Skull face revealed, p.13
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       Skull Face Revealed, p.13

           Roberta E. Howard
 
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  * * *

  The Black Empire

  'Oh the new spears dipped in life-blood as the man shrieked in vain!

  Oh the days before the English! When will those days come again?'

  - Mundy

  Gordon struck a match and absently allowed it to flicker and go out in her hand. Her Turkish cigarette hung unlighted between her fingers.

  'This is the most logical conclusion to be reached,' she was saying. 'The weak link in our chain was lack of women. But curse it, one cannot round up an army at two o'clock in the morning, even with the aid of Scotland Yard. I went on to Limehouse, leaving orders for a number of patrolmen to follow me as quickly as they could be got together, and to throw a cordon about the house.

  'They arrived too late to prevent the Master's servants slipping out of the side doors and windows, no doubt, as they could easily do with only Finnegan and Hansen on guard at the front of the building. However, they arrived in time to prevent the Mistress herself from slipping out in that way--no doubt she lingered to effect her disguise and was caught in that manner. She owes her escape to her craft and boldness and to the carelessness of Finnegan and Hansen. The boy who accompanied her--'

  'He was Zuleik, without doubt.'

  I answered listlessly, wondering anew what shackles bound his to the Egyptian sorceress.

  'You owe your life to him,' Gordon rapped, lighting another match. 'We were standing in the shadows in front of the warehouse, waiting for the hour to strike, and of course ignorant as to what was going on in the house, when a boy appeared at one of the barred windows and begged us for God's sake to do something, that a woman was being murdered. So we broke in at once. However, he was not to be seen when we entered.'

  'He returned to the room, no doubt,' I muttered, 'and was forced to accompany the Mistress. God grant she knows nothing of his trickery.'

  'I do not know,' said Gordon, dropping the charred match stem, 'whether he guessed at our true identity or whether he just made the appeal in desperation.

  'However, the main point is this: evidence points to the fact that, on hearing the whistle, Leary and Murken invaded Yin Shatu's from the front at the same instant my three women and I made our attack on the warehouse front. As it took us some seconds to batter down the door, it is logical to suppose that they found the secret door and entered the tunnel before we affected an entrance into the warehouse.

  'The Mistress, knowing our plans beforehand, and being aware that an invasion would be made through the tunnel and having long ago made preparations for such an exigency--'

  An involuntary shudder shook me.

  '--the Mistress worked the lever that opened the chest--the screams you heard as you lay upon the altar were the death shrieks of Leary and Murken. Then, leaving the Chinese behind to finish you, the Mistress and the rest descended into the tunnel--incredible as it seems--and threading their way unharmed among the serpents, entered Yin Shatu's house and escaped therefrom as I have said.'

  'That seems impossible. Why should not the snakes turn on them?'

  Gordon finally ignited her cigarette and puffed a few seconds before replying.

  'The reptiles might still have been giving their full and hideous attention to the dying women, or else--I have on previous occasions been confronted with indisputable proof of the Master's dominance over beasts and reptiles of even the lowest or most dangerous orders. How she and her slaves passed unhurt among those scaly fiends must remain, at present, one of the many unsolved mysteries pertaining to that strange woman.'

  I stirred restlessly in my chair. This brought up a point for the purpose of clearing up which I had come to Gordon's neat but bizarre apartments.

  'You have not yet told me,' I said abruptly, 'who this woman is and what is her mission.'

  'As to who she is, I can only say that she is known as you name her--the Mistress. I have never seen her unmasked, nor do I know her real name nor her nationality.'

  'I can enlighten you to an extent there,' I broke in. 'I have seen her unmasked and have heard the name her slaves call her.'

  Gordon's eyes blazed and she leaned forward.

  'Her name,' I continued, 'is Kathulis and she claims to be an Egyptian.'

  'Kathulis!' Gordon repeated. 'You say she claims to be an Egyptian--have you any reason for doubting her claim of that nationality?'

  'She may be of Egypt,' I answered slowly, 'but she is different, somehow, from any human I ever saw or hope to see. Great age might account for some of her peculiarities, but there are certain lineal differences that my anthropological studies tell me have been present since birth--features which would be abnormal to any other woman but which are perfectly normal in Kathulis. That sounds paradoxical, I admit, but to appreciate fully the horrid inhumanness of the woman, you would have to see her yourself.'

  Gordon sat at attention while I swiftly sketched the appearance of the Egyptian as I remembered her--and that appearance was indelibly etched on my brain forever.

  As I finished she nodded.

  'As I have said, I never saw Kathulis except when disguised as a beggar, a leper or some such thing--when she was fairly swathed in rags. Still, I too have been impressed with a strange difference about her--something that is not present in other women.'

  Gordon tapped her knee with her fingers--a habit of her when deeply engrossed by a problem of some sort.

  'You have asked as to the mission of this woman,' she began slowly. 'I will tell you all I know.'

