Her back was toward him; so, cautious and catlike, he stole from behind the veil and glided to the shelter of a post not ten feet from her. He peered around it eagerly. Still panting from her efforts, she was on her knees beside the case, fumbling a key in the Yale lock, a curious anachronism which Simpkins, in his cleaning, had found on all the more valuable mummy cases.
The lid was of sycamore wood, comparatively light, and she lifted it without trouble. Then the rays of the lamp shone full into the open case, and Simpkins looked over the shoulders of the kneeling woman at the mummy of a man who had stood full six feet in life. He stared long at the face, seeking in those shriveled features a reason for the horror which grew in him as he gazed, trying to build back into life again that thing which once had been a man. For there was something about it which seemed different from those Egyptians of whom he had read. Slowly the vaguely-familiar features filled out, until Simpkins saw—not the swarthy, low-browed face of an Egyptian king, but the ruddy, handsome face of an Englishman, and—at last he was sure, a face like that of a photograph in his pocket. And in that same moment there went through his mind a sentence from the curious picture letter: “That thing that I have to do is about done.”
Already, in his absorption, he had started out from the shelter of the pillar, and now he crept forward. He was almost on her, and she had heard nothing, seen nothing, but suddenly she felt him coming, and turned. And as her eyes, full of fear in the first startled consciousness of discovery, met his, he sprang at her, and pinioned her arms to her side. But only for a moment. Fear fought with her, and by a mighty effort she half shook herself free.
[Illustration: “Suddenly she felt him coming, and turned.”]
Simpkins found himself struggling desperately now to regain his advantage. Already his greater strength was telling, when the lamp crashed over, leaving them in darkness, and he felt the blow of a heavy body striking his back. Claws dug through his clothes, deep into his flesh. Something was at his head now, biting and tearing, and the warm blood was trickling down into his eyes. A stealthy paw reached round for his throat. He could feel its silken surface passing over his bare flesh, the unsheathing of its steel to strike, and, as it sank into his throat, he seized it, loosening, to do this, his hold on Mrs. Athelstone, quite careless of her in the pain and menace of that moment.
Still clutching the great black cat, though it bit and tore at his hands, he gained his feet. In the darkness he could see nothing but two blazing eyes, and not until the last spark died in them did his fingers relax. Then, with a savage joy, he threw the limp body against the altar of Isis, and turned to see what had become of Mrs. Athelstone. She lay quite still where he had left her, a huddled heap of white upon the floor.