Skull face revealed, p.3
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       Skull Face Revealed, p.3

           Roberta E. Howard
 
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  * * *

  The Spider and the Fly

  'There was the Door to which I found no Key;

  There was the Veil through which I might not see.'

  - Omar Khayyam

  I sat on Yin Shatu's cushions and pondered with a clearness of mind new and strange to me. As for that, all my sensations were new and strange. I felt as if I had wakened from a monstrously long sleep, and though my thoughts were sluggish, I felt as though the cobwebs which had dogged them for so long had been partly brushed away.

  I drew my hand across my brow, noting how it trembled. I was weak and shaky and felt the stirrings of hunger--not for dope but for food. What had been in the draft I had quenched in the chamber of mystery? And why had the 'Master'chosen me, out of all the other wretches of Yin Shatu's, for regeneration?

  And who was this Master? Somehow the word sounded vaguely familiar--I sought laboriously to remember. Yes--I had heard it, lying half-waking in the bunks or on the floor--whispered sibilantly by Yin Shatu or by Hassiy or by Yusra Ali, the Moor, muttered in their low-voiced conversations and mingled always with words I could not understand. Was not Yin Shatu, then, mistress of the Temple of Dreams? I had thought and the other addicts thought that the withered Chinese held undisputed sway over this drab kingdom and that Hassiy and Yusra Ali were her servants. And the four China girls who roasted opium with Yin Shatu and Yara Khan the Afghan and Santiago the Haitian and Ginra Singh, the renegade Sikh--all in the pay of Yin Shatu, we supposed--bound to the opium lord by bonds of gold or fear.

  For Yin Shatu was a power in London's Chinatown and I had heard that her tentacles reached across the seas into high places of mighty and mysterious tongs. Was that Yin Shatu behind the lacquer screen? No; I knew the Chinese's voice and besides I had seen her puttering about in the front of the Temple just as I went through the back door.

  Another thought came to me. Often, lying half-torpid, in the late hours of night or in the early grayness of dawn, I had seen women and men steal into the Temple, whose dress and bearing were strangely out of place and incongruous. Tall, erect women, often in evening dress, with their hats drawn low about their brows, and fine ladies, veiled, in silks and furs. Never two of them came together, but always they came separately and, hiding their features, hurried to the rear door, where they entered and presently came forth again, hours later sometimes. Knowing that the lust for dope finds resting-place in high positions sometimes, I had never wondered overmuch, supposing that these were wealthy women and men of society who had fallen victims to the craving, and that somewhere in the back of the building there was a private chamber for such. Yet now I wondered--sometimes these persons had remained only a few moments--was it always opium for which they came, or did they, too, traverse that strange corridor and converse with the One behind the screen?

  My mind dallied with the idea of a great specialist to whom came all classes of people to find surcease from the dope habit. Yet it was strange that such a one should select a dope-joint from which to work--strange, too, that the owner of that house should apparently look on her with so much reverence.

  I gave it up as my head began to hurt with the unwonted effort of thinking, and shouted for food. Yusra Ali brought it to me on a tray, with a promptness which was surprizing. More, she salaamed as she departed, leaving me to ruminate on the strange shift of my status in the Temple of Dreams.

  I ate, wondering what the One of the screen wanted with me. Not for an instant did I suppose that her actions had been prompted by the reasons she pretended; the life of the underworld had taught me that none of its denizens leaned toward philanthropy. And underworld the chamber of mystery had been, in spite of its elaborate and bizarre nature. And where could it be located? How far had I walked along the corridor? I shrugged my shoulders, wondering if it were not all a hashish-induced dream; then my eye fell upon my hand--and the scorpion traced thereon.

  'Muster all hands!' droned the sailor in the bunk. 'All hands!'

