The Quest of the Sacred Slipper
I. THE PHANTOM SCIMITAR. II. THE GIRL WITH THE VIOLET EYES III. "HASSAN OF ALEPPO" IV. THE OBLONG BOX V. THE OCCUPANT OF THE BOX VI. THE RING OF THE PROPHET VII. FIRST ATTEMPT ON THE SAFE VIII. THE VIOLET EYES AGAIN IX. SECOND ATTEMPT ON THE SAFE X. AT THE BRITISH ANTIQUARIAN MUSEUM XI. THE HOLE IN THE BLIND XII. THE HASHISHIN WATCH XIII. THE WHITE BEAM XIV. A SCREAM IN THE NIGHT XV. A SHRIVELLED HAND XVI. THE DWARF XVII. THE WOMAN WITH THE BASKET XVIII. WHAT CAME THROUGH THE WINDOW XIX. A RAPPING AT MIDNIGHT XX. THE GOLDEN PAVILION XXI. THE BLACK TUBE XXII. THE LIGHT OF EL-MEDINEH XXIII. THE THREE MESSAGES XXIV. I KEEP THE APPOINTMENT XXV. THE WATCHER IN BANK CHAMBERS XXVI. THE STRONG-ROOM XXVII. THE SLIPPER XXVIII. CARNETA XXIX. WE MEET MR. ISAACS XXX. AT THE GATE HOUSE XXXI. THE POOL OF DEATH XXXII. SIX PATCHES XXXIII. HOW WE WERE REENFORCED XXXIV. MY LAST MEETING WITH HASSAN OF ALEPPO
THE QUEST OF THE SACRED SLIPPER
THE PHANTOM SCIMITAR
I was not the only passenger aboard the S.S. Mandalay who perceived the disturbance and wondered what it might portend and from whence proceed. A goodly number of passengers were joining the ship at Port Said. I was lounging against the rail, pipe in mouth, lazily wondering, with a large vagueness.
What a heterogeneous rabble it was!—a brightly coloured rabble, but the colours all were dirty, like the town and the canal. Only the sky was clean; the sky and the hard, merciless sunlight which spared nothing of the uncleanness, and defied one even to think of the term dear to tourists, "picturesque." I was in that kind of mood. All the natives appeared to be pockmarked; all the Europeans greasy with perspiration.
But what was the stir about?
I turned to the dark, bespectacled young man who leaned upon the rail beside me. From the first I had taken to Mr. Ahmad Ahmadeen.
"There is some kind of undercurrent of excitement among the natives," I said, "a sort of subdued Greek chorus is audible. What's it all about?"
Mr. Ahmadeen smiled. After a gaunt fashion, he was a handsome man and had a pleasant smile.
"Probably," he replied, "some local celebrity is joining the ship."
I stared at him curiously.
"Any idea who he is?" (The soul of the copyhunter is a restless soul.)
A group of men dressed in semi-European fashion—that is, in European fashion save for their turbans, which were green—passed close to us along the deck.
Ahmadeen appeared not to have heard the question.
The disturbance, which could only be defined as a subdued uproar, but could be traced to no particular individual or group, grew momentarily louder—and died away. It was only when it had completely ceased that one realized how pronounced it had been—how altogether peculiar, secret; like that incomprehensible murmuring in a bazaar when, unknown to the insular visitor, a reputed saint is present.
Then it happened; the inexplicable incident which, though I knew it not, heralded the coming of strange things, and the dawn of a new power; which should set up its secret standards in England, which should flood Europe and the civilized world with wonder.
A shrill scream marked the overture—a scream of fear and of pain, which dropped to a groan, and moaned out into the silence of which it was the cause.
"My God! what's that?"
I started forward. There was a general crowding rush, and a darkly tanned and bearded man came on board, carrying a brown leather case. Behind him surged those who bore the victim.
"It's one of the lascars!"
"It was a porter—?"
"What is it—?"
"Someone been stabbed!"
"Where's the doctor?"
"Stand away there, if you please!"
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."
The next happening on board the Mandalay which I have to record was the attempt to break open the door of Professor Deeping's stateroom. Except when he was actually within, the Professor left his room door religiously locked.
He made light of the affair, but later took me aside and told me a curious story of an apparition which had appeared to him.
"It was a crescent of light," he said, "and it glittered through the darkness there to the left as I lay in my berth."
"A reflection from something on the deck?"
Deeping smiled, uneasily.
"Possibly," he replied; "but it was very sharply defined. Like the blade of a scimitar," he added.
I stared at him, my curiosity keenly aroused. "Does any explanation suggest itself to you?" I said.
"Well," he confessed, "I have a theory, I will admit; but it is rather going back to the Middle Ages. You see, I have lived in the East a lot; perhaps I have assimilated some of their superstitions."
He was oddly reticent, as ever. I felt convinced that he was keeping something back. I could not stifle the impression that the clue to these mysteries lay somewhere around the invisible Mohammedan party.
"Do you know," said Bell to me, one morning, "this trip's giving me the creeps. I believe the damned ship's haunted! Three bells in the middle watch last night, I'll swear I saw some black animal crawling along the deck, in the direction of the forward companion-way."
"Cat?" I suggested.
"Nothing like it," said Mr. Bell. "Mr. Cavanagh, it was some uncanny thing! I'm afraid I can't explain quite what I mean, but it was something I wanted to shoot!"
"Where did it go?"
The chief officer shrugged his shoulders. "Just vanished," he said. "I hope I don't see it again."
At Tilbury the Mohammedan party went ashore in a body. Among them were veiled women. They contrived so to surround a central figure that I entirely failed to get a glimpse of the mysterious Mr. Azraeel. Ahmadeen was standing close by the companion-way, and I had a momentary impression that one of the women slipped something into his hand. Certainly, he started; and his dusky face seemed to pale.
Then a deck steward came out of Deeping's stateroom, carrying the brown bag which the Professor had brought aboard at Port Said. Deeping's voice came:
"Hi, my man! Let me take that bag!"
The bag changed hands. Five minutes later, as I was preparing to go ashore, arose a horrid scream above the berthing clamour. Those passengers yet aboard made in the direction from which the scream had proceeded.
A steward—the one to whom Professor Deeping had spoken—lay writhing at the foot of the stairs leading to the saloon-deck. His right hand had been severed above the wrist!
THE GIRL WITH THE VIOLET EYES
During the next day or two my mind constantly reverted to the incidents of the voyage home. I was perfectly convinced that the curtain had been partially raised upon some fantasy in which Professor Deeping figured.
But I had seen no more of Deeping nor had I heard from him, when abruptly I found myself plunged again into the very vortex of his troubled affairs. I was half way through a long article, I remember, upon the mystery of the outrage at the docks. The poor steward whose hand had been severed lay in a precarious condition, but the police had utterly failed to trace the culprit.
I had laid down my pen to relight my pipe (the hour was about ten at night) when a faint sound from the direction of the outside door attracted my attention. Something had been thrust through the letter-box.
"A circular," I thought, when the bell rang loudly, imperatively.
I went to the door. A square envelope lay upon the mat—a curious envelope, pale amethyst in colour. Picking it up, I found it to bear my name—written simply—
Tearing it open I glanced at the contents. I threw open the door. No one was visible upon the landing, but when I leaned over the banister a white-clad figure was crossing the hall, below.
Without hesitation, hatless, I raced down the stairs. As I crossed the dimly lighted hall and came out into the peaceful twilight of the court, my elusive visitor glided under the archway opposite.
Just where the dark and narrow passage opened on to Fleet Street I overtook her—a girl closely veiled and wrapped in a long coat of white ermine.
"Madam," I said.
She turned affrightedly.
"Please do not detain me!" Her accent was puzzling, but pleasing. She glanced apprehensively about her.
You have seen the moon through a mist?—and known it for what it was in spite of its veiling? So, now, through the cloudy folds of the veil, I saw the stranger's eyes, and knew them for the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen, had ever dreamt of.
"But you must explain the meaning of your note!"