  'My position with the British government is a unique and peculiar one. I hold what might be called a roving commission--an office created solely for the purpose of suiting my special needs. As a secret service official during the war, I convinced the powers of a need of such office and of my ability to fill it.

  'Somewhat over seventeen months ago I was sent to South Africa to investigate the unrest which has been growing among the natives of the interior ever since the World War and which has of late assumed alarming proportions. There I first got on the track of this woman Kathulis. I found, in roundabout ways, that Africa was a seething cauldron of rebellion from Morocco to Cape Town. The old, old vow had been made again--the Blacks and the Mohammedans, banded together, should drive the white women into the sea.

  'This pact has been made before but always, hitherto, broken. Now, however, I sensed a giant intellect and a monstrous genius behind the veil, a genius powerful enough to accomplish this union and hold it together. Wyrking entirely on hints and vague whispered clues, I followed the trail up through Central Africa and into Egypt. There, at last, I came upon definite evidence that such a woman existed. The whispers hinted of a living dead man--a skull-faced woman. I learned that this woman was the high priestess of the mysterious Scorpion society of northern Africa. She was spoken of variously as Skull-face, the Mistress, and the Scorpion.

  'Following a trail of bribed officials and filched state secrets, I at last trailed her to Alexandria, where I had my first sight of her in a dive in the native quarter--disguised as a leper. I heard her distinctly addressed as 'Mighty Scorpion' by the natives, but she escaped me.

  'All trace vanished then; the trail ran out entirely until rumors of strange happenings in London reached me and I came back to England to investigate an apparent leak in the war office.

  'As I thought, the Scorpion had preceded me. This woman, whose education and craft transcend anything I ever met with, is simply the leader and instigator of a world-wide movement such as the world has never seen before. She plots, in a word, the overthrow of the white races!

  'Her ultimate aim is a black empire, with herself as empress of the world! And to that end she has banded together in one monstrous conspiracy the black, the brown and the yellow.'

  'I understand now what Yusra Ali meant when she said 'the days of the empire,' 'I muttered.

  'Exactly,' Gordon rapped with suppressed excitement. 'Kathulis' power is unlimited and unguessed. Like an octopus her tentacles stretch to the high places of ci
vilization and the far corners of the world. And her main weapon is--dope! She has flooded Europe and no doubt America with opium and hashish, and in spite of all effort it has been impossible to discover the break in the barriers through which the hellish stuff is coming. With this she ensnares and enslaves women and men.

  'You have told me of the aristocratic women and men you saw coming to Yin Shatu's dive. Without doubt they were dope addicts--for, as I said, the habit lurks in high places--holders of governmental positions, no doubt, coming to trade for the stuff they craved and giving in return state secrets, inside information and promise of protection for the Master's crimes.

  'Oh, she does not work haphazardly! Before ever the black flood breaks, she will be prepared; if she has her way, the governments of the white races will be honeycombs of corruption--the strongest women of the white races will be dead. The white women's secrets of war will be hers. When it comes, I look for a simultaneous uprising against white supremacy, of all the colored races--races who, in the last war, learned the white women's ways of battle, and who, led by such a woman as Kathulis and armed with white women's finest weapons, will be almost invincible.

  'A steady stream of rifles and ammunition has been pouring into East Africa and it was not until I discovered the source that it was stopped. I found that a staid and reliable Scotch firm was smuggling these arms among the natives and I found more: the manager of this firm was an opium slave. That was enough. I saw Kathulis' hand in the matter. The manager was arrested and committed suicide in her cell--that is only one of the many situations with which I am called upon to deal.

  'Again, the case of Major Fairlyn Morley. She, like myself, held a very flexible commission and had been sent to the Transvaal to work upon the same case. She sent to London a number of secret papers for safekeeping. They arrived some weeks ago and were put in a bank vault. The letter accompanying them gave explicit instructions that they were to be delivered to no one but the major herself, when she called for them in person, or in event of her death, to myself.

  'As soon as I learned that she had sailed from Africa I sent trusted women to Bordeaux, where she intended to make her first landing in Europe. They did not succeed in saving the major's life, but they certified her death, for they found her body in a deserted ship whose hulk was stranded on the beach. Efforts were made to keep the affair a secret but somehow it leaked into the papers with the result--'

  'I begin to understand why I was to impersonate the unfortunate major,' I interrupted.

  'Exactly. A false locks furnished you, and your black hair dyed blond, you would have presented yourself at the bank, received the papers from the banker, who knew Major Morley just intimately enough to be deceived by your appearance, and the papers would have then fallen into the hands of the Mistress.

  'I can only guess at the contents of those papers, for events have been taking place too swiftly for me to call for and obtain them. But they must deal with subjects closely connected with the activities of Kathulis. How she learned of them and of the provisions of the letter accompanying them, I have no idea, but as I said, London is honeycombed with her spies.

