A tall screen stood immediately inside the door, and around its end, like some materialization of the choking mist, glided a lithe, yellow figure, a slim, crouching figure, wearing a sort of loose robe. An impression I had of jet-black hair, protruding from beneath a little cap, of finely chiseled features and great, luminous eyes, then, with no sound to tell of a door opened or shut, the apparition was gone.
“You saw him, Petrie!—you saw him!” cried Smith.
In three bounds he was across the room, had tossed the screen aside and thrown open the door. Out he sprang into the yellow haze of the corridor, tripped, and, uttering a cry of pain, fell sprawling upon the marble floor. Hot with apprehension I joined him, but he looked up with a wry smile and began furiously rubbing his left shin.
“A queer trick, Petrie,” he said, rising to his feet; “but nevertheless effective.”
He pointed to the object which had occasioned his fall. It was a small metal chest, evidently of very considerable weight, and it stood immediately outside the door of Number 14a.
“That was what he came for, sir! That was what he came for! You were too quick for him!”
Beeton stood behind us, his horror-bright eyes fixed upon the box.
“Eh?” rapped Smith, turning upon him.
“That’s what Sir Gregory brought to England,” the man ran on almost hysterically; “that’s what he’s been guarding this past two weeks, night and day, crouching over it with a loaded pistol. That’s what cost him his life, sir. He’s had no peace, day or night, since he got it....”
We were inside the room again now, Smith bearing the coffer in his arms, and still the man ran on:
“He’s never slept for more than an hour at a time, that I know of, for weeks past. Since the day we came here he hasn’t spoken to another living soul, and he’s lain there on the floor at night with his head on that brass box, and sat watching over it all day.”
“‘Beeton!’ he’d cry out, perhaps in the middle of the night—’Beeton— do you hear that damned woman!’ But although I’d begun to think I could hear something, I believe it was the constant strain working on my nerves and nothing else at all.
“Then he was always listening out for some one he called ’the man with the limp.’ Five and six times a night he’d have me up to listen with him. ‘There he goes, Beeton!’ he’d whisper, crouching with his ear pressed flat to the door. ‘Do you hear him dragging himself along?’
“God knows how I’ve stood it as I have; for I’ve known no peace since we left China. Once we got here I thought it would be better, but it’s been worse.
“Gentlemen have come (from the India Office, I believe), but he would not see them. Said he would see no one but Mr. Nayland Smith. He had never lain in his bed until to-night, but what with taking no proper food nor sleep, and some secret trouble that was killing him by inches, he collapsed altogether a while ago, and I carried him in and laid him on the bed as I told you. Now he’s dead—now he’s dead.”