“The Flower of Silence” was the first installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on April 8, 1916 and was later expanded to comprise the first four chapters of the third Fu-Manchu novel, The Si-Fan Mysteries first published in 1917 by Cassell in the UK and by McBride & Nast in the US under the variant title, The Hand of Fu Manchu. This third serial began only four months after the second concluded. The US book title marks the first time that the hyphen was dropped from the character’s name, although it was retained within the text.
“The Flower of Silence” finds Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie rooming at the New Louvre Hotel in London. Smith has been recalled from Cairo by his superiors. When the story opens on a chilly November night, Smith has returned to their apartment to inform Petrie that he has just leaned the name of the mysterious secret society that the late Dr. Fu-Manchu served; it is the Si-Fan and is based in Tibet. The reason for Smith’s recall to London is that Great Britain’s former Ambassador to Peking, Sir Gregory Hale has recently returned to London following the completion of his expedition to Mongolia. Sir Gregory was to have delivered a report on Tibetan Lamaism to the India Office but has failed to do so. Sir Gregory has not left his suite at the New Louvre Hotel since his return for Sir Gregory has uncovered the existence of the Si-Fan and will only share that secret with Nayland Smith.
Upon their arrival at his suite, Smith and Petrie learn from Sir Gregory’s valet, Beeton that the former Ambassador has been struck dumb and can only mutter incoherently. He dies in his bed shortly after Smith and Petrie’s arrival but leaves behind a cryptic message scrawled in a notebook containing the mysterious phrases:
“Guard brass box…Tibetan frontier…Key of India…Beware man with the limp…Yellow rising…Watch Tibet…the Si-Fan”
No sooner have they read this peculiar note than they dimly spy a Chinese man inside the apartment. The man escapes before they can apprehend them but drops the object he attempted to steal. It is a brass box. Beeton explains that Sir Gregory brought the brass box back from Tibet and that he guarded the box day and night with a loaded pistol in his hand. Obsessively protecting the unknown contents of the box is the reason that Sir Gregory refused to leave the hotel. He lived in fear of an unseen man with a limp.
While Smith busies himself with the mysterious brass box, Petrie stumbles upon fresh blossom petals and an unbroken stem. Puzzled by their presence in the apartment of a recluse, he takes them to Smith who is terror-struck at their sight and demands Petrie repeat the phrase, Sakya Muni. Petrie complies with the unusual request and Smith sends him off to wash his hands thoroughly three times. Smith briskly questions Beeton about the flowers and then asks Petrie to telephone Inspector Weymouth and to inform Monsieur Samarkan, the hotel manager that Sir Gregory has died in his sleep. While on his way to the front desk, Petrie hears what he believes might be a man with a limp in an apartment across the hall, but a knock upon the door only rouses an indignant Eurasian woman. Embarrassed that he let his imagination get the better of him, Petrie completes his tasks.
Back in their apartment, Smith informs Petrie that he believes the Si-Fan, the secret society behind the Yellow Peril, is ruled by an Empress. Smith proceeds to tell Petrie the legend of an ageless Tibetan empress who is perpetually young thanks to reincarnation and is hidden from view in a secret lamasery. Smith also explains that he recognized the blossom petals as the Flower of Silence. While stationed in Burma, Smith encountered a dying Tibetan monk who held the same petals and had been stricken dumb before dying just as Sir Gregory had been. His Burmese guide fled the scene saying it was the Flower of Silence from the Si-Fan. At the time, Smith did not understand the meaning. Later, a botanist friend identified the flower as an unclassified member of the Curcas family that contains a tiny thorn that releases poisonous oil when the stem is broken. Smith later learned that the Buddhist tradition is to pronounce the holy name of the Buddha (Sakya Muni) when in the presence of the Flower of Silence for anyone who has been so poisoned will be unable to pronounce the name for the poison quickly renders one incapable of speech.
The episode concludes with Petrie awakened during the night by a peculiar noise and a queer vision that he at first suspects is a dream. The unlit light fixture above Smith’s bed appears to be descending. Awakening, Petrie acts quickly when he spies the stem bearing the Flower of Silence descending from the ceiling on the loosened light fixture. The flower’s petals have dropped onto Smith’s sleeping face and when he stirs and brushes them aside he would surely touch the thorn on the poisoned stem. Petrie’s quick thinking saves Smith from sharing Sir Gregory’s fate. The story ends with a grateful Smith noting that the Si-Fan will stop at nothing to regain the mysterious brass box they have taken from Sir Gregory’s room. The contents of the mysterious box remain a mystery to be explored in the next episode.
“The Flower of Silence” stands as an exciting variation on the first Fu-Manchu story, “The Zayat Kiss” (October 1912) and re-establishes Smith and Petrie in London besieged by the threat of the Yellow Peril. It appears that Rohmer has every intention to let Fu-Manchu remain dead in this first episode, despite the failure to recover his body at the end of the second serial, as the focus is shifting to the Si-Fan and their mysterious Empress. The story makes for a strong opening installment for the third Fu-Manchu serial.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press). A sequel, The Destiny of Fu Manchu is coming in early 2012 from Black Coat Press. Also forthcoming is a collection of short stories featuring an original Edwardian detective, The Occult Case Book of Shankar Hardwicke and an original hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com