"I cannot! I cannot! Please do not ask me!"
She was breathless from her flight and seemed to be trembling. From behind the cloud her eyes shone brilliantly, mysteriously.
I was sorely puzzled. The whole incident was bizarre—indeed, it had in it something of the uncanny. Yet I could not detain the girl against her will. That she went in apprehension of something, of someone, was evident.
Past the head of the passage surged the noisy realities of Fleet Street. There were men there in quest of news; men who would have given much for such a story as this in which I was becoming entangled. Yet a story more tantalizingly incomplete could not well be imagined.
I knew that I stood upon the margin of an arena wherein strange adversaries warred to a strange end. But a mist was over all. Here, beside me, was one who could disperse the mist—and would not. Her one anxiety seemed to be to escape.
Suddenly she raised her veil; and I looked fully into the only really violet eyes I had ever beheld. Mentally, I started. For the face framed in the snowy fur was the most bewitchingly lovely imaginable. One rebellious lock of wonderful hair swept across the white brow. It was brown hair, with an incomprehensible sheen in the high lights that suggested the heart of a blood-red rose.
"Oh," she cried, "promise me that you will never breathe a word to any one about my visit!"
"I promise willingly," I said; "but can you give me no hint?"
"Honestly, truly, I cannot, dare not, say more! Only promise that you will do as I ask!"
Since I could perceive no alternative—
"I will do so," I replied.
"Thank you—oh, thank you!" she said; and dropping her veil again she walked rapidly away from me, whispering, "I rely upon you. Do not fail me. Good-bye!"
Her conspicuous white figure joined the hurrying throngs upon the pavement beyond. My curiosity brooked no restraint. I hurried to the end of the courtway. She was crossing the road. From the shadows where he had lurked, a man came forward to meet her. A vehicle obstructed the view ere I could confirm my impression; and when it had passed, neither my lovely visitor nor her companion were anywhere in sight.
But, unless some accident of light and shade had deceived me, the man who had waited was Ahmad Ahmadeen!
It seemed that some astral sluice-gate was raised; a dreadful sense of foreboding for the first time flooded my mind. Whilst the girl had stood before me it had been different—the mysterious charm of her personality had swamped all else. But now, the messenger gone, it was the purport of her message which assumed supreme significance.
Written in odd, square handwriting upon the pale amethyst paper, this was the message—
Prevail upon Professor Deeping to place what he has in the brown case in the porch of his house to-night. If he fails to do so, no power on earth can save him from the Scimitar of Hassan.
"HASSAN OF ALEPPO"
Professor Deeping's number was in the telephone directory, therefore, on returning to my room, where there still lingered the faint perfume of my late visitor's presence, I asked for his number. He proved to be at home.
"Strange you should ring me up, Cavanagh," he said; "for I was about to ring you up."
"First," I replied, "listen to the contents of an anonymous letter which I have received."
(I remembered, and only just in time, my promise to the veiled messenger.)
"To me," I added, having read him the note, "it seems to mean nothing. I take it that you understand better than I do."
"I understand very well, Cavanagh!" he replied. "You will recall my story of the scimitar which flashed before me in the darkness of my stateroom on the Mandalay? Well, I have seen it again! I am not an imaginative man: I had always believed myself to possess the scientific mind; but I can no longer doubt that I am the object of a pursuit which commenced in Mecca! The happenings on the steamer prepared me for this, in a degree. When the man lost his hand at Port Said I doubted. I had supposed the days of such things past. The attempt to break into my stateroom even left me still uncertain. But the outrage upon the steward at the docks removed all further doubt. I perceived that the contents of a certain brown leather case were the objective of the crimes."
I listened in growing wonder.
"It was not necessary in order to further the plan of stealing the bag that the hands were severed," resumed the Professor. "In fact, as was rendered evident by the case of the steward, this was a penalty visited upon any one who touched it! You are thinking of my own immunity?"
"This is attributable to two things. Those who sought to recover what I had in the case feared that my death en route might result in its being lost to them for ever. They awaited a suitable opportunity. They had designed to take it at Port Said certainly, I think; but the bag was too large to be readily concealed, and, after the outrage, might have led to the discovery of the culprit. In the second place, they are uncertain of my faith. I have long passed for a true Believer in the East! As a Moslem I visited Mecca—"
"You visited Mecca!"
"I had just returned from the hadj when I joined the Mandalay at Port Said! My death, however, has been determined upon, whether I be Moslem or Christian!"
"Because," came the Professor's harsh voice over the telephone, "of the contents of the brown leather case! I will not divulge to you now the nature of these contents; to know might endanger you. But the case is locked in my safe here, and the key, together with a full statement of the true facts of the matter, is hidden behind the first edition copy of my book 'Assyrian Mythology,' in the smaller bookcase—"
"Why do you tell me all this?" I interrupted.
He laughed harshly.
"The identity of my pursuer has just dawned upon me," he said. "I know that my life is in real danger. I would give up what is demanded of me, but I believe its possession to be my strongest safeguard."
Mystery upon mystery! I seemed to be getting no nearer to the heart of this maze. What in heaven's name did it all mean? Suddenly an idea struck me.
"Is our late fellow passenger, Mr. Ahmadeen, connected with the matter?" I asked.
"In no way," replied Deeping earnestly. "Mr. Ahmadeen is, I believe, a person of some consequence in the Moslem world; but I have nothing to fear from him."
"What steps have you taken to protect yourself?"
Again the short laugh reached my ears.
"I'm afraid long residence in the East has rendered me something of a fatalist, Cavanagh! Beyond keeping my door locked, I have taken no steps whatever. I fear I am quite accessible!"
A while longer we talked; and with every word the conviction was more strongly borne in upon me that some uncanny menace threatened the peace, perhaps the life, of Professor Deeping.
I had hung up the receiver scarce a moment when, acting upon a sudden determination, I called up New Scotland Yard, and asked for Detective-Inspector Bristol, whom I knew well. A few words were sufficient keenly to arouse his curiosity, and he announced his intention of calling upon me immediately. He was in charge of the case of the severed hand.
I made no attempt to resume work in the interval preceding his arrival. I had not long to wait, however, ere Bristol was ringing my bell; and I hurried to the door, only too glad to confide in one so well equipped to analyze my doubts and fears. For Bristol is no ordinary policeman, but a trained observer, who, when I first made his acquaintance, completely upset my ideas upon the mental limitations of the official detective force.
In appearance Bristol suggests an Anglo-Indian officer, and at the time of which I write he had recently returned from Jamaica and his face was as bronzed as a sailor's. One would never take Bristol for a detective. As he seated himself in the armchair, without preamble I plunged into my story. He listened gravely.
"What sort of house is Professor Deeping's?" he asked suddenly.
"I have no idea," I replied, "beyond the fact that it is somewhere in Dulwich."
"May I use your telephone?"
Very quickly Bristol got into communication with the superintendent of P Division. A brief delay, and the man came to the telephone whose beat included the road wherein Professor Deeping's house was situated.
"Why!" said Bristol, hanging up the receiver after making a number of inquiries, "it's a sort of rambling cottage in extensive grounds. There's only one servant, a manservant, and he sleeps in a detached lodge. If the Professor is really in danger of attack he could not well have chosen a more likely residence for the purpose!"
"What shall you do? What do you make of it all?"
"As I see the case," he said slowly, "it stands something like this: Professor Deeping has..."
The telephone bell began to ring.
I took up the receiver.
"Cavanagh!—is that Cavanagh?"
"Yes! yes! who is that?"
"Deeping! I have rung up the police, and they are sending some one. But I wish..."
His voice trailed off. The sound of a confused and singular uproar came to me.
"Hullo!" I cried. "Hullo!"
A shriek—a deathful, horrifying cry—and a distant babbling alone answered me. There was a crash. Clearly, Deeping had dropped the receiver. I suppose my face blanched.
"What is it?" asked Bristol anxiously.
"God knows what it is!" I said. "Deeping has met with some mishap—"
When, over the wires—
"Hassan of Aleppo!" came a dying whisper. "Hassan ... of Aleppo..."
