That was a ship’s officer; and the voice of authority served to quell the disturbance. Through a lane walled with craning heads they bore the insensible man. Ahmadeen was at my elbow.
“A Copt,” he said softly. “Poor devil!” I turned to him. There was a queer expression on his lean, clean-shaven, bronze face.
“Good God!” I said. “His hand has been cut off!”
That was the fact of the matter. And no one knew who was responsible for the atrocity. And no one knew what had become of the severed hand! I wasted not a moment in linking up the story. The pressman within me acted automatically.
“The gentleman just come aboard, sir,” said a steward, “is Professor Deeping. The poor beggar who was assaulted was carrying some of the Professor’s baggage.” The whole incident struck me as most odd. There was an idea lurking in my mind that something else—something more—lay behind all this. With impatience I awaited the time when the injured man, having received medical attention, was conveyed ashore, and Professor Deeping reappeared. To the celebrated traveller and Oriental scholar I introduced myself.
He was singularly reticent.
“I was unable to see what took place, Mr. Cavanagh,” he said. “The poor fellow was behind me, for I had stepped from the boat ahead of him. I had just taken a bag from his hand, but he was carrying another, heavier one. It is a clean cut, like that of a scimitar. I have seen very similar wounds in the cases of men who have suffered the old Moslem penalty for theft.”
Nothing further had come to light when the Mandalay left, but I found new matter for curiosity in the behaviour of the Moslem party who had come on board at Port Said.
In conversation with Mr. Bell, the chief officer, I learned that the supposed leader of the party was one, Mr. Azraeel. “Obviously,” said Bell, “not his real name or not all it. I don’t suppose they’ll show themselves on deck; they’ve got their own servants with them, and seem to be people of consequence.”
This conversation was interrupted, but I found my unseen fellow voyagers peculiarly interesting and pursued inquiries in other directions. I saw members of the distinguished travellers’ retinue going about their duties, but never obtained a glimpse of Mr. Azraeel nor of any of his green-turbaned companions.
“Who is Mr. Azraeel?” I asked Ahmadeen.
“I cannot say,” replied the Egyptian, and abruptly changed the subject.
Some curious aroma of mystery floated about the ship. Ahmadeen conveyed to me the idea that he was concealing something. Then, one night, Mr. Bell invited me to step forward with him.
“Listen,” he said.
From somewhere in the fo’c’sle proceeded low chanting.
“Yes. What the devil is it?”
“It’s the lascars,” said Bell. “They have been behaving in a most unusual manner ever since the mysterious Mr. Azraeel joined us. I may be wrong in associating the two things, but I shan’t be sorry to see the last of our mysterious passengers.”