"Singapore is by no means herself again," declared Jennings, looking about the lounge of the Hotel de l'Europe. "Don't you agree, Knox?"
Burton fixed his lazy stare upon the speaker.
"Don't blame poor old Singapore," he said. "There is no spot in this battered world that I have succeeded in discovering which is not changed for the worse."
Dr. Matheson flicked ash from his cigar and smiled in that peculiarly happy manner which characterizes a certain American type and which lent a boyish charm to his personality.
"You are a pair of pessimists," he pronounced. "For some reason best known to themselves Jennings and Knox have decided upon a Busman's Holiday. Very well. Why grumble?"
"You are quite right, Doctor," Jennings admitted. "When I was on service here in the Straits Settlements I declared heaven knows how often that the country would never see me again once I was demobbed. Yet here you see I am; Burton belongs here; but here's Knox, and we are all as fed up as we can be!"
"Yes," said Burton slowly. "I may be a bit tired of Singapore. It's a queer thing, though, that you fellows have drifted back here again. The call of the East is no fable. It's a call that one hears for ever."
The conversation drifted into another channel, and all sorts of topics were discussed, from racing to the latest feminine fashions, from ballroom dances to the merits and demerits of coalition government. Then suddenly:
"What became of Adderley?" asked Jennings.
There were several men in the party who had been cronies of ours during the time that we were stationed in Singapore, and at Jennings's words a sort of hush seemed to fall on those who had known Adderley. I cannot say if Jennings noticed this, but it was perfectly evident to me that Dr. Matheson had perceived it, for he glanced swiftly across in my direction in an oddly significant way.
"I don't know," replied Burton, who was an engineer. "He was rather an unsavoury sort of character in some ways, but I heard that he came to a sticky end."
"What do you mean?" I asked with curiosity, for I myself had often wondered what had become of Adderley.
"Well, he was reported to his C. O., or something, wasn't he, just before the time for his demobilization? I don't know the particulars; I thought perhaps you did, as he was in your regiment."
"I have heard nothing whatever about it," I replied.
"You mean Sidney Adderley, the man who was so indecently rich?" someone interjected. "Had a place at Katong, and was always talking about his father's millions?"
"That's the fellow."
"Yes," said Jennings, "there was some scandal, I know, but it was after my time here."
"Something about an old mandarin out Johore Bahru way, was it not?" asked Burton. "The last thing I heard about Adderley was that he had disappeared."
"Nobody would have cared much if he had," declared Jennings. "I know of several who would have been jolly glad. There was a lot of the brute about Adderley, apart from the fact that he had more money than was good for him. His culture was a veneer. It was his check-book that spoke all the time."
"Everybody would have forgiven Adderley his vulgarity," said Dr. Matheson, quietly, "if the man's heart had been in the right place."
"Surely an instance of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," someone murmured.
Burton gazed rather hard at the last speaker.
"So far as I am aware," he said, "the poor devil is dead, so go easy."
"Are you sure he is dead?" asked Dr. Matheson, glancing at Burton in that quizzical, amused way of his.
"No, I am not sure; I am merely speaking from hearsay. And now I come to think of it, the information was rather vague. But I gathered that he had vanished, at any rate, and remembering certain earlier episodes in his career, I was led to suppose that this vanishing meant------"
He shrugged his shoulders significantly.
"You mean the old mandarin?" suggested Dr. Matheson.
"Was there really anything in that story, or was it suggested by the unpleasant reputation of Adderley?" Jennings asked.
"I can settle any doubts upon that point," said I; whereupon I immediately became a focus of general attention.
"What! were you ever at that place of Adderley's at Katong?" asked Jennings with intense curiosity.
I nodded, lighting a fresh cigarette in a manner that may have been unduly leisurely.
"Did you see her?"
Again I nodded.
"I must have been peculiarly favoured, but certainly I had that pleasure."
"You speak of seeing her" said one of the party, now entering the conversation for the first time. "To whom do you refer?"
"Well," replied Burton, "it's really a sort of fairy tale--unless Knox"--glacing across in my direction--"can confirm it. But there was a story current during the latter part of Adderley's stay in Singapore to the effect that he had made the acquaintance of the wife, or some member of the household, of an old gentleman out Johore Bahru way--sort of mandarin or big pot among the Chinks."
"It was rumoured that he had bolted with her," added another speaker.
"I think it was more than a rumour."
"Why do you say so?"
"Well, representations were made to the authorities, I know for an absolute certainty, and I have an idea that Adderley was kicked out of the Service as a consequence of the scandal which resulted."
"How is it one never heard of this?"
