SO FAR Newton Moore had been successful. The case was becoming absolutely prosaic. If Prince Kalahami only handed over the Concession without further trouble the matter was ended.
But would he? Over his cigarette, which he took in lieu of breakfast, Moore thought the matter out. A man of no imagination would have concluded the business with no more feeling than a tax collector. But Moore was not an ordinary man, and his imagination was painfully vivid.
Moreover, he had formed a fairly high estimate of the intellectual capacities of the Indian Prince. The man's eyes were evil, but a light of intelligence shone in them. He was not at all the kind of man to give way without a struggle. Whether he would dare to resort to violence was another matter.
"Anyway, I'll have to go," Moore told himself. "I can't very well back out of it now. Only I wish I had not read so many stories of the diabolical cruelty and cunning of th Oriental mind."
Moore felt restless and miserable as the hour arrived. Had he known what specific danger he had to face, he would have gone to it cheerfully. But he had a horror of unseen perils as he had a horror of death.
His imagination had stood him in good stead many a time, but the price charged was a fancy one in many senses. The price was a heavy one now. With his heart more or less in his mouth, and a fine contempt for himself surging in his breast, Moore drove to Clarendon Square. The locality half a century ago had been held to be a fashionable one: to-day it consisted of gloomy houses, aloof, unneighborly. At the gloomiest and grimiest of these the cab presently pulled up.
"Don't like it," Moore muttered; "it's the kind of place where a man might be done to death and rot for months. How lonely London can be if a man likes to make it so."
He pulled savagely at the bell, and a great brazen discord arose within. A manservant dressed in a quiet livery opened the door. He had the airs and manners of a trained footman, nevertheless his features were decidedly Oriental. He conducted Moore along a gloomy hall to a room at the back which, by contrast, was exceedingly bright and cheerful.
"The Prince will be with you directly, sir," the vanishing footman murmured.
A confidential servant, an Almedi, no doubt. Probably every servant in the house was of similar caste. Moore had no doubt of the fact a minute or two later when the door opened and Kalahami entered.
"I am rejoiced to place my poor hospitality before you," he said gravely.
Moore regarded his host with surprise. The sham European voice had disappeared, gone was the frock coat, gone was the knowing Western manner. In his stead stood a grandee of India, grave, dignified, and magnificently dressed, from his flashing jewelled turban to the pearl-embroidered slippers.
"Your Highness is most kind," Moore murmured.
The Prince smiled, his vanity had been touched.
"Sit down," he said. "There are times when I prefer to play the Prince, and this is one of them. You came here to discuss important State matters, in fact you came—"
"—to enable your Highness to fulfil a promise."
Kalahami bowed with regal grace and urbanity. Moore contemplated him vaguely.
It seemed as if this man had changed his nature with his garments. As a matter of fact Prince Kalahami was his natural self. The other side of his life was merely the outbreak of inherent vice rendered ranker by long contamination with what we are pleased to call Western civilisation.
Kalahami lighted a cigarette, and passed the box to Moore.
"I have been thinking this matter over," he said gravely, "and I have come to the conclusion that I had better be perfectly frank with you. You have a certain hold over me which gives you a terrible advantage. So long as I remain in England you are in a position to reduce me to the level of a common criminal. Personally, I am quite sure you have no desire to do this."
The speaker paused, and Moore pulled himself together. Could this grave and stately Prince of blood be the drunken "bounder " of the previous night?
"I have no desire to do anything but my duty," said Moore.
"I quite understand that you have no personal feeling in the matter. Your Government does not desire to be officially cognisant of this matter, so they give you certain information and leave you to do your best. Permit me to congratulate the Foreign Office on their representative."
"Your Highness overwhelms me," murmured Moore.
"Not at all. You have discretion, tact, courage. You have forced my hand and compelled me to proclaim myself as a charlatan, a trickster, and a shedder of innocent blood. In London I am compelled to bow to the inevitable. Out yonder I should have you strangled without the least compunction. I am bound to remain in London a little longer, or you would not have found me here to-day.
Do you understand the humiliating position you are placing me in as regards Russia?"
"I am acting from a sense of duty," Moore replied. "I have come here for the promised Concession. Once I obtain that, my work is finished—and my lips sealed."
"After luncheon you shall have the Concession."
Moore was pleased, yet disturbed. This was by no means the kind of man to yield a point in so calm and imperturbable a manner. There must be a raging flood behind those impenetrable floodgates.