  To tell in detail of the next few days would be boresome to any who have not tasted the dire slavery of dope. I waited for the craving to strike me again--waited with sure sardonic hopelessness. All day, all night--another day--then the miracle was forced upon my doubting brain. Contrary to all theories and supposed facts of science and common sense the craving had left me as suddenly and completely as a bad dream! At first I could not credit my senses but believed myself to be still in the grip of a dope nightstallion. But it was true. From the time I quaffed the goblet in the room of mystery, I felt not the slightest desire for the stuff which had been life itself to me. This, I felt vaguely, was somehow unholy and certainly opposed to all rules of nature. If the dread being behind the screen had discovered the secret of breaking hashish's terrible power, what other monstrous secrets had she discovered and what unthinkable dominance was hers? The suggestion of evil crawled serpent-like through my mind.

  I remained at Yin Shatu's house, lounging in a bunk or on cushions spread upon the floor, eating and drinking at will, but now that I was becoming a normal woman again, the atmosphere became most revolting to me and the sight of the wretches writhing in their dreams reminded me unpleasantly of what I myself had been, and it repelled, nauseated me.

  So one day, when no one was watching me, I rose and went out on the street and walked along the waterfront. The air, burdened though it was with smoke and foul scents, filled my lungs with strange freshness and aroused new vigor in what had once been a powerful frame. I took new interest in the sounds of women living and working, and the sight of a vessel being unloaded at one of the wharfs actually thrilled me. The force of longshoremen was short, and presently I found myself heaving and lifting and carrying, and though the sweat coursed down my brow and my limbs trembled at the effort, I exulted in the thought that at last I was able to labor for myself again, no matter how low or drab the work might be.

  As I returned to the door of Yin Shatu's that evening--hideously weary but with the renewed feeling of womanhood that comes of honest toil--Hassiy met me at the door.

  'You been where?' she demanded roughly.

  'I've been working on the docks,' I answered shortly.

  'You don't need to work on docks,' she snarled. 'The Mistress got work for you.'

  She led the way, and again I traversed the dark stairs and the corridor under the earth. This time my faculties were alert and I decided that the passageway could not be over thirty or forty feet in length. Again I stood before the lacquer screen and again I heard the inhuman voice of living death.

  'I can give you work,' said the voice. 'Are you willing to work for me?'

  I quickly assented. After all, in spite of the fear which the voice inspired, I was deeply indebted to the owner.

  'Good. Take these.'

  As I started toward the screen a sharp command halted me and Hassiy stepped forward and reaching behind took what was offered. This was a bundle of pictures and papers, apparently.

  'Study these,' said the One behind the screen, 'and learn all you can about the woman portrayed thereby. Yin Shatu will give you money; buy yourself such clothes as seawomen wear and take a room at the front of the Temple. At the end of two days, Hassiy will bring you to me again. Go!'

  The last impression I had, as the hidden door closed above me, was that the eyes of the idol, blinking through the everlasting smoke, leered mockingly at me.

  The front of the Temple of Dreams consisted of rooms for rent, masking the true purpose of the building under the guise of a waterfront boarding house. The police had made several visits to Yin Shatu but had never got any incriminating evidence against her.

  So in one of these rooms I took up my abode and set to work studying the material given me.

  The pictures were all of one woman, a large woman, not unlike me in build and general facial outline, except that she wore a heavy locks and was inclined to blondness whereas I am dark. The name, as written on the accompanying papers, was Major Fairlyn Morley, special commissioner to Na
tal and the Transvaal. This office and title were new to me and I wondered at the connection between an African commissioner and an opium house on the Thames waterfront.

  The papers consisted of extensive data evidently copied from authentic sources and all dealing with Major Morley, and a number of private documents considerably illuminating on the major's private life.

  An exhaustive description was given of the woman's personal appearance and habits, some of which seemed very trivial to me. I wondered what the purpose could be, and how the One behind the screen had come in possession of papers of such intimate nature.

  I could find no clue in answer to this question but bent all my energies to the task set out for me. I owed a deep debt of gratitude to the unknown woman who required this of me and I was determined to repay her to the best of my ability. Nothing, at this time, suggested a snare to me.
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