"Money speaks, my dear fellow," cried Burton, "even when it is possessed by such a peculiar outsider as Adderley. The thing was hushed up. It was a very nasty business. But Knox was telling us that he had actually seen the lady. Please carry on, Knox, for I must admit that I am intensely curious."
"I can only say that I saw her on one occasion."
"At his place at Katong."
"I even thought his place at that resort was something of a myth," declared Jennings. "He never asked me to go there, but, then, I took that as a compliment. Pardon the apparent innuendo, Knox," he added, laughing. "But you say you actually visited the establishment?"
"Yes," I replied slowly, "I met him here in this very hotel one evening in the winter of '15, after the natives' attempt to mutiny. He had been drinking rather heavily, a fact which he was quite unable to disguise. He was never by any means a real friend of mine; in fact, I doubt that he had a true friend in the world. Anyhow, I could see that he was lonely, and as I chanced to be at a loose end I accepted an invitation to go over to what he termed his 'little place at Katong.'
"His little place proved to be a veritable palace. The man privately, or rather, secretly, to be exact, kept up a sort of pagan state. He had any number of servants. Of course he became practically a millionaire after the death of his father, as you will remember; and given more congenial company, I must confess that I might have spent a most enjoyable evening there. "Adderley insisted upon priming me with champagne, and after a while I may as well admit that I lost something of my former reserve, and began in a fashion to feel that I was having a fairly good time. By the way, my host was not quite frankly drunk. He got into that objectionable and dangerous mood which some of you will recall, and I could see by the light in his eyes that there was mischief brewing, although at the time I did not know its nature.
"I should explain that we were amusing ourselves in a room which was nearly as large as the lounge of this hotel, and furnished in a somewhat similar manner. There were carved pillars and stained glass domes, a little fountain, and all those other peculiarities of an Eastern household.
"Presently, Adderley gave an order to one of his servants, and glanced at me with that sort of mocking, dare-devil look in his eyes which I loathed, which everybody loathed who ever met the man. Of course I had no idea what all this portended, but I was very shortly to learn.
"While he was still looking at me, but stealing side-glances at a doorway before which was draped a most wonderful curtain of a sort of flamingo colour, this curtain was suddenly pulled aside, and a girl came in.
"Of course, you must remember that at the time of which I am speaking the scandal respecting the mandarin had not yet come to light. Consequently I had no idea who the girl could be. I saw she was a Eurasian. But of her striking beauty there could be no doubt whatever. She was dressed in magnificent robes, and she literally glittered with jewels. She even wore jewels upon the toes of her little bare feet. But the first thing that struck me at the moment of her appearance was that her presence there was contrary to her wishes and inclinations. I have never seen a similar expression in any woman's eyes. She looked at Adderley as though she would gladly have slain him!
"Seeing this look, his mocking smile in which there was something of triumph--of the joy of possession--turned to a scowl of positive brutality. He clenched his fists in a way that set me bristling. He advanced toward the girl--and although the width of the room divided them, she recoiled--and the significance of expression and gesture was unmistakable. Adderley paused.
"'So you have made up your mind to dance after all?' he shouted.
"The look in the girl's dark eyes was pitiful, and she turned to me with a glance of dumb entreaty.
"'No, no!' she cried. 'No, no! Why do you bring me here?'
"'Dance!' roared Adderley. 'Dance! That's what I want you to do.'
"Rebellion leapt again to the wonderful eyes, and she started back with a perfectly splendid gesture of defiance. At that my brutal and drunken host leapt in her direction. I was on my feet now, but before I could act the girl said a thing which checked him, sobered him, which pulled him up short, as though he had encountered a stone wall.
"'Ah, God!' she said. 'His hand! His hand! Look! His hand!'
"To me her words were meaningless, naturally, but following the direction of her positively agonized glance I saw that she was watching what seemed to me to be the shadow of someone moving behind the flame-like curtain which produced an effect not unlike that of a huge, outstretched hand, the fingers crooked, claw- fashion.
"'Knox, Knox!' whispered Adderley, grasping me by the shoulder.
"He pointed with a quivering finger toward this indistinct shadow upon the curtain, and:
"'Do you see it--do you see it?' he said huskily. 'It is his hand--it is his hand!'
"Of the pair, I think, the man was the more frightened. But the girl, uttering a frightful shriek, ran out of the room as though pursued by a demon. As she did so whoever had been moving behind the curtain evidently went away. The shadow disappeared, and Adderley, still staring as if hypnotized at the spot where it had been, continued to hold my shoulder as in a vise. Then, sinking down upon a heap of cushions beside me, he loudly and shakily ordered more champagne.
"Utterly mystified by the incident, I finally left him in a state of stupor, and returned to my quarters, wondering whether I had dreamed half of the episode or the whole of it, whether he did really possess that wonderful palace, or whether he had borrowed it to impress me."
