It must have been about eleven o'clock that night when Paul Harley rang me up. Since we had parted in the early morning I had had no word from him, and I was all anxiety to tell him of the quaint little romance which unknown to us had had its setting in the room above.
In accordance with my promise I had seen the chief officer of the Patna; and from the start of surprise which he gave on opening "Captain Dan's" letter, I judged that Mr. Marryat and the man who for so long had sunk to the lowest rung of the ladder had been close friends in those "old days." At any rate, he had proceeded to make the necessary arrangements without a moment's delay, and the couple were to go on board the Patna at nine o'clock.
It was with a sense of having done at least one good deed that I finally quitted our Limehouse base and returned to my rooms. Now, at eleven o'clock at night:
"Can you come round to Chancery Lane at once?" said Harley. "I want you to run down to Pennyfields with me."
"Some development in the Kwen Lung business?"
"Hardly a development, but I'm not satisfied, Knox. I hate to be beaten."
Twenty minutes later I was sitting in Harley's study, watching him restlessly promenading up and down before the fire.
"The police searched Kwen Lung's place from foundation to tiles," he said. "I was there myself. Old Kwen Lung conveniently kept out of the way--still playing fan-tan, no doubt! But Ma Lorenzo was in evidence. She blandly declared that Kwen Lung never had a daughter! And in the absence of our friend the fireman, who sailed in the Seahawk, and whose evidence, by the way, is legally valueless--what could we do? They could find nobody in the neighbourhood prepared to state that Kwen Lung had a daughter or that Kwen Lung had no daughter. There are all sorts of fables about the old fox, but the facts about him are harder to get at."
"But," I explained, "the bloodstains on the joss!"
"Ma Lorenzo stumbled and fell there on the previous night, striking her skull against the foot of the figure."
"What nonsense!" I cried. "We should have seen the wound last night."
"We might have done," said Harley musingly; "I don't know when she inflicted it on herself; but I did see it this morning."
"Oh, the gash is there all right, partly covered by her hair."
He stood still, staring at me oddly.
"One meets with cases of singular devotion in unexpected quarters sometimes," he said.
"You mean that the woman inflicted the wound upon herself in order------"
'To save old Kwen Lung--exactly! It's marvellous."
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed. "And the window?"
"Oh! it was broken right enough--by two drunken sailormen fighting in the court outside! Sash and everything smashed to splinters."
He began irritably to pace the carpet again.
"It must have been a devil of a fight!" he added savagely.
"Meanwhile," said I, "where is old Kwen Lung hiding?"
"But more particularly," cried Harley, "where has he hidden the poor victim? Come along, Knox! I'm going down there for a final look round."
"Of course the premises are being watched?"
"Of course--and also, of course, I shall be the laughing stock of Scotland Yard if nothing results."
It was close on midnight when once more I found myself in Pennyfields. Carried away by Harley's irritable excitement I had quite forgotten the romance of Captain Dan; and when, having exchanged greetings with the detective on duty hard by the house of Kwen Lung, we presently found ourselves in the presence of Ma Lorenzo, I scarcely knew for a moment if I were "Jim" or my proper self.
"Is Kwen Lung in?" asked Harley sternly.
The woman shook her head.
"No," she replied; "he sometimes stop away a whole week."
"Does he?" jerked Harley. "Come in, Knox; we'll take another look round."
A moment later I found myself again in the room of the golden joss. The red curtain had been removed from before the shattered window, but otherwise the place looked exactly as it had looked before. The atmosphere was much less stale, however, but there was something repellent about the great gilded idol smiling eternally from his pedestal beside the door.
I stared into the leering face, and it was the face of one who knew and who might have said: "Yes! this and other things equally strange have I beheld in many lands as well as England. Much I could tell. Many things grim and terrible, and some few joyous; for behold! I smile but am silent."
For a while Harley stared abstractedly at the bloodstains on the pedestal of the joss and upon the floor beneath from which the matting had been pulled back. Suddenly he turned to Ma Lorenzo:
"Where have you hidden the body?" he demanded.
