Closing the door carefully behind him, he sent the light of his torch along the wall, and after a second or two it rested upon a small switchboard. Without hesitation he pulled down a switch. Instantly two great glittering electroliers that were supported on columns of solid bronze gleamed into light.
The room was low-roofed, long and narrow; the concrete walls, which had served when this chamber had been the repository of high explosives, were entirely covered with long panels of scarlet silk on which were embroidered texts from the words of The Sage, and these hangings alternated with half-pillars that seemed to be of hammered gold. The stone floor had been overlaid with brightly coloured tiles, and round three sides of the room ran a broad strip of dark-blue carpet. But this he did not see for the moment. His attention was concentrated upon the long marble altar at the far end of the room. Behind this, on a stone pedestal, was the singular emblem of the secret society—two golden hands clasped together in friendship. They crossed a red lacquered post which was covered with inscriptions in gold.
He stood reading these for a while. These writings were also of admirable intent—exhortations to virtue and filial piety predominated. Beneath the hands was a golden chair on a small scarlet-covered dais. And then he saw, on the altar-top, as he came nearer, a flicker of light that shot out from the edge of the alter, and with a gasp he saw that its rim was set with diamonds!
"Well, I'll go to blazes!" he said in astonishment, and reached out his hand to touch the dazzling gems.
At that moment all the lights in the room went out, and he spun round, jerking a revolver from his hip pocket as he turned.
"Shah!" grunted a deep voice, and something whizzed past his cheek.
He heard the clang of the knife as it struck the wall, and dropped flat on the ground. Again a knife whizzed past, and then he fired twice towards the door. He heard a sob of pain and then, instantly, the sound ceased as though powerful hands had closed the sufferer's mouth.
The silence was complete. Not by so much as the shuffle of bare feet did his attackers betray their presence.
Clifford rolled over and sat up. In a trice he had pulled off his shoes and, knotting the laces together, slung them about his neck, an old schoolboy trick that recalled paddling in a forbidden pond. Rising noiselessly, he felt his way along the carpet, his ears strained to catch the slightest sound.
It was the touch of steel against the tessellated floor—they were searching for him with their swords. How many?
Less than a dozen, he guessed, by the fact that they had not turned on the lights. A bigger force would have risked his revolver. After a while, the chair line turned to the left. He was moving now to the door and there was greater need for caution.
He stopped and listened. Somebody was breathing deeply just in front of him: the guard on the door. There came to him an inspiration. The Chinaman has a peculiar whisper—a low hiss of sound no louder than the sighing of a night wind.
"Go to the Hands—all of you!" he breathed. He spoke in the dialect of Yun Nan, and he was rewarded. The breathing ceased and he moved stealthily toward the door, stopping at every other step to listen.
The carpet line ended abruptly: his fingers touched the silken curtains and then bare wall. In another instant he had passed through the open door and was mounting the stairs. Above him, clearly outlined against the night sky, he saw a figure standing at the outer entrance, bent as in a listening attitude.
Clifford stopped to draw breath, and then with two strides he was up the stairs.
"Move and you die!" he hissed, and pushed the muzzle of his gun into the padded coat.
The man flinched back, but recovered himself instantly. Clifford heard the laugh and knew it.
"Do not shoot, Mr Lynne!
Sic itur ad astra
! But I prefer another road to immortality!"
In the light of his torch Clifford saw the sentinel. He wore a long coat that fell almost to his heels, and on his head was the round cap of his kind.
It was Grahame St Clay, BA!
Clifford Heard the patter of bare feet on the stairs and whipped round, his pistol raised.
"Call off your dogs, Fing-Su!" he said.
The other hesitated for a second, and then hissed something in a fierce undertone. The rustling ceased but, looking down into the opening, Clifford Lynne saw the dull gleam of a naked sword and smiled.
"Now, friend," he said, and gripping the arm of Fing-Su, he led him towards the door in the wall.
"My dear Mr Lynne"—the Chinaman's voice was reproachful—"if you wish to see our little lodge room, why on earth didn't you write me a note? I should have been glad to have shown you round the premises. As it was, these poor fellows naturally imagined that a burglar had broken in—there is quite a lot of valuable property in the Hall of the Hands, as you may have observed. Really, I should never have forgiven myself if anything had happened to you."
The white man did not reply; all his senses were alert; his eyes roamed from left to right, for he knew that these grounds were full of armed men. Once let Fing-Su get away from him, and his life would be worth very little.
Apparently Fing-Su was thinking along the same lines.
"I never realized you were a nervous man before, Lynne," he said.
"Mr Lynne," said the other significantly, and his prisoner swallowed something in the darkness.
As they were walking towards the door in the wall, Clifford had taken out his flashlamp. The ground sloped gently towards the exit, and now for the first time he pushed the button controlling the light, with no other thought than to guide himself. The rays focused the door for a second, then wandered to the right. Here, built against the wall, was a long roof, about six feet from the ground, and in that second he saw what he thought, at first, was a line of wagons, in the shelter of the slate-covered shed that apparently ran the length of the wall. Just a glimpse he had of that vista of dark grey wheels, and then the lamp was struck from his hand.
"I'm sorry," said Fing-Su apologetically. "Please don't be alarmed; it was quite an accident."
He stooped and picked up the lamp.
"I would rather you didn't show a light here," he said. "In fact, I don't want my people to know that an intruder has witnessed the Hall of Mystery. They are, as you know, Mr Lynne, an excitable, foreigner-hating folk, and, what is more to the point, I am anxious to get you away from this place without injury, and your light gives them, shall I say, a target?"
To this Clifford Lynne did not reply.
They had reached the gate. Fing-Su stepped ahead, unlocked and threw it wide open, and Lynne stepped out backwards, his pistol arm stiff.