THE OBLONG BOX
"You had better wait for us," said Bristol to the taxi-man.
"Very good, sir. But I shan't be able to take you further back than the Brixton Garage. You can get another cab there, though."
A clock chimed out—an old-world chime in keeping with the loneliness, the curiously remote loneliness, of the locality. Less than five miles from St. Paul's are spots whereto, with the persistence of Damascus attar, clings the aroma of former days. This iron gateway fronting the old chapel was such a spot.
Just within stood a plain-clothes man, who saluted my companion respectfully.
"Professor Deeping," I began.
The man, with a simple gesture, conveyed the dreadful news.
"Dead! dead!" I cried incredulously.
He glanced at Bristol.
"The most mysterious case I have ever had anything to do with, sir," he said.
The power of speech seemed to desert me. It was unthinkable that Deeping, with whom I had been speaking less than an hour ago, should now be no more; that some malign agency should thus murderously have thrust him into the great borderland.
In that kind of silence which seems to be peopled with whispering spirits we strode forward along the elm avenue. It was very dark where the moon failed to penetrate. The house, low and rambling, came into view, its facade bathed in silver light. Two of the visible windows were illuminated. A sort of loggia ran along one side.
On our left, as we made for this, lay a black ocean of shrubbery. It intruded, raggedly, upon the weed-grown path, for neglect was the keynote of the place.
We entered the cottage, crossed the tiny lobby, and came to the study. A man, evidently Deeping's servant, was sitting in a chair by the door, his head sunken in his hands. He looked up, haggard-faced.
"My God! my God!" he groaned. "He was locked in, gentlemen! He was locked in; and yet something murdered him!"
"What do you mean?" said Bristol. "Where were you?"
"I was away on an errand, sir. When I returned, the police were knocking the door down. He was locked in!"
We passed him, entering the study.
It was a museum-like room, lighted by a lamp on the littered table. At first glance it looked as though some wild thing had run amok there. The disorder was indescribable.
"Touched nothing, of course?" asked Bristol sharply of the officer on duty.
"Nothing, sir. It's just as we found it when we forced the door."
"Why did you force the door?"
"He rung us up at the station and said that something or somebody had got into the house. It was evident the poor gentleman's nerve had broken down, sir. He said he was locked in his study. When we arrived it was all in darkness—but we thought we heard sounds in here."
"What sort of sounds?"
"Something crawling about!"
"Key is in the lock on the inside of the door," he said. "Is that where you found it?"
He looked across to where the brass knob of a safe gleamed dully.
Professor Deeping lay half under the table, a spectacle so ghastly that I shall not attempt to describe it.
"Merciful heavens!" whispered Bristol. "He's nearly decapitated!"
I clutched dizzily at the mantelpiece. It was all so utterly, incredibly horrible. How had Deeping met his death? The windows both were latched and the door had been locked from within!
"You searched for the murderer, of course?" asked Bristol.
"You can see, sir," replied the officer, "that there isn't a spot in the room where a man could hide! And there was nobody in here when we forced the door!"
"Why!" cried my companion suddenly. "The Professor has a chisel in his hand!"
"Yes. I think he must have been trying to prise open that box yonder when he was attacked."
Bristol and I looked, together, at an oblong box which lay upon the floor near the murdered man. It was a kind of small packing case, addressed to Professor Deeping, and evidently had not been opened.
"When did this arrive?" asked Bristol. Lester, the Professor's man, who had entered the room, replied shakily—
"It came by carrier, sir, just before I went out."
"Was he expecting it?"
"I don't think so."
Inspector Bristol and the officer dragged the box fully into the light. It was some three feet long by one foot square, and solidly constructed.
"It is perfectly evident," remarked Bristol, "that the murderer stayed to search for—"
"The key of the safe!"
"Exactly. If the men really heard sounds here, it would appear that the assassin was still searching at that time."
"I assure you," the officer interrupted, "that there was no living thing in the room when we entered."
Bristol and I looked at one another in horrified wonder.
"It's incomprehensible!" he said.
"See if the key is in the place mentioned by the Professor, Mr. Cavanagh, whilst I break the box."
I went to a great, open bookcase, which the frantic searcher seemed to have overlooked. Removing the bulky "Assyrian Mythology," there, behind the volume, lay an envelope, containing a key, and a short letter. Not caring to approach more closely to the table and to that which lay beneath it, I was peering at the small writing, in the semi-gloom by the bookcase, when Bristol cried—
"This box is unopenable by ordinary means! I shall have to smash it!"
At his words, I joined him where he knelt on the floor. Mysteriously, the chest had defied all his efforts.
"There's a pick-axe in the garden," volunteered Lester. "Shall I bring it?"
The man ran off.
"I see the key is safe," said Bristol. "Possibly the letter may throw some light upon all this."
"Let us hope so," I replied. "You might read it."
He took the letter from my hand, stepped up to the table, and by the light of the lamp read as follows—
My Dear Cavanagh,—
It has now become apparent to me that my life is in imminent danger. You know of the inexplicable outrages which marked my homeward journey, and if this letter come to your hand it will be because these have culminated in my death.
The idea of a pursuing scimitar is not new to me. This phenomenon, which I have now witnessed three times, is fairly easy of explanation, but its significance is singular. It is said to be one of the devices whereby the Hashishin warn those whom they have marked down for destruction, and is called, in the East, "The Scimitar of Hassan."
The Hashishin were the members of a Moslem secret society, founded in 1090 by one Hassan of Khorassan. There is a persistent tradition in parts of the Orient that this sect still flourishes in Assyria, under the rule of a certain Hassan of Aleppo, the Sheikh-al-jebal, or supreme lord of the Hashishin. My careful inquiries, however, at the time that I was preparing matter for my "Assyrian Mythology," failed to discover any trace of such a person or such a group.
I accordingly assumed Hassan to be a myth—a first cousin to the ginn. I was wrong. He exists. And by my supremely rash act I have incurred his vengeance, for Hassan of Aleppo is the self-appointed guardian of the traditions and relics of Mohammed. And I have Stolen one of the holy slippers of the Prophet!
He, with some of his servants, has followed me from Mecca to England. My precautions have enabled me to retain the relic, but you have seen what fate befell all those others who even touched the receptacle containing it.
If I fall a victim to the Hashishin, I am uncertain how you, as my confidant, will fare. Therefore I have locked the slipper in my safe and to you entrust the key. I append particulars of the lock combination; but I warn you—do not open the safe. If their wrath be visited upon you, your possession of the key may prove a safeguard.
Take the copy of "Assyrian Mythology." You will find in it all that I learned respecting the Hashishin. If I am doomed to be assassinated, it may aid you; if not in avenging me, in saving others from my fate. I fear I shall never see you again. A cloud of horror settles upon me like a pall. Do not touch the slipper, nor the case containing it.
"It is almost incredible!" I said hoarsely.
Bristol returned the letter to me without a word, and turning to Lester, who had reentered carrying a heavy pick-axe, he attacked the oblong box with savage energy.
Through the house of death the sound of the blows echoed and rang with a sort of sacrilegious mockery. The box fell to pieces.
"My God! look, sir!"
Lester was the trembling speaker.
The box, I have said, was but three feet long by one foot square, and had clearly defied poor Deeping's efforts to open it. But a crescent-shaped knife, wet with blood, lay within!
THE OCCUPANT OF THE BOX
Dimly to my ears came the ceaseless murmur of London. The night now was far advanced, and not a sound disturbed the silence of the court below my windows.
Professor Deeping's "Assyrian Mythology" lay open before me, beside it my notebook. A coal dropped from the fire, and I half started up out of my chair. My nerves were all awry, and I had more than my horrible memories of the murdered man to thank for it. Let me explain what I mean.
When, after assisting, or endeavouring to assist, Bristol at his elaborate inquiries, I had at last returned to my chambers, I had become the victim of a singular delusion—though one common enough in the case of persons whose nerves are overwrought. I had thought myself followed.
