Skull face revealed, p.6
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       Skull Face Revealed, p.6

           Roberta E. Howard
 
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  * * *

  The Woman of the Skull

  'What the hammer? What the chain?

  In what furnace was thy brain?

  What the anvil? What dread grasp

  Dare its deadly terrors clasp?'

  - Blake

  A while after my beautiful and mysterious visitor had left, I sat in meditation. I believed that I had at last stumbled onto an explanation of a part of the enigma, at any rate. This was the conclusion I had reached: Yin Shatu, the opium lord, was simply the agent or servant of some organization or individual whose work was on a far larger scale than merely supplying dope addicts in the Temple of Dreams. This woman or these women needed co-workers among all classes of people; in other words, I was being let in with a group of opium smugglers on a gigantic scale. Gordon no doubt had been investigating the case, and her presence alone showed that it was no ordinary one, for I knew that she held a high position with the English government, though just what, I did not know.

  Opium or not, I determined to carry out my obligation to the Mistress. My moral sense had been blunted by the dark ways I had traveled, and the thought of despicable crime did not enter my head. I was indeed hardened. More, the mere debt of gratitude was increased a thousand-fold by the thought of the boy. To the Mistress I owed it that I was able to stand up on my feet and look into his clear eyes as a woman should. So if she wished my services as a smuggler of dope, she should have them. No doubt I was to impersonate some woman so high in governmental esteem that the usual actions of the customs officers would be deemed unnecessary; was I to bring some rare dream-producer into England?

  These thoughts were in my mind as I went downstairs, but ever back of them hovered other and more alluring suppositions--what was the reason for the boy, here in this vile dive--a rose in a garbage-heap--and who was he?

  As I entered the outer bar, Hassiy came in, her brows set in a dark scowl of anger, and, I believed, fear. She carried a newspaper in her hand, folded.

  'I told you to wait in opium room,' she snarled.

  'You were gone so long that I went up to my room. Have you the ticket?'

  She merely grunted and pushed on past me into the opium room, and standing at the door I saw her cross the floor and disappear into the rear room. I stood there, my bewilderment increasing. For as Hassiy had brushed past me, I had noted an item on the face of the paper, against which her black thumb was tightly pressed as if to mark that special column of news.

  And with the unnatural celerity of action and judgment which seemed to be mine those days, I had in that fleeting instant read:

  African Special Commissioner Found Murdered!

  The body of Major Fairlyn Morley was yesterday discovered in a rotting ship's hold at Bordeaux...

  No more I saw of the details, but that alone was enough to make me think! The affair seemed to be taking on an ugly aspect. Yet--

  Another day passed. To my inquiries, Hassiy snarled that the plans had been changed and I was not to go to France. Then, late in the evening, she came to bid me once more to the room of mystery.

  I stood before the lacquer screen, the yellow smoke acrid in my nostrils, the woven dragons writhing along the tapestries, the palm trees rearing thick and oppressive.

  'A change has come in our plans,' said the hidden voice. 'You will not sail as was decided before. But I have other work that you may do. Mayhap this will be more to your type of usefulness, for I admit you have somewhat disappointed me in regard to subtlety. You interfered the other day in such manner as will no doubt cause me great inconvenience in the future.'

  I said nothing, but a feeling of resentment began to stir in me.

  'Even after the assurance of one of my most trusted servants,' the toneless voice continued, with no mark of any emotion save a slightly rising note, 'you insisted on releasing my most deadly enemy. Be more circumspect in the future.'

  'I saved your life!' I said angrily.

  'And for that reason alone I overlook your mistake--this time!'

  A slow fury suddenly surged up in me.

  'This time! Make the best of it this time, for I assure you there will be no next time. I owe you a greater debt than I can ever hope to pay, but that does not make me your slave. I have saved your life--the debt is as near paid as a woman can pay it. Go your way and I go mine!'

  A low, hideous laugh answered me, like a reptilian hiss.

  'You fool! You will pay with your whole life's toil! You say you are not my slave? I say you are--just as black Hassiy there beside you is my slave--just as the boy Zuleik is my slave, who has bewitched you with his beauty.'

  These words sent a wave of hot blood to my brain and I was conscious of a flood of fury which completely engulfed my reason for a second. Just as all my moods and senses seemed sharpened and exaggerated those days, so now this burst of rage transcended every moment of anger I had ever had before.

  'Hell's fiends!' I shrieked. 'You devil--who are you and what is your hold on me? I'll see you or die!'

  Hassiy sprang at me, but I hurled her backward and with one stride reached the screen and flung it aside with an incredible effort of strength. Then I shrank back, hands outflung, shrieking. A tall, gaunt figure stood before me, a figure arrayed grotesquely in a silk brocaded gown which fell to the floor.

  From the sleeves of this gown protruded hands which filled me with crawling horror--long, predatory hands, with thin bony fingers and curved talons--withered skin of a parchment brownish-yellow, like the hands of a woman long dead.

  The hands--but, oh God, the face! A skull to which no vestige of flesh seemed to remain but on which taut brownish-yellow skin grew fast, etching out every detail of that terrible death's-head. The forehead was high and in a way magnificent, but the head was curiously narrow through the temples, and from under penthouse brows great eyes glimmered like pools of yellow fire. The nose was high-bridged and very thin; the mouth was a mere colorless gash between thin, cruel lips. A long, bony neck supported this frightful vision and completed the effect of a reptilian demon from some medieval hell.

  I was face to face with the skull-faced woman of my dreams!
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