Naida, for such was her name, told me that the Brahmin, Vadi,
who had acted as my guide, was one of the followers of the
Prophet of Fire, to whom had been given the duty of intercepting
me. His failure to report within a certain time had resulted in
two of the priests of this strange cult being sent out to obtain
information. That these were the yellow-robed mendicants who had
passed me in the mountains, I did not doubt.
"Their reports, so Naida informed me, had led to a belief that
Vadi had perished with me; but as an extra measure of precaution,
that very night--indeed, shortly after I had passed that way--a
guard had been set upon the secret entrance. Therefore, even if
my strength had permitted, I should have been unable to return by
the way I had come.
"But indeed I was as weak as a child, and only to the presence of
much foliage upon the acclivity down which I had rolled, and to
the fact that I had fallen upon soft soil in a bed of flowers,
can I ascribe my having failed to break my neck.
"In this way, gentlemen, I entered upon a brief period of my life
at once more sweet and more bitter than any I had known. Next to
that strange, invisible prophet whose name was Fire-Tongue, Naida
held unquestioned sway in this secret city. Her house was
separated from the others, and she travelled to and from the
temple in a covered litter. To look upon her, as upon Fire-Tongue
himself, was death. Women, I learned, were eligible for admission
to this order, and these were initiated by Naida.
"As the days of my strange but delightful captivity wore on, I
learned more and more of the weird people who, unseen, surrounded
me. There were lodges of the Cult of Fire all over the East, all
having power to make initiates and some to pass disciples into
the higher grades. Those who aspired to the highest rank in the
order, however, were compelled to visit this secret city in the
"Then at last I learned a secret which Naida had for long kept
back from me. These followers of the new Zoroaster were
polygamists, and she was the first or chief wife of the
mysterious personage known as Fire-Tongue. I gathered that others
had superseded her, and her lord and master rarely visited this
marble house set amid its extensive gardens.
"Her dignities remained, however, and no one had aspired to
dethrone her as high priestess of the temple. She evidently knew
all the secrets of the organization, and I gathered that she was
indispensable to the group who controlled it.
"Respecting Fire-Tongue himself, his origin, his appearance, she
was resolutely silent, a second Acte, faithful to the last. That
the ends of this cult were not only religious but political, she
did not deny, but upon this point she was very reticent. An
elaborate system of espionage was established throughout the
East, Near and Far, and death was the penalty of any breach of
"Respecting the tests to which candidates were put, she spoke
with more freedom. Those who, having reached the second grade,
aspired to the first, were submitted to three very severe ones,
to make trial of their courage, purity, and humility. Failure in
any of these trials resulted in instant death, and the final
test, the trial by fire, which took place in a subterranean
chamber of the great temple, resulted in a candidate whose
courage failed him being precipitated into that lake of flame
which I have already described--a dreadful form of death, which
by accident I had witnessed.
"Gentlemen, realizing what the existence of such an organization
meant, what a menace to the peace of the world must lie here,
what dreadful things were almost hourly happening about me at
behest of this invisible monster known as Fire-Tongue, I yet
confess--for I am here to speak the truth--that, although I had
now fully recovered my strength, I lingered on in a delicious
idleness, which you who hear me must find it hard to understand.
"I have the reputation of being a cold, hard man. So had Antony
before he met Cleopatra. But seven years ago, under the Indian
moon, I learned tolerance for the human weakness which forgets
the world for the smiles of a woman.
"It had to end. Sooner or later, discovery was inevitable. One
night I told Naida that I must go. Over the scene that followed I
will pass in silence. It needed all the strength of a fairly
straight, hard life to help me keep to my decision.
"She understood at last, and consented to release me. But there
were obstacles--big ones. The snow on the lower mountain slopes
had begun to melt, and the water-gate in the valley by which I
had entered was now impassable. As a result, I must use another
gate, which opened into a mountain path, but which was always
guarded. At first, on hearing this, I gave myself up for lost,
but Naida had a plan.
"Removing a bangle which she always wore, she showed me the
secret mark of Fire-Tongue branded upon the creamy skin.
"'I will put this mark upon your arm,' she said. 'In no other way
can you escape. I will teach you some of the passwords by which
the brethren know one another, and if you are ever questioned you
will say that you were admitted to the order by the Master of the
Bombay Lodge, news of whose death has just reached us.'
"'But,' said I, 'how can I hope to pass for an Oriental?'
"'It does not matter,' Naida replied. 'There are some who are not
Orientals among us!'
"Gentlemen, those words staggered me, opening up a possibility
which had seemed only shadowy before. But Naida, who had
tremendous strength of character, definitely refused to discuss
this aspect of the matter, merely assuring me that it was so.