Watching her, I thought I saw the woman flinch, but there was enough of the Oriental in her composition to save her from self- betrayal. She shook her head slowly, watching Harley through half-closed eyes.
"Nobody hab," she replied.
And I thought for once that her lapse into pidgin had been deliberate and not accidental.
When finally we quitted the house of the missing Kwen Lung, and when, Harley having curtly acknowledged "good night" from the detective on duty, we came out into Limehouse Causeway.
"You have not overlooked the possibility, Harley," I said, "that this woman's explanation may be true, and that the fireman of the Seahawk may have been entertaining us with an account of a weird dream?"
"No!" snapped Harley--"neither will Scotland Yard overlook it."
He was in a particularly impossible mood, for he so rarely made mistakes that to be detected in one invariably brought out those petulant traits of character which may have been due in some measure to long residence in the East. Recognizing that he would rather be alone I parted from him at the corner of Chancery Lane and returned to my own chambers. Furthermore, I was very tired, for it was close upon two o'clock, and on turning in I very promptly went to sleep, nor did I awaken until late in the morning.
For some odd reason, but possibly because the fact had occurred to me just as I was retiring, I remembered at the moment of waking that I had not told Harley about the romantic wedding of Captain Dan. As I had left my friend in very ill humour I thought that this would be a good excuse for an early call, and just before eleven o'clock I walked into his office. Innes, his invaluable secretary, showed me into the study at the back.
"Hallo, Knox," said Harley, looking up from a little silver Buddha which he was examining, "have you come to ask for news of the Kwen Lung case?"
"No," I replied. "Is there any?"
Harley shook his head.
"It seems like fate," he declared, "that this thing should have been sent to me this morning." He indicated the silver Buddha. "A present from a friend who knows my weakness for Chinese ornaments," he explained grimly. "It reminds me of that damned joss of Kwen Lung's!"
I took up the little image and examined it with interest. It was most beautifully fashioned in the patient Oriental way, and there was a little hinged door in the back which fitted so perfectly that when closed it was quite impossible to detect its presence. I glanced at Harley.
"I suppose you didn't find a jewel inside?" I said lightly.
"No," he replied; "there was nothing inside."
But even as he uttered the words his whole expression changed, and so suddenly as to startle me. He sprang up from the table, and:
"Have you an hour to spare, Knox?" he cried excitedly.
"I can spare an hour, but what for?"
"For Kwen Lung!"
Four minutes later we were speeding in the direction of Limehouse, and not a word of explanation to account for this sudden journey could I extract from my friend. Therefore I beguiled the time by telling him of my adventure with Captain Dan.
Harley listened to the story in unbroken silence, but at its termination he brought his hand down sharply on my knee.
"I have been almost perfectly blind, Knox," he said; "but not quite so perfectly blind as you!"
I stared at him in amazement, but he merely laughed and offered no explanation of his words.
Presently, then, I found myself yet again in the familiar room of the golden joss. Ma Lorenzo, in whom some hidden anxiety seemed to have increased since I had last seen her, stood at the top of the stairs watching us. Upon what idea my friend was operating and what he intended to do I could not imagine; but without a word to the woman he crossed the room and grasping the great golden idol with both arms he dragged it forward across the floor!
As he did so there was a stifled shriek, and Ma Lorenzo, stumbling down the steps, threw herself on her knees before Harley! Raising imploring hands:
"No, no!" she moaned. "Not until I tell you--I tell you everything first!"
"To begin with, tell me how to open this thing," he said sternly.
Momentarily she hesitated, and did not rise from her knees, but:
"Do you hear me?" he cried.
The woman rose unsteadily and walking slowly round the joss manipulated some hidden fastening, whereupon the entire back of the thing opened like a door! From what was within she shudderingly averted her face, but Harley, stepping back against the wall, stopped and peered into the cavity.
"Good God!" he muttered. "Come and look, Knox."
Prepared by his manner for some gruesome spectacle, I obeyed--and from that which I saw I recoiled in horror.
"Harley," I whispered, "Harley! who is it?"
The spectacle had truly sickened me. Crouched within the narrow space enclosed by the figure of the idol was the body of an old and wrinkled Chinaman! His knees were drawn up to his chin, and his head so compressed upon them that little of his features could be seen.