During the latter part of my journey I found myself constantly looking from the little window at the rear of the cab. I had an impression that some vehicle was tracking us. Then, when I discharged the man and walked up the narrow passage to the court, it was fear of a skulking form that dodged from shadow to shadow which obsessed me.
Finally, as I entered the hall and mounted the darkened stair, from the first landing I glanced down into the black well beneath. Blazing yellow eyes, I thought, looked up at me!
I will confess that I leapt up the remaining flight of stairs to my door, and, safely within, found myself trembling as if with a palsy.
When I sat down to write (for sleep was an impossible proposition) I placed my revolver upon the table beside me. I cannot say why. It afforded me some sense of protection, I suppose. My conclusions, thus far, amounted to the following—
The apparition of the phantom scimitar was due to the presence of someone who, by means of the moonlight, or of artificial light, cast a reflection of such a weapon as that found in the oblong chest upon the wall of a darkened apartment—as, Deeping's stateroom on the Mandalay, his study, etc.
A group of highly efficient assassins, evidently Moslem fanatics, who might or might not be of the ancient order of the Hashishin, had pursued the stolen slipper to England. They had severed any hand, other than that of a Believer, which had touched the case containing it. (The Coptic porter was a Christian.)
Uncertain, possibly, of Deeping's faith, or fearful of endangering the success of their efforts by an outrage upon him en route, they had refrained from this until his arrival at his house. He had been warned of his impending end by Ahmad Ahmadeen.
Who was Ahmadeen? And who was his beautiful associate? I found myself unable, at present, to answer either of those questions. In order to gain access to Professor Deeping, who so carefully secluded himself, a box had been sent to him by ordinary carrier. (As I sat at my table, Scotland Yard was busy endeavouring to trace the sender.) Respecting this box we had made an extraordinary discovery.
It was of the kind used by Eastern conjurors for what is generally known as "the Box Trick." That is to say, it could only be opened (short of smashing it) from the inside! You will remember what we found within it? Consider this with the new fact, above, and to what conclusion do you come?
Something (it is not possible to speak of someone in connection with so small a box) had been concealed inside, and had killed Professor Deeping whilst he was actually engaged in endeavouring to force it open. This inconceivable creature had then searched the study for the slipper—or for the key of the safe. Interrupted and trapped by the arrival of the police, the creature had returned to the box, re-closed it, and had actually been there when the study was searched!
For a creature so small as the murderous thing in the box to slip out during the confusion, and at some time prior to Bristol's arrival, was no difficult matter. The inspector and I were certain that these were the facts.
But what was this creature?
I turned to the chapter in "Assyrian Mythology"—"The Tradition of the Hashishin."
The legends which the late Professor Deeping had collected relative to this sect of religious murderers were truly extraordinary. Of the cult's extinction at the time of writing he was clearly certain, but he referred to the popular belief, or Moslem legend, that, since Hassan of Khorassan, there had always been a Sheikh-al-jebal, and that a dreadful being known as Hassan of Aleppo was the present holder of the title.
He referred to the fact that De Sacy has shown the word Assassin to be derived from Hashishin, and quoted El-Idrisi to the same end. The Hashishin performed their murderous feats under the influence of hashish, or Indian hemp; and during the state of ecstasy so induced, according to Deeping, they acquired powers almost superhuman. I read how they could scale sheer precipices, pass fearlessly along narrow ledges which would scarce afford foothold for a rat, cast themselves from great heights unscathed, and track one marked for death in such a manner as to remain unseen not only by the victim but by others about him. At this point of my studies I started, in a sudden nervous panic, and laid my hand upon my revolver.
I thought of the eyes which had seemed to look up from the black well of the staircase—I thought of the horrible end of this man whose book lay upon the table ... and I thought I heard a faint sound outside my study door!
The key of Deeping's safe, and his letter to me, lay close by my hand. I slipped them into a drawer and locked it. With every nerve, it seemed, strung up almost to snapping point, I mechanically pursued my reading.
"At the time of the Crusades," wrote Deeping, "there was a story current of this awful Order which I propose to recount. It is one of the most persistent dealing with the Hashishin, and is related to-day of the apparently mythical Hassan of Aleppo. I am disposed to believe that at one time it had a solid foundation, for a similar practice was common in Ancient Egypt and is mentioned by Georg Ebers."
My door began very slowly to open!
Merciful God! What was coming into the room!
So very slowly, so gently, nay, all but imperceptibly, did it move, that had my nerves been less keenly attuned I doubt not I should have remained unaware of the happening. Frozen with horror, I sat and watched. Yet my mental condition was a singular one.
My direct gaze never quitted the door, but in some strange fashion I saw the words of the next paragraph upon the page before me!
"As making peculiarly efficient assassins, when under the influence of the drug, and as being capable of concealing themselves where a normal man could not fail to be detected—"
(At this moment I remembered that my bathroom window was open, and that the waste-pipe passed down the exterior wall.)
"—the Sheikh-al-jebal took young boys of a certain desert tribe, and for eight hours of every day, until their puberty, confined them in a wooden frame—"
What looked like a reed was slowly inserted through the opening between door and doorpost! It was brought gradually around ... until it pointed directly toward me!
I seemed to put forth a mighty mental effort, shaking off the icy hand of fear which held me inactive in my chair. A saving instinct warned me—and I ducked my head.
Something whirred past me and struck the wall behind.
Revolver in hand, I leapt across the room, dashed the door open, and fired blindly—again—and again—and again—down the passage.
And in the brief gleams I saw it!
I cannot call it man, but I saw the thing which, I doubt not, had killed poor Deeping with the crescent-knife and had propelled a poison-dart at me.
It was a tiny dwarf! Neither within nor without a freak exhibition had I seen so small a human being! A kind of supernatural dread gripped me by the throat at sight of it. As it turned with animal activity and bounded into my bathroom, I caught a three-quarter view of the creature's swollen, incredible head—which was nearly as large as that of a normal man!
Never while my mind serves me can I forget that yellow, grinning face and those canine fangs—the tigerish, blazing eyes—set in the great, misshapen head upon the tiny, agile body.
Wildly, I fired again. I hurled myself forward and dashed into the room.
Like nothing so much as a cat, the gleaming body (the dwarf was but scantily clothed) streaked through the open window!
Certain death, I thought, must be his lot upon the stones of the court far below. I ran and looked down, shaking in every limb, my mind filled with a loathing terror unlike anything I had ever known.
Brilliant moonlight flooded the pavement beneath; for twenty yards to left and right every stone was visible.
The court was empty!
Human, homely London moved and wrought intimately about me; but there, at sight of the empty court below, a great loneliness swept down like a mantle—a clammy mantle of the fabric of dread. I stood remote from my fellows, in an evil world peopled with the creatures of Hassan of Aleppo.
Moved by some instinct, as that of a frightened child, I dropped to my knees and buried my face in trembling hands.
THE RING OF THE PROPHET
"There is no doubt," said Mr. Rawson, "that great personal danger attaches to any contact with this relic. It is the first time I have been concerned with anything of the kind."
Mr. Bristol, of Scotland Yard, standing stiffly military by the window, looked across at the gray-haired solicitor. We were all silent for a few moments.
"My late client's wishes," continued Mr. Rawson, "are explicit. His last instructions, evidently written but a short time prior to his death, advise me that the holy slipper of the Prophet is contained in the locked safe at his house in Dulwich. He was clearly of opinion that you, Mr. Cavanagh, would incur risk—great risk—from your possession of the key. Since attempts have been made upon you, murderous attempts, the late Professor Deeping, my unfortunate client, evidently was not in error."
"Mysterious outrages," said Bristol, "have marked the progress of the stolen slipper from Mecca almost to London."
"I understand," interrupted the solicitor, "that a fanatic known as Hassan of Aleppo seeks to restore the relic to its former resting-place."
"That is so."
"Exactly; and it accounts for the Professor's wish that the safe should not be touched by any one but a Believer—and for his instructions that its removal to the Antiquarian Museum and the placing of the slipper within that institution be undertaken by a Moslem or Moslems."