"'Those who have successfully passed the ordeal of fire,' she
said, 'are put under a vow of silence for one month, and from
moon to moon must speak to no living creature. Therefore, once
you bear the mark of the Fiery Tongue, you may safely pass the
gate, except that there are certain signs which it is necessary
you should know. Afterward, if you should ever be in danger of
discovery anywhere in the East, you will remember the passwords,
which I shall teach you.'
"So I was branded with the mark of Fire-Tongue, and I spent my
last night with Naida learning from her lips the words by which
members of this order were enabled to recognize one another. In
vain I entreated Naida to accompany me. She would allow herself
to love and be loved; but the vows of this singular priesthood
were to her inviolable.
"She exacted an oath from me that I would never divulge anything
which I had seen or heard in the City of Fire. She urged that I
must leave India as quickly as possible. I had already learned
that this remote society was closely in touch with the affairs of
the outside world. And, because I knew I was leaving my heart
behind there in the Indian hills, I recognized that this dreadful
parting must be final.
"Therefore I scarcely heeded her when she assured me that, should
I ever be in danger because of what had happened, a message in
the Times of India would reach her. I never intended to insert
such a message, gentlemen. I knew that it would need all my
strength to close this door which I had opened.
"I will spare you and myself the details of our parting. I passed
out from the City of Fire in the darkest hour of the night,
through a long winding tunnel, half a mile in length. I had
protested to Naida that the secret mark might be painted upon my
arm and not branded, but she had assured me that the latter was a
necessity, and this now became evident; for, not only three times
was it subjected to scrutiny, but by the last of the guards,
posted near the outer end of the tunnel, it was tested with some
kind of solution.
"Silence and the salutation with the moistened finger tips,
together with the brand upon my arm, won me freedom from the
abode of Fire-Tongue.
"From a village situated upon one of the tributaries of the
Ganges I readily obtained a guide, to whom such silent,
yellow-robed figures as mine were evidently not unfamiliar; and,
crossing the east of Nepal, I entered Bengal, bearing a strange
secret. I found myself in an empty world--a world which had
nothing to offer me. For every step south took me farther from
all that made life worth living."
CHAPTER XXXIV. NICOL BRINN'S STORY (CONCLUDED)
"The incidents of the next seven years do not concern you,
gentlemen. I had one aim in life--to forget. I earned an
unenviable reputation for foolhardy enterprises. Until this very
hour, no man has known why I did the things that I did do. From
the time that I left India until the moment when fate literally
threw me in the way of the late Sir Charles Abingdon, I had heard
nothing of the cult of Fire-Tongue; and in spite of Naida's
assurance that its membership was not confined to Orientals, I
had long ago supposed it to be a manifestation of local
fanaticism, having no political or international significance.
"Then, lunching with the late Sir Charles after my accident in
the Haymarket, he put to me a question which literally made me
hold my breath.
"'Do you know anything of the significance of the term
Fire-Tongue?' he asked.
"I am not accustomed to any display of feeling in public, and I
replied in what I think was an ordinary tone:
"'In what connection, Sir Charles?'
"'Well,' said he, watching me oddly, 'I know you have travelled
in India, and I wondered if you had ever come in contact with the
legend which prevails there, that a second Zoroaster has arisen,
to preach the doctrine of eternal fire.'
"'I have heard it,' I replied, guardedly.
"'I thought it possible,' continued Sir Charles, 'and I am
tempted to tell you of a curious experience which once befell me
during the time that I was a guest of my late friend Colonel
Banfield in Delhi. My reputation as an osteologist was not at
that time so fully established as it later became, but I already
had some reputation in this branch of surgery; and one evening a
very dignified Hindu gentleman sought an interview with me,
saying that a distinguished native noble, who was a guest of his,
had met with a serious accident, and offering me a fee equivalent
to nearly five hundred pounds to perform an operation which he
believed to be necessary.
"'I assured him that my services were at his disposal, and
blankly declined to accept so large a fee. He thereupon explained
that the circumstances were peculiar. His friend belonged to a
religious cult of an extremely high order. He would lose caste if
it became known that he had been attended by a Christian surgeon;
therefore my visit must be a secret one.
"'It made no difference,' I replied. 'I quite understood; and he
might rely upon my discretion.
"'Accordingly I was driven in a car which was waiting to some
house upon the outskirts of the city and conducted to a room
where the patient had been carried. I saw him to be a singularly
handsome young man, apparently about twenty-three years of age.