"I'll give you a word of warning," he said; "it may be useful to you. You've got more money than a Chinaman should have. Go back to your country; use your wealth to cultivate the land, and get that Emperor bug out of your mind."
He heard a quiet, confident laugh, and knew that his seed had fallen upon a very stony place indeed. As the gate closed softly on him, and the key was turned, he walked swiftly towards the canal bank, throwing his light ahead. The bank was deserted, and he turned back the way he had come, alert, expectant, never doubting that, if it suited Mr 'Grahame St Clay's' purpose, he would have to fight his way to safety. He was still in his stockinged feet, and as he paused a dozen yards from the big gate of the factory, he heard the faint squeak of a hinge. The gate was opening.
He knelt down and looked back along the bank, and saw a procession of stealthy figures moving out from the passageway. That he was in deadly peril he did not doubt. Without the slightest hesitation he slipped his pistol back into his pocket and, sitting on the timbered edge of the canal, he dropped into the water. Very silently, making no splash, he struck out for the opposite bank and for a barge that was moored by the side of a wharf. The water was foul and greasy, but that was a minor discomfort compared with what awaited him if he fell into the hands of the Federation.
Presently he reached and caught hold of a chain, and in silence drew himself to the grimy deck of a coal barge. A few steps brought him to the wharf. A dog growled savagely somewhere in the darkness; from the opposite bank he heard a twitter of excited comment. They had missed him, and had guessed which way he had gone.
Picking his way across the littered wharf, he came at last to a high wooden gate, surmounted by a rusty spike, as he discovered when he tried to climb. Searching the gateway, he found the wicket, turned the handle, and, to his relief, the door yielded.
The danger was not yet past, he realized, as he ran through a labyrinth of narrow lanes and reached an untidy road, dimly lighted by street lamps. As he reached the road he saw the dim light of a car at the far end, and dropped behind a timber baulk. The machine was moving slowly, and somebody by the side of the driver was sending the rays of a powerful hand-lamp left and right. He heard the sibilant whisper that he knew so well and waited, his dripping pistol in his hand; but the car passed and, rising cautiously, he ran back the way he had come, reached the Canal Bridge without mishap and, most welcome sight of all, two policemen walking together. One flashed his lamp upon him as he passed.
"Hallo, guv'nor, been in the water?"
"Yes, I fell in," said Clifford, and did not stop to offer any further explanation.
At the end of the Glengall Road he found his taxi waiting, and half an hour later he was enjoying the luxury of a hot bath.
He had much to think about that night, principally about that long line of wheeled vehicles he had seen in the shelter of the shed; for he had recognized them as battery upon battery of quick-firing guns, and he wondered what plans Mr Fing-Su had for their employment.
Mr Stephen Narth was not as a rule the most pleasant person at the breakfast table. In ordinary times Joan Bray rather dreaded that early meal, when the bacon was generally too salt, and the coffee too strong, and when Mr Narth was wont to recite the extraordinary expense of running his house.
Since the interrupted luncheon party Stephen Narth's manner had undergone a remarkable change, and he was never so pleasant to the girl as he was on the seventh morning after the arrival of the queer man from China.
"They tell me that your friend has got his house finished and furnished," he said, almost jovially. "I suppose we shall be putting up the banns for you, Joan? Where would you like to be married?"
She looked at him aghast.
She had not associated the repairs to the Slaters' Cottage with her own matrimonial adventure. In truth, she had not seen Clifford Lynne since that afternoon he brought her back from London. Joan had the uncomfortable feeling that she had been rather left in the air; she was suffering a little from the reaction of Clifford Lynne's violent proposal. The period of calm which had followed his eruption into her life was in the nature of an anti-climax; she remembered once a great politician who had come to the town where she had spent her childhood, and who had been welcomed with bands and banners; just as he was about to commence his speech expressing his thanks for the welcome, a fire had broken out in an adjacent street, and his audience had melted away, leaving him forlorn and wholly unimportant compared with the conflagration which had suddenly gripped the fickle interest of his admirers. She could sympathize with him.
"I haven't seen Mr Lynne," she said. "And as to marriage. I'm not so sure that he was serious."
Mr Narth's manner changed.
"Not serious? Rubbish!" he exploded. "Of course he's serious! The whole thing is arranged. I must talk to him and fix a date. You shall be married at Sunningdale Church, and Letty and Mabel shall be your bridesmaids. In fact, I think you girls had better go up to town and see about your clothes. It had better be a quiet wedding, with as few guests as possible. You never know what this fellow will do; he's such a wild harum-scarum that is likely as not he will come with an escort of niggers! You had a chat with him, didn't you, when you came back from the—er—office?"
This was the first allusion he had made for some days to the lunch.
"Didn't he tell you what was his salary?"
"No," said Joan.
"Really, father," said Mabel, spreading butter on her toast, "isn't his salary a matter rather dependent on you? Of course we shall have to keep him on: it would be a dirty trick to let Joan marry him and then throw him out; but I really think he should be spoken to—his manner is most disrespectful."
"And his language is appalling," said Letty. "Do you remember, father, what he said?"
"'Hell's bells,'" mused Mr Narth. "It is a new expression to me. I should imagine that he had a contract with poor Joe Bray, so the question of his salary may not arise for some time. Joe was a very generous man and he is certain to have given this fellow enough to live on, so you need have no qualms on the subject, my dear."
"I haven't," said Joan.
"Why he has repaired the Slaters' Cottage so extravagantly, I don't know," Stephen continued. "He surely doesn't expect that I shall allow him to stay here! A manager's place is—er—near the business he manages. Of course, I don't mind giving him a few months' leave—that is usual, I believe—but he will find it difficult to sell the cottage for anything like the cost of the repairs."