I was not the only passenger aboard the S.S. Mandalay who perceivedthe disturbance and wondered what it might portend and from whenceproceed. A goodly number of passengers were joining the ship atPort Said. I was lounging against the rail, pipe in mouth, lazilywondering, with a large vagueness.
What a heterogeneous rabble it was!--a brightly coloured rabble,but the colours all were dirty, like the town and the canal. Onlythe sky was clean; the sky and the hard, merciless sunlight whichspared nothing of the uncleanness, and defied one even to thinkof the term dear to tourists, "picturesque." I was in that kindof mood. All the natives appeared to be pockmarked; all theEuropeans greasy with perspiration.
But what was the stir about?
I turned to the dark, bespectacled young man who leaned upon therail beside me. From the first I had taken to Mr. Ahmad Ahmadeen.
"There is some kind of undercurrent of excitement among the natives,"I said, "a sort of subdued Greek chorus is audible. What's it allabout?"
Mr. Ahmadeen smiled. After a gaunt fashion, he was a handsome manand had a pleasant smile.
"Probably," he replied, "some local celebrity is joining the ship."
I stared at him curiously.
"Any idea who he is?"
The soul of the copyhunter is a restlesssoul.
A group of men dressed in semi-European fashion--that is, inEuropean fashion save for their turbans, which were green--passedclose to us along the deck.
Ahmadeen appeared not to have heard the question.
The disturbance, which could only be defined as a subdued uproar,but could be traced to no particular individual or group, grewmomentarily louder--and died away. It was only when it hadcompletely ceased that one realized how pronounced it hadbeen--how altogether peculiar, secret; like that incomprehensiblemurmuring in a bazaar when, unknown to the insular visitor, areputed saint is present.
Then it happened; the inexplicable incident which, though I knewit not, heralded the coming of strange things, and the dawn of anew power; which should set up its secret standards in England,which should flood Europe and the civilized world with wonder.
A shrill scream marked the overture--a scream of fear and of pain,which dropped to a groan, and moaned out into the silence of whichit was the cause.
"My God! what's that?"
I started forward. There was a general crowding rush, and a darklytanned and bearded man came on board, carrying a brown leather case.Behind him surged those who bore the victim.
"It's one of the lascars!"
"It was a porter--?"
"What is it--?"
"Someone been stabbed!"
"Where's the doctor?"
"Stand away there, if you please!"
That was a ship's officer; and the voice of authority served toquell the disturbance. Through a lane walled with craning headsthey bore the insensible man. Ahmadeen was at my elbow.
"A Copt," he said softly. "Poor devil!" I turned to him. Therewas a queer expression on his lean, clean-shaven, bronze face.
"Good God!" I said. "His hand has been cut off!"
That was the fact of the matter. And no one knew who wasresponsible for the atrocity. And no one knew what had become ofthe severed hand! I wasted not a moment in linking up the story.The pressman within me acted automatically.
"The gentleman just come aboard, sir," said a steward, "is ProfessorDeeping. The poor beggar who was assaulted was carrying some of theProfessor's baggage." The whole incident struck me as most odd.There was an idea lurking in my mind that something else--somethingmore--lay behind all this. With impatience I awaited the timewhen the injured man, having received medical attention, was conveyedashore, and Professor Deeping reappeared. To the celebratedtraveller and Oriental scholar I introduced myself.
He was singularly reticent.
"I was unable to see what took place, Mr. Cavanagh," he said. "Thepoor fellow was behind me, for I had stepped from the boat ahead ofhim. I had just taken a bag from his hand, but he was carryinganother, heavier one. It is a clean cut, like that of a scimitar.I have seen very similar wounds in the cases of men who havesuffered the old Moslem penalty for theft."
Nothing further had come to light when the Mandalay left, but Ifound new matter for curiosity in the behaviour of the Moslem partywho had come on board at Port Said.
In conversation with Mr. Bell, the chief officer, I learned thatthe supposed leader of the party was one, Mr. Azraeel. "Obviously,"said Bell, "not his real name or not all it. I don't supposethey'll show themselves on deck; they've got their own servants withthem, and seem to be people of consequence."
This conversation was interrupted, but I found my unseen fellowvoyagers peculiarly interesting and pursued inquiries in otherdirections. I saw members of the distinguished travellers'retinue going about their duties, but never obtained a glimpseof Mr. Azraeel nor of any of his green-turbaned companions.
"Who is Mr. Azraeel?" I asked Ahmadeen.
"I cannot say," replied the Egyptian, and abruptly changed thesubject.
Some curious aroma of mystery floated about the ship. Ahmadeenconveyed to me the idea that he was concealing something. Then,one night, Mr. Bell invited me to step forward with him.
"Listen," he said.
From somewhere in the fo'c'sle proceeded low chanting.
"Yes. What the devil is it?"
"It's the lascars," said Bell. "They have been behaving in a mostunusual manner ever since the mysterious Mr. Azraeel joined us. Imay be wrong in associating the two things, but I shan't be sorryto see the last of our mysterious passengers."
The next happening on board the Mandalay which I have to record wasthe attempt to break open the door of Professor Deeping's stateroom.Except when he was actually within, the Professor left his room doorreligiously locked.
He made light of the affair, but later took me aside and told me acurious story of an apparition which had appeared to him.
"It was a crescent of light," he said, "and it glittered throughthe darkness there to the left as I lay in my berth."
"A reflection from something on the deck?"
Deeping smiled, uneasily.
"Possibly," he replied; "but it was very sharply defined. Likethe blade of a scimitar," he added.
I stared at him, my curiosity keenly aroused. "Does any explanationsuggest itself to you?" I said.
"Well," he confessed, "I have a theory, I will admit; but it israther going back to the Middle Ages. You see, I have lived in theEast a lot; perhaps I have assimilated some of their superstitions."
He was oddly reticent, as ever. I felt convinced that he waskeeping something back. I could not stifle the impression that theclue to these mysteries lay somewhere around the invisibleMohammedan party.
"Do you know," said Bell to me, one morning, "this trip's giving methe creeps. I believe the damned ship's haunted! Three bells in themiddle watch last night, I'll swear I saw some black animal crawlingalong the deck, in the direction of the forward companion-way."
"Cat?" I suggested.
"Nothing like it," said Mr. Bell. "Mr. Cavanagh, it was someuncanny thing! I'm afraid I can't explain quite what I mean, butit was something I wanted to shoot!"
"Where did it go?"
The chief officer shrugged his shoulders. "Just vanished," he said."I hope I don't see it again."
At Tilbury the Mohammedan party went ashore in a body. Among themwere veiled women. They contrived so to surround a central figurethat I entirely failed to get a glimpse of the mysterious Mr.Azraeel. Ahmadeen was standing close by the companion-way, and Ihad a momentary impression that one of the women slipped somethinginto his hand. Certainly, he started; and his dusky face seemed topale.
Then a deck steward came out of Deeping's stateroom, carrying thebrown bag which the Professor had brought aboard at Port Said.Deeping's voice came:
"Hi, my man! Let me take that bag!"
The bag changed hands. Five minutes later, as I was preparing togo ashore, arose a horrid scream above the berthing clamour. Thosepassengers yet aboard made in the direction from which the screamhad proceeded.
A steward--the one to whom Professor Deeping had spoken--laywrithing at the foot of the stairs leading to the saloon-deck. Hisright hand had been severed above the wrist!