"It is Kwen Lung!" murmured Ma Lorenzo, standing with clasped hands and wild eyes over by the window. "Kwen Lung--and I am glad he is dead!"
Such a note of hatred came into her voice as I had never heard in the voice of any woman.
"He is vile, a demon, a mocking cruel demon! Long, long years ago I would have killed him, but always I was afraid. I tell you everything, everything. This is how he comes to be dead. The little one"--again her voice changed and a note of almost grotesque tenderness came into it--"the lotus-flower, that is his own daughter's child, flesh of his flesh, he keeps a prisoner as the women of China are kept, up there"--she raised one fat finger aloft--"up above. He does not know that someone comes to see her--someone who used to come to smoke but who gave it up because he had looked into the dear one's eye. He does not know that she goes with me to see her man. Ah! we think he does not know! I--I arrange it all. A week ago they were married. Tuesday night, when Kwen Lung die, I plan for her to steal away for ever, for ever."
Tears now were running down the woman's fat cheeks, and her voice quivered emotionally.
"For me it is the end, but for her it is the beginning of life. All right! I don't matter a damn! She is young and beautiful. Ah, God! so beautiful! A drunken pig comes here and finds his way in, so I give him the smoke and presently he sleeps, but it makes delay, and I don't know how soon Kwen Lung, that yellow demon, will wake. For he is like the bats who sleep all day and wake at night.
"At last the sailor pig sleeps and I call softly to my dear little one that the time has come. I have gone out into the street, locking the door behind me, to see if her man is waiting, and I hear her shrieks--her shrieks! I hurry back. My hands tremble so much that I can scarcely unlock the door. At last I enter, and I see and I know--that yellow devil has learned all and has been playing with us like cat and mouse! He is lashing her, with a great whip! Lashing her--that tiny, sweet flower. Ah!"
She choked in her utterance, and turning to the gilded joss which contained the dead Chinaman she shook her clenched hands at it, and the expression, on her face I can never forget. Then:
"As I shriek curses at him, crash goes the window--and I see her husband spring into the room! The tender one had fallen, there at the foot of the joss, and Kwen Lung, his teeth gleaming--like a rat--like a devill--turns to meet him. So he is when her man strike him, once. Just once, here." She rested her hand upon her heart. "And he falls--and he coughs. He lie still. For him it is finished. That devil heart has ceased to beat. Ah!"
She threw up her hands, and:
"That is all. I tell you no more."
"One thing more," said Harley sternly; "the name of the man who killed Kwen Lung?"
At that Ma Lorenzo slowly raised her head and folded her arms across her bosom. There was something one could never forget in the expression of her fat face.
"Not if you burn me alive!" she answered in a low voice. "No one ever knows that--from me."
She sank on to the divan and buried her face in her hands. Her fat shoulders shook grotesquely; and Harley stood perfectly still staring across at her for fully a minute. I could hear voices in the street outside and the hum of traffic in Limehouse Causeway.
Then my friend did a singular thing. Walking over to the gilded joss he reclosed the opening and not without a great effort pushed the great idol back against the wall.
"There are times, Knox," he said, staring at me oddly, "when I'm glad that I am not an official agent of the law."
While I watched him dumfounded he walked across to the woman and touched her on the shoulder. She raised her tear-stained face.
"All right," she whispered. "I am ready."
"Get ready as soon as you like," said he tersely.
"I'll have the man removed who is watching the house, and you can reckon on forty-eight hours to make yourself scarce."
With never another word he seized me by the arm and hurried me out of the place! Ten paces along the street a shabby-looking fellow was standing, leaning against a pillar. Harley stopped, and:
"Even the greatest men make mistakes sometimes, Hewitt," he remarked. "I'm throwing up the case; probably Inspector Wessex will do the same. Good morning."
On towards the Causeway he led me--for not a word was I capable of uttering; and just before we reached that artery of Chinatown, from down-river came the deep, sustained note of a steamer's siren, the warning of some big liner leaving dock.
"That will be the Patna," said Harley. "She sails at twelve o'clock, I think you said?"