Kalahami smote upon a silver gong, and immediately two folding doors were thrown back and an inner room was disclosed. Here an elaborate luncheon was laid out for two. There was no window beyond the inner room, nothing but a small but beautifully arranged conservatory shut off from the luncheon chamber by a pair of ornamental bronze gates. A cry of surprise and admiration broke from Moore. His artistic nature was touched.
"How exceedingly beautiful," he exclaimed. "What exquisite flowers and ferns.
Those magnificent gates add greatly to the picture; possibly they have been arranged for safety as well as for artistic effect."
Kalahami smiled as he drew up to the table.
"Safety certainly," he said, "but not quite in the way you mean. The glass of the conservatory is thick enough to defy the predatory classes, but the gates were erected because at one time I kept a pair of jaguars beyond the bars. But the space was too small, and I had to dispose of them. So long as I want to live here quietly as Mr. Jones, of Clarendon Square—a thing I have done on and off for years—I have to be careful. And now let me give you a little of this stewed trout. You need not be afraid."
Moore colored slightly. The idea had flashed across his mind that the Indian Prince might have lured him here with murderous intent.
"I pay you the compliment of taking you for a clever man," the Prince resumed.
"I dare say you have contrived to let somebody you can trust know where you are at this present moment. That is so, Mr. Moore?"
"That is quite correct, your Highness."
Kalahami smiled as he attacked his trout with great good humor.
"I felt quite certain of it," he said. "Therefore any design I may have upon you will not be carried out through the medium of the repast. There is champagne, or claret if you prefer it. Prince Kalahami is a total abstainer."
Nothing could have been better appointed or in better taste. The dishes were few, but they had been prepared by a master of his craft. The wines were classic, the fruit blushed, cool and fragrant. The Indian touched little beyond rice and a curry, he ignored the wines; but he consumed four large peaches and two cups of coffee. As the cigarettes came he raised his hand towards the conservatory.
"Let us go and smoke there," he suggested. "You are in no hurry?"
"I can spare an hour," Moore replied.
One of the handsome gates was thrown open, and Moore passed beyond. The atmosphere was hot and heavy, the fragrance of the flowers a trifle overpowering; but Moore had lunched well, and the languid atmosphere suited his mood. The space was small, barely sufficient for two armchairs and the various flowers and ferns, and an old-fashioned stand of drawers on the far side.
"In that third drawer is the Concession," Kalahami explained. "When you leave you shall take it out with your own hands."
Moore's fears had fallen to zero. Nothing could be more fair or open than the way in which he had been treated. He expanded over his cigarette.
"I expected to have had more trouble than this," he said.
The Indian gave him a quick, flashing glance. His eyes lighted with flame.
"I know when I am beaten," he said. "The strong man always does. Otherwise I would have had you removed without the slightest scruple. You dog, I would murder you now if I only dared! As it is—"
Kalahami paused and laughed. The passion passed like summer lightning.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "You will excuse me if I leave you for a moment.
Meanwhile you can get your Concession and amuse yourself by reading it, and seeing that everything is _en règle_."
The Indian crept languidly away. He passed the bronze gates, and carelessly closed them behind him. Then it suddenly flashed upon Moore that he was in a luxurious cage, but a cage all the same.
For the moment Kalahami had disappeared. Moore crossed to the gates in a bound. He pressed against the brass scrolls, but they held fast. He glanced up, only to find that the bronze gates occupied the entire space where a large window had been before the conservatory had been erected. The gates were closed and fast. There was no escape that way.
One moment of deadly faintness came over Moore, and then the man was himself again. He could not nominate the danger yet, but he felt that it was terribly close at hand. It was something horribly subtle and Oriental, no doubt, something that would in no way imperil the safety of Prince Kalahami. The latter was aware of Moore's precaution. That being so, he must be wonderfully certain of his ground.
With white face and teeth set close together Moore crossed the open space to where the pile of drawers stood.
"I'll have the Concession, at any rate," he muttered. "I presume it is part of the refined cruelty of the game to place that in my hands and at the same time deprive me of the power of using it. But something may happen in my favor yet."
Moore pulled savagely at the drawer, so savagely that he wrenched the whole front out of the box, staggering back as he did so.
A paper fluttered to the ground. Moore snatched it up eagerly. He flashed his eyes over the document.
The next moment he recoiled with a cry of horror. He had gone deliberately to his own destruction. On the floor, coming from the box evidently, was a knotted, dull, slimy tangle, fighting and wriggling like great worms. The tangle dissolved into wavy ropes, a score of flat heads were raised and a faint hissing noise arose.