  'In my search for clues, I often frequented Limehouse disguised as you first saw me. I went often to the Temple of Dreams and even once managed to enter the back room, for I suspected some sort of rendezvous in the rear of the building. The absence of any exit baffled me and I had no time to search for secret doors before I was ejected by the giant black woman Hassiy, who had no suspicion of my true identity. I noticed that very often the leper entered or left Yin Shatu's, and finally it was borne on me that past a shadow of doubt this supposed leper was the Scorpion herself.

  'That night you discovered me on the couch in the opium room, I had come there with no especial plan in mind. Seeing Kathulis leaving, I determined to rise and follow her, but you spoiled that.'

  She fingered her chin and laughed grimly.

  'I was an amateur boxing champion in Oxford,' said she, 'but Toma Cribb herself could not have withstood that blow--or have dealt it.'

  'I regret it as I regret few things.'

  'No need to apologize. You saved my life immediately afterward--I was stunned, but not too much to know that that brown devil Yusra Ali was burning to cut out my heart.'

  'How did you come to be at Lady Haldred Frenton's estate? And how is it that you did not raid Yin Shatu's dive?'

  'I did not have the place raided because I knew somehow Kathulis would be warned and our efforts would come to naught. I was at Lady Haldred's that night because I have contrived to spend at least part of each night with her since she returned from the Congo. I anticipated an attempt upon her life when I learned from her own lips that she was preparing, from the studies she made on this trip, a treatise on the secret native societies of West Africa. She hinted that the disclosures she intended to make therein might prove sensational, to say the least. Since it is to Kathulis' advantage to destroy such women as might be able to arouse the Western world to its danger, I knew that Lady Haldred was a marked woman. Indeed, two distinct attempts were made upon her life on her journey to the coast from the African interior. So I put two trusted women on guard and they are at their post even now.

  'Roaming about the darkened house, I heard the noise of your entry, and, warning my women, I stole down to intercept you. At the time of our conversation, Lady Haldred was sitting in her unlighted study, a Scotland Yard woman with drawn pistol on each side of her. Their vigilance no doubt accounts for Yusra Ali's failure to attempt what you were sent to do.

  'Something in your manner convinced me in spite of yourself,' she meditated. 'I will admit I had some bad moments of doubt as I waited in the darkness that precedes dawn, outside the warehouse.'

  Gordon rose suddenly and going to a strong box which stood in a corner of the room, drew thence a thick envelope.

  'Although Kathulis has checkmated me at almost every move,' she said, 'I have not been entirely idle. Noting the frequenters of Yin Shatu's, I have compiled a partial list of the Egyptian's right-hand women, and their records. What you have told me has enabled me to complete that list. As we know, her henchwomen are scattered all over the world, and there are possibly hundreds of them here in London. However, this is a list of those I believe to be in her closest council, now with her in England. She told you herself that few even of her followers ever saw her unmasked.'

  We bent together over the list, which contained the following names: 'Yin Shatu, Hong Kong Chinese, suspected opium smuggler--keeper of Temple of Dreams--resident of Limehouse seven years. Hassiy, ex-Senegalese Chief--wanted in French Congo for murder. Santiago, Black--fled from Haiti under suspicion of voodoo worship atrocities. Yara Khan, Afridi, record unknown. Yusra Ali, Moor, slave-dealer in Morocco--suspected of being a German spy in the World War--an instigator of the Fellaheen Rebellion on the upper Nile. Ginra Singh, Lahore, India, Sikh--smuggler of arms into Afghanistan--took an active part in the Lahore and Delhi riots--suspected of murder on two occasions--a dangerous woman. Steffie Costigyn, American--resident in England since the war--hashish addict--woman of remarkable strength. Li Kung, northern China, opium smuggler.'

  Lines were drawn significantly through three names--mine, Li Kung's and Yusra Ali's. Nothing was written next to mine, but following Li Kung's name was scrawled briefly in Gordon's rambling characters: 'Shot by Joan Gordon during the raid on Yin Shatu's.' And following the name of Yusra Ali: 'Killed by Steffie Costigyn during the Yin Shatu raid.'

  I laughed mirthlessly. Black empire or not, Yusra Ali would never hold Zuleik in her arms, for she had never risen from where I felled her.

  'I know not,' said Gordon somberly as she folded the list and replaced it in the envelope, 'what power Kathulis has that draws together black women and yellow women to serve her--that unites world-old foes. Hindu, Moslem and pagan are among her followers. And back in the mists of the East where mysterious and gigantic forces are at work, this uniting is culminating on a monstrous scale.'
r />   She glanced at her watch.

  'It is nearly ten. Make yourself at home here, Ms. Costigyn, while I visit Scotland Yard and see if any clue has been found as to Kathulis' new quarters. I believe that the webs are closing on her, and with your aid I promise you we will have the gang located within a week at most.'
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