“I can smell petrol!” muttered Weymouth.
An ever-increasing roar, not unlike that of an approaching storm at sea, came from the streets beneath. Whistles skirled, remotely and intimately, and sometimes one voice, sometimes another, would detach itself from this stormy background with weird effect. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the hashish house there went on ceaselessly a splintering and crashing as though a determined assault were being made upon a door. A light shone up through the skylight.
Back once more to the rail I sprang, looked down into the room below— and saw a sight never to be forgotten.
Passing from divan to curtained door, from piles of cushions to stacked-up tables, and bearing a flaming torch hastily improvised out of a roll of newspaper, was Dr. Fu-Manchu. Everything inflammable in the place had been soaked with petrol, and, his gaunt, yellow face lighted by the evergrowing conflagration, so that truly it seemed not the face of a man, but that of a demon of the hells, the Chinese doctor ignited point after point....
“Smith!” I screamed, “we are trapped! that fiend means to burn us alive!”
“And the place will flare like matchwood! It’s touch and go this time, Petrie! To drop to the sloping roof underneath would mean almost certain death on the pavement....”
I dragged my pistol from my pocket and began wildly to fire shot after shot into the holocaust below. But the awful Chinaman had escaped— probably by some secret exit reserved for his own use; for certainly he must have known that escape into the court was now cut off.
Flames were beginning to hiss through the skylight. A tremendous crackling and crashing told of the glass destroyed. Smoke spurted up through the cracks of the boarding upon which we stood—and a great shout came from the crowd in the streets....
In the distance—a long, long way off, it seemed—was born a new note in the stormy human symphony. It grew in volume, it seemed to be sweeping down upon us—nearer—nearer—nearer. Now it was in the streets immediately adjoining the Cafe de l’Egypte ... and now, blessed sound! it culminated in a mighty surging cheer.
“The fire-engines,” said Weymouth coolly—and raised himself on to the lower rail, for the platform was growing uncomfortably hot.
Tongues of fire licked out, venomously, from beneath my feet. I leapt for the railing in turn, and sat astride it ... as one end of the flooring burst into flame.
The heat from the blazing room above which we hung suspended was now all but insupportable, and the fumes threatened to stifle us. My head seemed to be bursting; my throat and lungs were consumed by internal fires.
“Merciful heavens!” whispered Smith. “Will they reach us in time?”
“Not if they don’t get here within the next thirty seconds!” answered Weymouth grimly—and changed his position, in order to avoid a tongue of flame that hungrily sought to reach him.