"Any one who has touched the receptacle containing the thing," he said, "has either been mutilated or murdered. I want to apprehend the authors of those outrages, but I fail to see why the slipper should be put on exhibition. Other crimes are sure to follow."
"I can only pursue my instructions," said Mr. Rawson dryly. "They are, that the work be done in such a manner as to expose all concerned to a minimum of risk from these mysterious people; that if possible a Moslem be employed for the purpose; and that Mr. Cavanagh, here, shall always hold the key or keys to the case in the museum containing the slipper. Will you undertake to look for some—Eastern workmen, Mr. Bristol? In the course of your inquiries you may possibly come across such a person."
"I can try," replied Bristol. "Meanwhile, I take it, the safe must remain at Dulwich?"
"Certainly. It should be guarded."
"We are guarding it and shall guard it," Bristol assured him. "I only hope we catch someone trying to get at it!"
Shortly afterward Bristol and I left the office, and, his duties taking him to Scotland Yard, I returned to my chambers to survey the position in which I now found myself. Indeed, it was a strange one enough, showing how great things have small beginnings; for, as a result of a steamer acquaintance I found myself involved in a dark business worthy of the Middle Ages. That Professor Deeping should have stolen one of the holy slippers of Mohammed was no affair of mine, and that an awful being known as Hassan of Aleppo should have pursued it did not properly enter into my concerns; yet now, with a group of Eastern fanatics at large in England, I was become, in a sense, the custodian of the relic. Moreover, I perceived that I had been chosen that I might safeguard myself. What I knew of the matter might imperil me, but whilst I held the key to the reliquary, and held it fast, I might hope to remain immune though I must expect to be subjected to attempts. It would be my affair to come to terms.
Contemplating these things I sat, in a world of dark dreams, unconscious of the comings and goings in the court below, unconscious of the hum which told of busy Fleet Street so near to me. The weather, as is its uncomfortable habit in England, had suddenly grown tropically hot, plunging London into the vapours of an African spring, and the sun was streaming through my open window fully upon the table.
I mopped my clammy forehead, glancing with distaste at the pile of work which lay before me. Then my eyes turned to an open quarto book. It was the late Professor Deeping's "Assyrian Mythology," and embodied the result of his researches into the history of the Hashishin, the religious murderers of whose existence he had been so skeptical. To the Chief of the Order, the terrible Sheikh Hassan of Aleppo, he referred as a "fabled being"; yet it was at the hands of this "fabled being" that he had met his end! How incredible it all seemed. But I knew full well how worthy of credence it was.
Then upon my gloomy musings a sound intruded—the ringing of my door bell. I rose from my chair with a weary sigh, went to the door, and opened it. An aged Oriental stood without. He was tall and straight, had a snow-white beard and clear-cut, handsome features. He wore well-cut European garments and a green turban. As I stood staring he saluted me gravely.
"Mr. Cavanagh?" he asked, speaking in faultless English.
"I am he."
"I learn that the services of a Moslem workman are required."
"Quite correct, sir; but you should apply at the offices of Messrs. Rawson & Rawson, Chancery Lane."
The old man bowed, smiling.
"Many thanks; I understood so much. But, my position being a peculiar one, I wished to speak with you—as a friend of the late Professor."
I hesitated. The old man looked harmless enough, but there was an air of mystery about the matter which put me on my guard.
"You will pardon me," I said, "but the work is scarcely of a kind—"
He raised his thin hand.
"I am not undertaking it myself. I wished to explain to you the conditions under which I could arrange to furnish suitable porters."
His patient explanation disposed me to believe that he was merely some kind of small contractor, and in any event I had nothing to fear from this frail old man.
"Step in, sir," I said, repenting of my brusquerie—and stood aside for him.
He entered, with that Oriental meekness in which there is something majestic. I placed a chair for him in the study, and reseated myself at the table. The old man, who from the first had kept his eyes lowered deferentially, turned to me with a gentle gesture, as if to apologize for opening the conversation.
"From the papers, Mr. Cavanagh," he began, "I have learned of the circumstances attending the death of Professor Deeping. Your papers"—he smiled, and I thought I had never seen a smile of such sweetness—"your papers know all! Now I understand why a Moslem is required, and I understand what is required of him. But remembering that the object of his labours would be to place a holy relic on exhibition for the amusement of unbelievers, can you reasonably expect to obtain the services of one?"
His point of view was fair enough.
"Perhaps not," I replied. "For my own part I should wish to see the slipper back in Mecca, or wherever it came from. But Professor Deeping—"
"Professor Deeping was a thorn in the flesh of the Faithful!"
My visitor's voice was gravely reproachful.
"Nevertheless his wishes must be considered," I said, "and the methods adopted by those who seek to recover the relic are such as to alienate all sympathy."
"You speak of the Hashishin?" asked the old man. "Mr. Cavanagh, in your own faith you have had those who spilled the blood of infidels as freely!"
"My good sir, the existence of such an organization cannot be tolerated today! This survival of the dark ages must be stamped out. However just a cause may be, secret murder is not permissible, as you, a man of culture, a Believer, and"—I glanced at his unusual turban—"a descendant of the Prophet, must admit."
"I can admit nothing against the Guardian of the Tradition, Mr. Cavanagh! The Prophet taught that we should smite the Infidel. I ask you—have you the courage of your convictions?"
"Perhaps; I trust so."
"Then assist me to rid England of what you have called a survival of the dark ages. I will furnish porters to remove and carry the safe, if you will deliver to me the key!"
I sprang to my feet.
"That is madness!" I cried. "In the first place I should be compromising with my conscience, and in the second place I should be defenceless against those who might—"
"I have with me a written promise from one highly placed—one to whose will Hassan of Aleppo bows!"
My mind greatly disturbed, I watched the venerable speaker. I had determined now that he was some religious leader of Islam in England, who had been deputed to approach me; and, let me add, I was sorely tempted to accede to his proposal, for nothing would be gained by any one if the slipper remained for ever at the museum, whereas by conniving at its recovery by those who, after all, were its rightful owners I should be ridding England of a weird and undesirable visitant.
I think I should have agreed, when I remembered that the Hashishin had murdered Professor Deeping and had mutilated others wholly innocent of offence. I looked across at the old man. He had drawn himself up to his great height, and for the first time fully raising the lids, had fixed upon me the piercing gaze of a pair of eagle eyes. I started, for the aspect of this majestic figure was entirely different from that of the old stranger who had stood suppliant before me a moment ago.
"It is impossible," I said. "I can come to no terms with those who shield murderers."
He regarded me fixedly, but did not move.
"Es-selam 'aleykum!" I added ("Peace be on you!") closing the interview in the Eastern manner.
The old man lowered his eyes, and saluted me with graceful gravity.
"Wa-'aleykum!" he said ("And on you!"). I conducted him to the door and closed it upon his exit. In his last salute I had noticed the flashing of a ring which he wore upon his left hand, and he was gone scarce ten seconds ere my heart began to beat furiously. I snatched up "Assyrian Mythology" and with trembling fingers turned to a certain page.
There I read—
Each Sheikh of the Assassins is said to be invested with the "Ring of the Prophet." It bears a green stone, shaped in the form of a scimitar or crescent.
My dreadful suspicion was confirmed. I knew who my visitor had been.
"God in heaven!" I whispered. "It was Hassan of Aleppo!"
FIRST ATTEMPT ON THE SAFE
On the following morning I was awakened by the arrival of Bristol. I hastened to admit him.
"Your visitor of yesterday," he began, "has wasted no time!"
"What has happened?"
He tugged irritably at his moustache. "I don't know!" he replied. "Of course it was no surprise to find that there isn't a Mohammedan who'll lay his little finger on Professor Deeping's safe! There's no doubt in my mind that every lascar at the docks knows Hassan of Aleppo to be in England. Some other arrangement will have to be arrived at, if the thing is ever to be taken to the Antiquarian Museum. Meanwhile we stand to lose it. Last night—"
He accepted a cigarette, and lighted it carefully.
