the naples express pulled into the zurich station a few minutes early. count witte, accompanied by djug and ashvili, and colonel osbert mccutcheon, accompanied by calvin and jago, were the only passengers waiting. the conductor came down the steps of the front car to greet them.
"an empty compartment, please," colonel mccutcheon addressed him.
"oh sir, i am afraid we have none of those."
the colonel handed him a large brightly colored banknote. as the conductor examined it, the colonel produced another even more brightly colored one. "and an empty compartment for my friend, as well."
"you are too kind, colonel," count witte murmured.
as the conductor examined the banknotes, the colonel motioned to jago to step aside.
in a low voice he told him, "i want you to keep an eye out for the american woman, who may be following us. she must not get on the train with us. stay behind yourself if you have to, and follow later. but at all costs keep her off the train, do you understand?"
"but sir, she is the sister of the famous signor al capone of the black hand of chicago. " jago gave a theatrical shudder. "as you know, these black hand are most jealous of the honor of their women."
the colonel smiled indulgently. "but jago, you have dealt with the thuggee. surely the black hand are no more fearsome than the thuggee." he glanced up at the station clock, which was barely visible in the dimly lit station. "besides, the train leaves in ten minutes. our american friend may not arrive in time."
"she will arrive on time, sir," jago replied. "and as for the thuggee being a match for the black hand, let me tell you a little story."
jebadar gumm, the second or third leader of the thuggee, occupying the seat of the original jemadar ga, was a most ascetic man. but one evening, after a particularly strenuous training session and review of his troops, as he was returning to his palatial cave, he saw a maiden with a jar on her head walking by on the dusty high road, and gave a signal to his retinue to stop. he looked down at the maiden from his white horse.
"those feet, mademoiselle, should be covered with gold, not dust," he told her with a smile. he motioned to jas du, one of his twelve trusted lieutenants, to put the maid on his horse and lead it. this of course, caused the whole procession to move forward at a crawl and caused some grumbling in the tired and thirsty ranks. in addition, mutterings of "vampire" and "banshee" were distinctly heard, but were quelled by the thunderous gaze of jebadar gumm.
as the moon rose over the mountains, there was some apprehension at the jebadar's cave when the party was late.
xi, the wizened matriach, and jebadar mu, the vizier, while maintaining calm demeanors, spoke in low tones to each other.
"it can only be magic," maintained vizier mu. "the emperor's men have not shown their faces in months, and even if a few scouts get through, what can they do? what would they attempt?"
"yes," agreed the matriarch, "and if any skirmish ensued, surely a rider would have been sent ahead to warn us."
"true." the vizier stroked his beard. "but if they were waylaid at the fourth pass, a rider would have a long way round."
"you were right the first time. it can only be the winds of the night."
"still, i think i will send a couple of scouts down the trail. what harm?"
"what harm?" repeated xi. "it will show fear."
these discussions were cut short by a shout from the mouth of the cave announcing the arrival of the jebadar's party at last.
the vizier sought a word with slim vu, one of the twelve lieutenants, as he hurried scowlingly into the cave. "why the delay, brother?"
"love," was the short reply.
the source of the delay was led into the cave by jebadar gumm himself. up to this point the maiden had remained discreetly veiled and silent, and had inflamed the jebadar's brain with only her shapely feet and shaplier form.
this had caused some muffled merriment in the ranks, especially between prester john, the jolliest of the twelve companions, and fat bu. this pretty pair had amused themselves during the slow ride to the cave by speculating on whether the maid had the face of a monkey, or of a cobra, and the voice of a tiger, or of an elephant.
now, in the light of the spitting torches of the cave, she pulled back her veil, and revealed that she had translucent skin that continually changed from pale to dark and back again. she wore a small red flower in the side of her dark hair.
fresh mutterings about vampires and witches broke out through the assembled company. but jebadar gumm was too entranced to notice them or silence them.
the matriarch and the vizier were speechless, and retreated to the depths of the cave to parley. on their way xi saw jas du sitting sullenly on a carpet giving his full attention to his bowl, and accosted him.
"you, jas du, did you not have sense enough to send a rider to advise of the delay?eh?"
"the jebadar gave no order," jas du replied without looking up. "it was not for me to issue an order."
"you have a head - for the moment! you should have used it!"
jas du's eyes flashed fire.
"enough." the vizier held up his hand. "jas du is right. he received no order."
jas du's eyes lost their glow slowly as xi and vizier mu retreated to the rear chamber of the cave.
"that was neatly done, madam," said the vizier when they had settled on their cushions. "neatly done. now jas du will lead a premature mutiny, easily crushed."
he shook his head. "but then what?"
"and you played your part well," the matriarch replied. "but then what indeed? i am afraid my son shows all the signs of final madness. the more sudden the madness, the more hopeless. and this creature - this creature! from what, or where?"
although the thuggee were too much the democrats and rough warriors to have actual thrones, jebadar gumm had constucted one as best he could from his best cushions and pillows and placed the maid with the shifting skin on it.
"speak, mademoiselle, speak," he implored her, in a quavering voice previously unheard by the outlaw band. "tell me what you will."
the naples train was leaving in five minutes, and the black hand had yet to make an appearance. colonel mccutcheon, always the politest of men, especially with servants, continued listening patiently to jago's tale.
there was no sign of miss gertrude gainsworth.