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She is anxious—very anxious to meet you. His exterior was certainly that of a gentleman, in his well-cut dinner jacket and a fine diamond stud in his shirt. I could only think that the collapsible chair in which I sat was worked by a lever from outside the room. There was a spy-hole somewhere, at which they could watch the actions of their victims, and take them unawares as I had been taken.
You will share the same fate—a horrible one. She tried to warn you, and you refused to [Pg 96] heed her. So you will both experience the same horror.
Bring in the table. Forbes disappeared for a moment and then returned, bearing a small round table upon which stood a silver cigar-box and a lighted candle. The table he placed at my side, close to my elbow. Then Forbes took something from a drawer, and ere I was aware of it he had slipped a leathern collar over my head and strapped it to the back of the chair so that in a few seconds I was unable to move my head from side to side.
But they only laughed in triumph, for, held as I was, I was utterly helpless in their unscrupulous hands and unable to lift a finger in self-defence, my defiance must have struck them as ridiculous. I looked, and instantly became filled with an inexpressible horror, for there, upon the table, lay a small, black, venomous snake.
To its tail was [Pg 97] attached a fine green silken cord, and this was, in turn, fastened to the candle. The wooden candle-stick was, I saw, screwed down to the table. The cord entered the wax candle about two inches lower than the flame. There it is!
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In half-an-hour the flame will reach the cord, and sever it. Then the snake will strike. That half-hour will give you ample time for reflection. In doing so I moved my head slightly, when the snake again darted at me like a flash, only falling short about an inch from my cheek. The reptile fell back, recoiled itself, and with head erect, its cruel, beady eyes watching me intently, sat up ready to strike again.
I lay back silent, motionless, listening, not daring to move a muscle because of that hideous reptile closely guarding me. I suppose ten minutes must have passed—ten of the most awful minutes of terror and disgust I have ever experienced in all my life—then a sound broke the dead stillness of the night. Only a wall divided us, yet I was powerless, held there face to face with a terrible and revolting death, unable to save her, unable to raise my hand in self-defence.
Again the cruel flat head of the snake darted forth viciously to within a single inch of my left cheek. I tried to draw back, but to move was impossible, held as I was by that leathern collar, made expressly for securing the head immovable. My eyes were fixed upon the steady candle-flame.
It was burning lower and lower each moment. I watched it in fascination. Each second I grew nearer that terrible, revolting end. What had happened to Sylvia? I strained my ears to catch any further sound. But there was none. The house was now silent as the grave. That pair of scoundrels had stolen my cheque, and in the morning, after my death, would cash it and escape with the proceeds! I glanced around that weird room. How many previous victims had sat in that fatal chair and awaited death as I was waiting, I wondered?
The whole plot betrayed a devilish ingenuity and cunning. Its very character showed that the conspirators were no ordinary criminals—they were past-masters in crime.
The incidents of the night in London are too often incredible. A man can meet with adventures in the metropolis as strange, as exciting and as perilous as any in unknown lands. Here, surely, was one in point.
I remember experiencing a strange dizziness, a curious nausea, due, perhaps, to the fact that my head lay lower than my body. My thoughts became muddled.
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I regretted deeply that I had not signed the cheque and saved Sylvia. Yet were they not absolute blackguards? Would they have kept faith with me? By slow, imperceptible degrees the candle burned lower. The flame was long and steady.