I ceased speaking, and my story was received in absolute silence, until:
"And that is all you know?" said Burton.
"Absolutely all. I had to leave about that time, you remember, and afterward went to France."
"Yes, I remember. It was while you were away that the scandal arose respecting the mandarin. Extraordinary story, Knox. I should like to know what it all meant, and what the end of it was."
Dr. Matheson broke his long silence.
"Although I am afraid I cannot enlighten you respecting the end of the story," he said quietly, "perhaps I can carry it a step further."
"Really, Doctor? What do you know about the matter?"
"I accidentally became implicated as follows," replied the American: "I was, as you know, doing voluntary surgical work near Singapore at the time, and one evening, presumably about the same period of which Knox is speaking, I was returning from the hospital at Katong, at which I acted sometimes as anaesthetist, to my quarters in Singapore; just drifting along, leisurely by the edge of the gardens admiring the beauty of the mangroves and the deceitful peace of the Eastern night.
"The hour was fairly late and not a soul was about. Nothing disturbed the silence except those vague sibilant sounds which are so characteristic of the country. Presently, as I rambled on with my thoughts wandering back to the dim ages, I literally fell over a man who lay in the road.
"I was naturally startled, but I carried an electric pocket torch, and by its light I discovered that the person over whom I had fallen was a dignified-looking Chinaman, somewhat past middle age. His clothes, which were of good quality, were covered with dirt and blood, and he bore all the appearance of having recently been engaged in a very tough struggle. His face was notable only for its possession of an unusually long jet-black moustache. He had swooned from loss of blood."
"Why, was he wounded?" exclaimed Jennings.
"His hand had been nearly severed from his wrist!"
"I realized the impossibility of carrying him so far as the hospital, and accordingly I extemporized a rough tourniquet and left him under a palm tree by the road until I obtained assistance. Later, at the hospital, following a consultation, we found it necessary to amputate."
"I should say he objected fiercely?"
"He was past objecting to anything, otherwise I have no doubt he would have objected furiously. The index finger of the injured hand had one of those preternaturally long nails, protected by an engraved golden case. However, at least I gave him a chance of life. He was under my care for some time, but I doubt if ever he was properly grateful. He had an iron constitution, though, and I finally allowed him to depart. One queer stipulation he had made--that the severed hand, with its golden nail-case, should be given to him when he left hospital. And this bargain I faithfully carried out."
"Most extraordinary," I said. "Did you ever learn the identity of the old gentleman?"
"He was very reticent, but I made a number of inquiries, and finally learned with absolute certainty, I think, that he was the Mandarin Quong Mi Su from Johore Bahru, a person of great repute among the Chinese there, and rather a big man in China. He was known locally as the Mandarin Quong."
"Did you learn anything respecting how he had come by his injury, Doctor?"
Matheson smiled in his quiet fashion, and selected a fresh cigar with great deliberation. Then:
"I suppose it is scarcely a case of betraying a professional secret," he said, "but during the time that my patient was recovering from the effects of the anaesthetic he unconsciously gave me several clues to the nature of the episode. Putting two and two together I gathered that someone, although the name of this person never once passed the lips of the mandarin, had abducted his favourite wife."
"Good heavens! truly amazing," I exclaimed.
"Is it not? How small a place the world is. My old mandarin had traced the abductor and presumably the girl to some house which I gathered to be in the neighbourhood of Katong. In an attempt to force an entrance--doubtless with the amiable purpose of slaying them both--he had been detected by the prime object of his hatred. In hurriedly descending from a window he had been attacked by some weapon, possibly a sword, and had only made good his escape in the condition in which I found him. How far he had proceeded I cannot say, but I should imagine that the house to which he had been was no great distance from the spot where I found him."
"Comment is really superfluous," remarked Burton. "He was looking for Adderley."
"I agree," said Jennings.
"And," I added, "it was evidently after this episode that I had the privilege of visiting that interesting establishment."
There was a short interval of silence; then:
"You probably retain no very clear impression of the shadow which you saw," said Dr. Matheson, with great deliberation. "At the time perhaps you had less occasion particularly to study it. But are you satisfied that it was really caused by someone moving behind the curtain?"
I considered his question for a few moments.
"I am not," I confessed. "Your story, Doctor, makes me wonder whether it may not have been due to something else."
"What else can it have been due to?" exclaimed Jennings contemptuously--"unless to the champagne?"
"I won't quote Shakespeare," said Dr. Matheson, smiling in his odd way. "The famous lines, though appropriate, are somewhat overworked. But I will quote Kipling: 'East is East, and West is West.'"