"Last night," he resumed, "a member of P Division was on point duty outside the late Professor's house, and two C.I.D. men were actually in the room where the safe is. Result—someone has put in at least an hour's work on the lock, but it proved too tough a job!"
I stared at him amazedly.
"Someone has been at the lock!" I cried. "But that is impossible, with two men in the room—unless—"
"They were both knocked on the head!"
"Both! But by whom! My God! They are not—"
"Oh, no! It was done artistically. They both came round about four o'clock this morning."
"And who attacked them?"
"They had no idea. Neither of them saw a thing!"
My amazement grew by leaps and bounds. "But, Bristol, one of them must have seen the other succumb!"
"Both did! Their statements tally exactly!"
"I quite fail to follow you."
"That's not surprising. Listen: When I got on the scene about five o'clock, Marden and West, the two C.I.D. men, had quite recovered their senses, though they were badly shaken, and one had a cracked skull. The constable was conscious again, too."
"What! Was he attacked?"
"In exactly the same way! I'll give you Marden's story, as he gave it to me a few minutes after the surgeon had done with him. He said that they were sitting in the study, smoking, and with both windows wide open. It was a fearfully hot night."
"Did they have lights?"
"No. West sat in an armchair near the writing-table; Marden sat by the window next to the door. I had arranged that every hour one of them should go out to the gate and take the constable's report. It was just after Marden had been out at one o'clock that it happened.
"They were sitting as I tell you when Marden thought he heard a curious sort of noise from the gate. West appeared to have heard nothing; but I have no doubt that it was the sound of the constable's fall. West's pipe had gone out, and he struck a match to relight it. As he did so, Marden saw him drop the match, clench both fists, and with eyes glaring in the moonlight and his teeth coming together with a snap, drop from his chair.
"Marden says that he was half up from his seat when something struck him on the back of the head with fearful force. He remembered nothing more until he awoke, with the dawn creeping into the room, and heard West groaning somewhere beside him. They both had badly damaged skulls with great bruises behind the ear. It is instructive to note that their wounds corresponded almost to a fraction of an inch. They had been stunned by someone who thoroughly understood his business, and with some heavy, blunt weapon. A few minutes later came the man to relieve the constable; and the constable was found to have been treated in exactly the same way!"
"But if Marden's account is true—"
"West, as he lost consciousness, saw Marden go in exactly the same way."
"Marden was seated by the open window, but I cannot conjecture how any one can have got at West, who sat by the table!"
"The case of Marden is little less than remarkable; he was some distance from the window. No one could possibly have reached him from outside."
"And the constable?"
"The constable can give us no clue. He was suddenly struck down, as the others were. I examined the safe, of course, but didn't touch it, according to instructions. Someone had been at work on the lock, but it had defied their efforts. I'm fully expecting though that they'll be back to-night, with different tools!"
"The place is watched during the day, of course?"
"Of course. But it's unlikely that anything will be attempted in daylight. Tonight I am going down myself."
"Could you arrange that I join you?"
"I could, but you can see the danger for yourself?"
"It is extraordinarily mysterious."
"Mr. Cavanagh, it's uncanny!" said Bristol. "I can understand that one of these Hashishin could easily have got up behind the man on duty out in the open. I know, and so do you, that they're past masters of that kind of thing; but unless they possess the power to render themselves invisible, it's not evident how they can have got behind West whilst he sat at the table, with Marden actually watching him!"
"We must lay a trap for them to-night."
"Rely upon me to do so. My only fear is that they may anticipate it and change their tactics. Hassan of Aleppo apparently knows as much of our plans as we do ourselves."
Inspector Bristol, though a man of considerable culture, clearly was infected with a species of supernatural dread.
THE VIOLET EYES AGAIN
At four o'clock in the afternoon I had heard nothing further from Bristol, but I did not doubt that he would advise me of his arrangements in good time. I sought by hard work to forget for a time the extraordinary business of the stolen slipper; but it persistently intruded upon my mind. Particularly, my thoughts turned to the night of Professor Deeping's murder, and to the bewitchingly pretty woman who had warned me of the impending tragedy. She had bound me to secrecy—a secrecy which had proved irksome, for it had since appeared to me that she must have been an accomplice of Hassan of Aleppo. At the time I had been at a loss to define her peculiar accent, now it seemed evidently enough to have been Oriental.
I threw down my pen in despair, for work was impossible, went downstairs, and walked out under the arch into Fleet Street. Quite mechanically I turned to the left, and, still engaged with idle conjectures, strolled along westward.
Passing the entrance to one of the big hotels, I was abruptly recalled to the realities—by a woman's voice.
"Wait for me here," came musically to my ears.
I stopped, and turned. A woman who had just quitted a taxi-cab was entering the hotel. The day was hot and thunderously oppressive, and this woman with the musical voice wore a delicate costume of flimsiest white. A few steps upward she paused and glanced back. I had a view of a Greek profile, and for one magnetic instant looked into eyes of the deepest and most wonderful violet.
Then, shaking off inaction, I ran up the steps and overtook the lady in white as a porter swung open the door to admit her. We entered together.
"Madame," I said in a low tone, "I must detain you for a moment. There is something I have to ask."
She turned, exhibiting the most perfect composure, lowered her lashes and raised them again, the gaze of the violet eyes sweeping me from head to foot with a sort of frigid scorn.
"I fear you have made a mistake, sir. We have never met before!"
Her voice betrayed no trace of any foreign accent!
"But," I began—and paused.
I felt myself flush; for this encounter in the foyer of an hotel, with many curious onlookers, was like to prove embarrassing if my beautiful acquaintance persisted in her attitude. I fully realized what construction would be put upon my presence there, and foresaw that forcible and ignominious ejection must be my lot if I failed to establish my right to address her.
She turned away, and crossed in the direction of the staircase. A sunbeam sought out a lock of hair that strayed across her brow, and kissed it to a sudden glow like that which lurks in the heart of a blush rose.
That wonderful sheen, which I had never met with elsewhere in nature, but which no artifice could lend, served to remove my last frail doubt which had survived the evidence of the violet eyes. I had been deceived by no strange resemblance; this was indeed the woman who had been the harbinger of Professor Deeping's death. In three strides I was beside her again. Curious glances were set upon me, and I saw a servant evidently contemplating approach; but I ignored all save my own fixed purpose.
"You must listen to what I have to say!" I whispered. "If you decline, I shall have no alternative but to call in the detective who holds a warrant for your arrest!"
She stood quite still, watching me coolly. "I suppose you would wish to avoid a scene?" I added.
"You have already made me the object of much undesirable attention," she replied scornfully. "I do not need your assurance that you would disgrace me utterly! You are talking nonsense, as you must be aware—unless you are insane. But if your object be to force your acquaintance upon me, your methods are novel, and, under the circumstances, effective. Come, sir, you may talk to me—for three minutes!"
The musical voice had lost nothing of its imperiousness, but for one instant the lips parted, affording a fleeting glimpse of pearl beyond the coral.
Her sudden change of front was bewildering. Now, she entered the lift and I followed her. As we ascended side by side I found it impossible to believe that this dainty white figure was that of an associate of the Hashishin, that of a creature of the terrible Hassan of Aleppo. Yet that she was the same girl who, a few days after my return from the East, had shown herself conversant with the plans of the murderous fanatics was beyond doubt. Her accent on that occasion clearly had been assumed, with what object I could not imagine. Then, as we quitted the lift and entered a cosy lounge, my companion seated herself upon a Chesterfield, signing to me to sit beside her.
As I did so she lay back smiling, and regarding me from beneath her black lashes. Thus, half veiled, her great violet eyes were most wonderful.
"Now, sir," she said softly, "explain yourself."
"Then you persist in pretending that we have not met before?"
"There is no occasion for pretence," she replied lightly; and I found myself comparing her voice with her figure, her figure with her face, and vainly endeavouring to compute her age. Frankly, she was bewildering—this lovely girl who seemed so wholly a woman of the world.
