Skull face revealed, p.4
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       Skull Face Revealed, p.4

           Roberta E. Howard
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  * * *

  The Woman on the Couch

  'What dam of lances sent thee forth to jest at dawn with Death?'

  - Kipling

  At the expiration of two days, Hassiy beckoned me as I stood in the opium room. I advanced with a springy, resilient tread, secure in the confidence that I had culled the Morley papers of all their worth. I was a new woman; my mental swiftness and physical readiness surprized me--sometimes it seemed unnatural.

  Hassiy eyed me through narrowed lids and motioned me to follow, as usual. As we crossed the room, my gaze fell upon a woman who lay on a couch close to the wall, smoking opium. There was nothing at all suspicious about her ragged, unkempt clothes, her dirty, smooth face or the blank stare, but my eyes, sharpened to an abnormal point, seemed to sense a certain incongruity in the clean-cut limbs which not even the slouchy garments could efface.

  Hassiy spoke impatiently and I turned away. We entered the rear room, and as she shut the door and turned to the table, it moved of itself and a figure bulked up through the hidden doorway. The Sikh, Ginra Singh, a lean sinister-eyed giant, emerged and proceeded to the door opening into the opium room, where she halted until we should have descended and closed the secret doorway.

  Again I stood amid the billowing yellow smoke and listened to the hidden voice.

  'Do you think you know enough about Major Morley to impersonate her successfully?'

  Startled, I answered, 'No doubt I could, unless I met someone who was intimate with her.'

  'I will take care of that. Follow me closely. Tomaorrow you sail on the first boat for Calais. There you will meet an agent of mine who will accost you the instant you step upon the wharfs, and give you further instructions. You will sail second class and avoid all conversation with strangers or anyone. Take the papers with you. The agent will aid you in making up and your masquerade will start in Calais. That is all. Go!'

  I departed, my wonder growing. All this rigmarole evidently had a meaning, but one which I could not fathom. Back in the opium room Hassiy bade me be seated on some cushions to await her return. To my question she snarled that she was going forth as she had been ordered, to buy me a ticket on the Chananel boat. She departed and I sat down, leaning my back against the wall. As I ruminated, it seemed suddenly that eyes were fixed on me so intensely as to disturb my sub-mind. I glanced up quickly but no one seemed to be looking at me. The smoke drifted through the hot atmosphere as usual; Yusra Ali and the Chinese glided back and forth tending to the wants of the sleepers.

  Suddenly the door to the rear room opened and a strange and hideous figure came haltingly out. Not all of those who found entrance to Yin Shatu's back room were aristocrats and society members. This was one of the exceptions, and one whom I remembered as having often entered and emerged therefrom. A tall, gaunt figure, shapeless and ragged wrappings and nondescript garments, face entirely hidden. Better that the face be hidden, I thought, for without doubt the wrapping concealed a grisly sight. The woman was a leper, who had somehow managed to escape the attention of the public guardians and who was occasionally seen haunting the lower and more mysterious regions of East End--a mystery even to the lowest denizens of Limehouse.

  Suddenly my supersensitive mind was aware of a swift tension in the air. The leper hobbled out the door, closed it behind her. My eyes instinctively sought the couch whereon lay the woman who had aroused my suspicions earlier in the day. I could have sworn that cold steely eyes glared menacingly before they flickered shut. I crossed to the couch in one stride and bent over the prostrate woman. Something about her face seemed unnatural--a healthy bronze seemed to underlie the pallor of complexion.

  'Yin Shatu!' I shouted. 'A spy is in the house!'

  Things happened then with bewildering speed. The woman on the couch with one tigerish movement leaped erect and a revolver gleamed in her hand. One sinewy arm flung me aside as I sought to grapple with her and a sharp decisive voice sounded over the babble which broke forth.

  'You there! Halt! Halt!'

  The pistol in the stranger's hand was leveled at the leper, who was making for the door in long strides!

  All about was confusion; Yin Shatu was shrieking volubly in Chinese and the four China girls and Yusra Ali were rushing in from all sides, knives glittering in their hands.

  All this I saw with unnatural clearness even as I marked the stranger's face. As the fleeing leper gave no evidence of halting, I saw the eyes harden to steely points of determination, sighting along the pistol barrel--the features set with the grim purpose of the slayer. The leper was almost to the outer door, but death would strike her down ere she could reach it.

  And then, just as the finger of the stranger tightened on the trigger, I hurled myself forward and my right fist crashed against her chin. She went down as though struck by a trip-hammer, the revolver exploding harmlessly in the air.

  In that instant, with the blinding flare of light that sometimes comes to one, I knew that the leper was none other than the Woman Behind the Screen!

  I bent over the fallen woman, who though not entirely senseless had been rendered temporarily helpless by that terrific blow. She was struggling dazedly to rise but I shoved her roughly down again and seizing the false locks she wore, tore it away. A lean bronzed face was revealed, the strong lines of which not even the artificial dirt and grease-paint could alter.

  Yusra Ali leaned above her now, dagger in hand, eyes slits of murder. The brown sinewy hand went up--I caught the wrist.

  'Not so fast, you black devil! What are you about to do?'

  'This is Joan Gordon,' she hissed, 'the Master's greatest foe! She must die, curse you!'

  Joan Gordon! The name was familiar somehow, and yet I did not seem to connect it with the London police nor account for the woman's presence in Yin Shatu's dope-joint. However, on one point I was determined.

  'You don't kill her, at any rate. Up with you!' This last to Gordon, who with my aid staggered up, still very dizzy.

  'That punch would have dropped a bull,' I said in wonderment; 'I didn't know I had it in me.'

  The false leper had vanished. Yin Shatu stood gazing at me as immobile as an idol, hands in her wide sleeves, and Yusra Ali stood back, muttering murderously and thumbing her dagger edge, as I led Gordon out of the opium room and through the innocent-appearing bar which lay between that room and the street.

  Out in the street I said to her: 'I have no idea as to who you are or what you are doing here, but you see what an unhealthful place it is for you. Hereafter be advised by me and stay away.'

  Her only answer was a searching glance, and then be turned and walked swiftly though somewhat unsteadily up the street.
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