"God in Heaven," Moore yelled. "Cobras."
They were cobras, a good score of them. They raised their hooded heads and eyed Moore with malignant, metallic eyes. A cold sweat burst out on his face, his limbs trembled under him. Many things there were that filled Moore with horror, but nothing to the horror he had of snakes.
He knew what it meant—he knew a horrible death would be his. He could see now how that infernal Indian meant to get out of the difficulty. "Accidentally bitten by a pet cobra," that would be the verdict of the Coroner's jury.
Then Moore went mad for the moment. His sensitive, highly strung nature gave way before the terrible strain. When he came to himself again, he found he had stripped off his collar; the long silk scarf he usually wore was in his hand.
He heard a low chuckle from behind the gates.
Kalahami stood there grinning like some hideous joss. All the wild, black blood in his veins was aflame, the man was transformed. He clung to the gates, he danced up and down like a monkey, he screamed aloud.
"Got the paper, got the paper," he yelled. "Are you satisfied now, you Christian dog? Ah, ah, this is something worth living for. If you only knew—fool and pig that you are—if you only knew!"
He might have been whistling to the wind for all Moore heeded. He was dimly conscious that Kalahami was raving at him. And that was all.
As for the rest he was trying, madly and despairingly, to keep the snakes at a distance. It was awful, fiendish work. Those writhing bodies seemed to be pressing all around him.
Hooded heads were raised and curving fangs swooped close to his trembling limbs.
Presently one more agile than the rest rose, darted out a venomous flat head, and struck Moore sharply on the hand.
He screamed and yelled like a madman.
The pain was not great, but instantly the hand began to swell. A dull despair took the place of the madness. Moore knew that his hour had come. The despair turned to blazing anger as Moore met the Indian's mocking eyes.
To his great surprise Kalahami burst into a roar of laughter.
"The snakes are harmless," he said. "They can use their fangs, but the poison glands have been extracted."
Moore laughed gently. Then suddenly his reason seemed to leave him. In a vague way he heard Kalahami's words, but they conveyed no meaning. Moore was seated in the center of a sun-bathed valley, and the tangled coil of cobras were ropes of live flowers in his nerveless fingers.
He knew that he ought to be happy, and yet he was weighed down with a sense of profound melancholy. It seemed to him that he had some stupendous task to perform, a task he was deliberately avoiding. Then a gigantic rose came nodding to the ground, a great, red, perfumed blossom that struck him violently on the head and brought him to his senses once more. He saw Kalahami still gleaming through the bars, and with a violent effort he was himself again.
"What was it you said to me?" he asked vaguely. "Oh, I recollect. You say that the snakes are harmless. You lie, you dog! I shall know how to face my death now. It was my too vivid imagination that robbed me of my manhood. I have beaten you. If I am not at home in an hour you will be arrested. As you suggested yourself a few moments ago, I did not come here without making my preparations."
Kalahami looked at his victim keenly and anxiously.
"You do not feel any further fear?" he asked.
"Not an atom," Moore replied. "Look at me."
His eyes were clear and bright. The man had conquered himself. Kalahami stretched his hand through the bars and touched a cobra. The reptile darted a couple of fangs at his hand. He held it up to show the puncture.
"There," he said, "that is evidence that I did not lie. Loathsome as they are, the snakes are absolutely harmless. I knew that you were an imaginative, nervous man, but I did not give you credit for such a reserve of courage. I have seen men driven hopelessly mad this way before. I hoped to serve you in similar fashion. Had I been successful, you could never have used that Concession. As it is, all the tricks are scored to you. Come out and have some brandy. You need it."
Kalahami threw back the great bronze gates and Moore crept out. He was safe now, but he feared the revulsion of feeling. He clutched at the bars for support and he fought down the rising hysteria as the sodden wretch on the verge of _delirium tremens_ struggles with the demons crowding upon him.
The fit passed away, leaving the strong man trembling. The danger was over.
Kalahami's final struggle for the mastery had failed, and he saw that he must acknowledge himself beaten. Better at once to give in with a good grace than face the terrors of the English law for murder.
* * * * *
A little later and Moore was rolling home in a cab. He was still faint and dizzy, but he was filled with a sense of elation and triumph.
"A grand idea for a story," he muttered. "Frighten a man to death or drive him out of his mind with deadly snakes that are really harmless. Prince Kalahami's pretty scheme ought to be used for a story. And I don't fancy there is any need to make a note of the plot. I'm not likely to forget it."