"This fencing is useless."
"It is quite useless! Come, I know New York, London, and I know Paris, Vienna, Budapest. Therefore I know mankind! You thought I was pretty, I suppose? I may be; others have thought so. And you thought you would like to make my acquaintance without troubling about the usual formalities? You adopted a singularly brutal method of achieving your object, but I love such insolence in a man. Therefore I forgave you. What have you to say to me?"
I perceive that I had to deal with a bold adventuress, with a consummate actress, who, finding herself in a dangerous situation, had adopted this daring line of defence, and now by her personal charm sought to lure me from my purpose.
But with the scimitar of Hassan of Aleppo stretched over me, with the dangers of the night before me, I was in no mood for a veiled duel of words, for an interchange of glances in thrust and parry, however delightful such warfare might have been with so pretty an adversary.
For a long time I looked sternly into her eyes; but their violet mystery defied, whilst her red-lipped smile taunted me.
"Unfortunately," I said, with slow emphasis, "you are protected by my promise, made on the occasion of our previous meeting. But murder has been done, so that honour scarcely demands that I respect my promise further—"
She raised her eyebrows slightly.
"Surely that depends upon the quality of the honour!" she said.
"I believe you to be a member of a murderous organization, and unless you can convince me that I am wrong, I shall act accordingly."
At that she leaned toward me, laying her hand on my arm.
"Please do not be so cruel," she whispered, "as to drag me into a matter with which truly I have no concern. Believe me, you are utterly mistaken. Wait one moment, and I will prove it."
She rose, and before I could make move to detain her, quitted the room; but the door scarcely had closed ere I was afoot. The corridor beyond was empty. I ran on. The lift had just descended. A dark man whom I recognized stood near the closed gate.
"Quick!" I said, "I am Cavanagh of the Report! Did you see a lady enter the lift?"
"I did, Mr. Cavanagh," answered the hotel detective; for this was he.
In such a giant inn as this I knew full well that one could come and go almost with impunity, though one had no right to the hospitality of the establishment; and it was with a premonition respecting what his answer would be, that I asked the man—
"Is she staying here?"
"She is not. I have never seen her before!"
The girl with the violet eyes had escaped, taking all her secrets with her!
SECOND ATTEMPT ON THE SAFE
"You see," said Bristol, "the Hashishin must know that the safe won't remain here unopened much longer. They will therefore probably make another attempt to-night."
"It seems likely," I replied; and was silent. Outside the open windows whispered the shrubbery, as a soft breeze stole through the bushes. Beyond, the moon made play in the dim avenue. From the old chapel hard by the sweet-toned bell proclaimed midnight. Our vigil was begun. In this room it was that Professor Deeping had met death at the hands of the murderous Easterns; here it was that Marden and West had mysteriously been struck down the night before.
To-night was every whit as hot, and Bristol and I had the windows widely opened. My companion was seated where the detective, Marden, had sat, in a chair near the westerly window, and I lay back in the armchair that had been occupied by West.
I may repeat here that the house of the late Professor Deeping was more properly a cottage, surrounded by a fairly large piece of ground, for the most part run wild. The room used as a study was on the ground floor, and had windows on the west and on the south. Those on the west (French windows) opened on a loggia; those on the south opened right into the dense tangle of a neglected shrubbery. The place possessed an oppressive atmosphere of loneliness, for which in some measure its history may have been responsible.
The silence, seemingly intensified by each whisper that sped through the elms and crept about the shrubbery, grew to such a stillness that I told myself I had experienced nothing like it since crossing with a caravan I had slept in the desert. Yet noisy, whirling London was within gunshot of us; and this, though hard enough to believe, was a reflection oddly comforting. Only one train of thought was possible, and this I pursued at random.
By what means were Marden and West struck down? In thus exposing ourselves, in order that we might trap the author or authors of the outrage, did we act wisely?
"Bristol," I said suddenly, "it was someone who came through the open window."
"No one," he replied, "came through the windows. West saw absolutely nothing. But if any one comes that way to-night, we have him!"
"West may have seen nothing; but how else could any one enter?"
Bristol offered no reply; and I plunged again into a maze of speculation.
Powerful mantraps were set in such a way that any one or anything, ignorant of their positions, coming up to the windows must unavoidably be snared. These had been placed in position with much secrecy after dusk, and the man on duty at the gate stood with his back to the wall. No one could approach him except from the front. My thoughts took a new turn.
Was the girl with the violet eyes an ally of the Hashishin? Thus far, although she so palpably had tricked me, I had found myself unable to speak of her to Bristol; for the idea had entered my mind that she might have learned of the plan to murder Deeping without directly being implicated. Now came yet another explanation. The publicity given to that sensational case might have interested some third party in the fate of the stolen slipper! Could it be that others, in no way connected with the dreadful Hassan of Aleppo, were in quest of the slipper?
Scotland Yard had taken care to ensure that the general public be kept in ignorance of the existence of such an organization as the Hashishin, but I must assume that this hypothetical third party were well aware that they had Hassan, as well as the authorities, to count with. Granting the existence of such a party, my beautiful acquaintance might be classified as one of its members. I spoke again.
"Bristol," I said, "has it occurred to you that there may be others, as well as Hassan of Aleppo, seeking to gain possession of the sacred slipper?"
"It has not," he replied. "In the strictest sense of the expression, they would be out for trouble! What gave you the idea?"
"I hardly know," I returned evasively, for even now I was loath to betray the mysterious girl with the wonderful eyes.
The chapel bell sounding the half-hour, Bristol rose with a sigh that might have been one of relief, and went out to take the report of the man on duty at the gate. As his footsteps died away along the elm avenue, it came to me how, in the darkness about, menace lurked; and I felt myself succumbing to the greatest dread experienced by man—the dread of the unknown.
All that I knew of the weird group of fanatics—survivals of a dim and evil past—who must now be watching this cottage as bloodlustful devotees watch a shrine violated, burst upon my mind. I peopled the still blackness with lurking assassins, armed with the murderous knowledge of by-gone centuries, armed with invisible weapons which struck down from afar, supernaturally.
I glanced toward the corner of the room where the safe stood, reliquary of a worthless thing for which much blood had been spilled.
Then sounded footsteps along the avenue, and my fear whispered that they were not those of Bristol but of one who had murdered him, and who came guilefully, to murder me!
I snatched the revolver from my pocket and crossed the darkened room. Just to the right of one of the French windows I stood looking out across the loggia to the end of the avenue. The night was a bright one, and the room was flooded with a reflected mystic light, but outside the moon paved the avenue with pearl, and through the trees I saw a figure approaching.
Was it Bristol? It had his build, it had his gait; but my fears remained. Then the figure crossed the patch of shrubbery and stepped on to the loggia.
I laughed dryly at my own cowardice, but my heart was still beating abnormally.
"Here I am, Bristol, in a ghastly funk!"
"I don't wonder! They may be on us any time now. All's well at the gate, but Morris says he heard, or thought he heard something at the side of the chapel opposite, a while ago."
"Wind in the bushes?"
"It may have been; but he says there was no breeze at the time."
We resumed our seats.
"Bristol," I said, "now that the danger grows imminent, doesn't it seem to you foolhardy for us thus to expose ourselves?"
"Perhaps it is," he agreed; "but how otherwise are we likely to learn what happened to Marden and West?"
"The enemy may adopt different measures to-night."
"I think not. Our dispositions are the same, and I credit them with cunning enough to know it. At the same time I credit ourselves with having kept the existence of the steel traps completely secret. They will assume (so I've reasoned) that we intend to rely entirely upon our superior vigilance, therefore they will try the same game as last night."
The moon rays, creeping around from the right of the avenue, crossing the shrubbery and encroaching upon the low wall of the loggia, now flooded its floor. Against the silvern light, Bristol appeared to me in black silhouette. The breeze, too, seemed now to blow from a slightly different direction. It came through the windows on my right, beyond which lay the unkempt bushes which extended on that side to the wall of the grounds.