His features were flawless, and he possessed light ivory skin and
wavy jet-black hair. His eyes, which were very dark and
almond-shaped, had a strange and arresting beauty. But there was
something effeminate about him which repelled me, I cannot say in
what way; nor did I approve of the presence of many bowls of
hyacinths in the room.
"'However, I performed the operation, which, although slight,
demanded some skill, and with the nature of which I will not
trouble you. Intense anxiety was manifested by the young man's
attendants, and one of these, a strikingly beautiful woman,
insisted on remaining while the operation was performed.
"'She seemed more especially to concern herself with preserving
intact a lock of the young man's jet-black hair, which was
brushed in rather an odd manner across his ivory forehead.
Naturally enough, this circumstance excited my curiosity and,
distracting the woman's attention for a moment--I asked her to
bring me something from a table at the opposite side of the
room--I lightly raised this wayward lock and immediately replaced
"'Do you know what it concealed, Mr. Brinn?'
"I assured him that I did not.
"'A mark, apparently natural, resembling a torch surmounted by a
tongue of fire!'
"I was amazed, gentlemen, by Sir Charles's story. He was given
his fee and driven back to his quarters But that he had succeeded
where I had failed, that he had actually looked upon Fire-Tongue
in person, I could not doubt. I learned from this, too, that the
Prophet of Fire did not always remain in his mountain stronghold,
for Delhi is a long way from the Secret City.
"Strange though it must appear, at this time I failed to account
for Sir Charles confiding this thing to me. Later, I realized
that he must have seen the mark on my arm, although he never
referred to it.
"Well, the past leapt out at me, as you see, and worse was to
come. The death of Sir Charles Abingdon told me what I hated to
know: that Fire-Tongue was in England!
"I moved at once. I inserted in the Times the prearranged
message, hardly daring to hope that it would come to the eye of
Naida; but it did! She visited me. And I learned that not only
Sir Charles Abingdon, but another, knew of the mark which I bore!
"I was summoned to appear before the Prophet of fire!
"Gentlemen, what I saw and how I succeeded in finding out the
location of his abode are matters that can wait. The important
things are these: first, I learned why Sir Charles Abingdon had
been done to death!
"The unwelcome attentions of the man known as Ormuz Khan led Sir
Charles to seek an interview with him. I may say here and now
that Ormuz Khan is Fire-Tongue! Oh! it's a tough statement--but I
can prove it. Sir Charles practically forced his way into this
man's presence--and immediately recognized his mysterious patient
of years ago!
"He accused him of having set spies upon his daughter's
movements--an accusation which was true--and forbade him to see
her again. From that hour the fate of Sir Charles was sealed.
What he knew, the world must never know. He had recorded, in a
private paper, all that he had learned. This paper was stolen
from his bureau--and its contents led to my being summoned to the
house of Fire-Tongue! It also spurred the organization to renewed
efforts, for it revealed the fact that Sir Charles contemplated
confiding the story to others.
"What were the intentions of the man Ormuz in regard to Miss
Abingdon, I don't know. His entourage all left England some days
ago--with three exceptions. I believe him to have been capable of
almost anything. He was desperate. He knew that Ormuz Khan must
finally and definitely disappear. It is just possible that he
meant Miss Abingdon to disappear along with him!
"However, that danger is past. Mrs. McMurdoch, who to-day
accompanied her to his house, was drugged by these past-masters
in the use of poisons, and left unconscious in a cottage a few
miles from Hillside, the abode of Ormuz.
"You will have observed, gentlemen, that I am somewhat damaged.
However, it was worth it! That the organization of the
Fire-Worshippers is destroyed I am not prepared to assert. But I
made a discovery to-day which untied my hands. Hearing, I shall
never know how, that Naida had had a secret interview with me,
Fire-Tongue visited upon her the penalty paid seven years ago by
my informant in Nagpur, by Sir Charles Abingdon, recently, by God
alone knows how many scores--hundreds--in the history of this
"I found her lying on a silken divan in the deserted house, her
hands clasped over a little white flower like an odontoglossum,
which lay on her breast. It was the flower of sleep--and she was
"My seven years' silence was ended. One thing I could do for the
world: remove Fire-Tongue--and do it with my own hands!
"Gentlemen, at the angle where the high road from Upper Claybury
joins the Dover Road is the Merton Cottage Hospital. Mr. Harley
is awaiting us there. He is less damaged than I am. A native
chauffeur, whose name I don't know, is lying insensible in one of
the beds--and in another is a dead man, unrecognizable, except
for a birthmark resembling a torch on his forehead, his head
crushed and his neck broken.
"That dead man is Fire-Tongue. I should like, Mr. Commissioner,
to sign the statement."