So we sat, until the moonlight poured fully in upon Bristol's back. So we sat when the clock chimed the hour of one.
Bristol arose and once more went out to the gate. He had arranged to visit Morris's post every half-hour. Again I experienced the nervous dread that he would be attacked in the avenue; but again he returned unscathed.
"All's well," he said.
But from his tones I knew that he had not forgotten that it was at this hour Marden and West had suffered mysterious attack.
Neither of us, I think, was disposed to talk. We both were unwilling to break the silence, wherein, with all our ears, we listened for the slightest disturbance.
And now my attention turned anew to the course of the slowly creeping moon rays. In my mind an idea was struggling for definition. There was something significant in the lunar lighting of the room. Why, I asked myself, had the attack been made at one o'clock? Did the time signify anything? If so, what? I looked toward Bristol.
His figure, the chair upon which he sat, were sharply outlined by the cold light. The wall behind me, and to my left, was illuminated brilliantly; but no light fell directly upon me.
The idea was taking shape. From the loggia and the avenue Bristol, I reasoned, must be clearly visible. From the shrubbery on the south, through the other windows could I be seen? Yes, silhouetted against the moonlight!
A faint sound, quite indescribable, came to my ears from somewhere outside-beyond.
"My God!" whispered Bristol. "Did you hear it?"
"It must have been Morris!—"
Bristol was half standing, one hand upon the arm of the chair, the other concealed, but grasping his revolver as I well knew. I, too, had my revolver in my hand, and as I twisted in my seat, preparatory to rising, in sheer nervousness I dropped the weapon upon the carpet.
With an exclamation of dismay, I stooped quickly to recover it.
As I did so something whistled past my ear, so closely as almost to touch it—and struck with a dull thud upon the wall beyond!
"Bristol!" I whispered.
But as I raised my eyes to him he seemed to crumple up, and fell loosely forward into the patch of moonlight spread upon the floor! "God in heaven!" I said aloud.
In a cold sweat of fear I crouched there, for it had become evident to me that, as I bent, I was entirely in shadow.
There was a rustling in the bushes on the left; but before I could turn in that direction, my attention was claimed elsewhere. Over into the loggia leapt an almost naked brown figure!
It was that of a small but strongly built man, who carried a short, exceedingly thick bamboo rod in his hand. My fear was too great to admit of my accurately observing anything at that time, but I noticed that some kind of leather thong or loop was attached to the end of the squat cane.
The panic fear of the supernatural was strongly upon me, and I was unable to realize that this Eastern apparition was a creature of flesh and blood. With my nerves strung up to snapping point, I crouched watching him. He entered the room, bending over the body of Bristol.
A hot breath fanned my cheek!
At that my overwrought nerves betrayed me. I uttered a stifled cry, looking upward ... and into a pair of gleaming eyes which looked down into mine!
A second brown man (who must have entered by one of the windows overlooking the shrubbery) was bending over me!
Scarce knowing what I did, I raised my revolver and blazed straight into the dimly-seen face. Down upon me silently dropped a naked body, and something warm came flowing over my hand. But, knowing my foes to be of flesh and blood, feeling myself at handgrips now with a palpable enemy, I threw off the body, leapt up and fired, though blindly, at the flying shape that flashed across the loggia—and was lost in the shadow pools under the elms.
Upon the din of my shooting fell silence like a cloak. A moment I listened, tense, still; then I turned to the table and lighted the lamp.
In its light I saw Bristol lying like a dead man. Close beside him was a big and heavy lump of clay. It had been shaped as a ball, but now it was flattened out curiously. Bending over my unfortunate companion and learning that, though unconscious, he lived, I learnt, too, how the Hashishin contrived to strike men insensible without approaching them; I learnt that the one whom I had shot, who lay in his blood almost on the spot where Professor Deeping once had lain, was an expert slinger.
The contrivance which he carried, as did the other who had escaped, was a sling, of the ancient Persian type. In place of stones, heavy lumps of clay were used, which operated much the same as a sand-bag, whilst enabling the operator to work from a considerable distance.
Hidden, over by the ancient chapel it might be, one of this evil twain had struck down Morris, the constable; from the shelter of the trees, from many yards away, they had shot their singular missiles through the open windows at Bristol and myself. Bristol had succumbed, and now, with a redness showing through his close-cut hair immediately behind the right ear, lay wholly unconscious at my feet.
It had been a divine accident which had caused me to drop my revolver, and, stooping to recover it, unknowingly to frustrate the design of the second slinger upon myself. The light of the lamp fell upon the face of the dead Hashishin. He lay forward upon his hands, crouching almost, but with his face, his dreadful, featureless face, twisted up at me from under his left shoulder.
God knows he deserved his end; but that mutilated face is often grinning, bloodily, in my dreams.
And then as I stood, between that horrid exultation which is born of killing and the panic which threatened me out of the darkness, I saw something advancing ... slowly ... slowly ... from the elmen shades toward the loggia.
It was a shape—it was a shadow. Silent it came—on—and on. Where the dusk lay deepest it paused, undefined; for I could give it no name of man or spirit. But a horror seemed to proceed from it as light from a lamp.
I groped about the table near to me, never taking my eyes from that sinister form outside. As my fingers closed upon the telephone, distant voices and the sound of running footsteps (of those who had heard the shots) came welcome to my ears.
The form stirred, seeming to raise phantom arms in execration, and a stray moonbeam pierced the darkness shrouding it. For a fleeting instant something flashed venomously.
The sounds grew nearer. I could tell that the newcomers had found Morris lying at the gate. Yet still I stood, frozen with uncanny fear, and watching—watching the spot to which that stray beam had pierced; the spot where I had seen the moon gleam upon the ring of the Prophet!
AT THE BRITISH ANTIQUARIAN MUSEUM
A little group of interested spectators stood at the head of the square glass case in the centre of the lofty apartment in the British Antiquarian Museum known as the Burton Room (by reason of the fact that a fine painting of Sir Richard Burton faces you as you enter). A few other people looked on curiously from the lower end of the case. It contained but one exhibit—a dirty and dilapidated markoob—or slipper of morocco leather that had once been red.
"Our latest acquisition, gentlemen," said Mr. Mostyn, the curator, speaking in a low tone to the distinguished Oriental scholars around him. "It has been left to the Institution by the late Professor Deeping. He describes it in a document furnished by his solicitor as one of the slippers worn by the Prophet Mohammed, but gives us no further particulars. I myself cannot quite place the relic."
"Nor I," interrupted one of the group. "It is not mentioned by any of the Arabian historians to my knowledge—that is, if it comes from Mecca, as I understand it does."
"I cannot possibly assert that it comes from Mecca, Dr. Nicholson," Mostyn replied. "The Professor may have taken it from Al-Madinah—perhaps from the mysterious inner passage of the baldaquin where the treasures of the place lie. But I can assure you that what little we do know of its history is sufficiently unsavoury."
I fancied that the curator's tired cultured voice faltered as he spoke; and now, without apparent reason, he moved a step to the right and glanced oddly along the room. I followed the direction of his glance, and saw a tall man in conventional morning dress, irreproachable in every detail, whose head was instantly bent upon his catalogue. But before his eyes fell I knew that their long almond shape, as well as the peculiar burnt pallor of his countenance, were undoubtedly those of an Oriental.
"There have been mysterious outrages committed, I believe, upon many of those who have come in contact with the slipper?" asked one of the savants.
"Exactly. Professor Deeping was undoubtedly among the victims. His instructions were explicit that the relic should be brought here by a Moslem, but for a long time we failed to discover any Moslem who would undertake the task; and, as you are aware, while the slipper remained at the Professor's house attempts were made to steal it."
He ceased uneasily, and glanced at the tall Eastern figure. It had edged a little nearer; the head was still bowed and the fine yellow waxen fingers of the hand from which he had removed his glove fumbled with the catalogue's leaves. It may well have been that in those days I read menace in every eye, yet I felt assured that the yellow visitor was eavesdropping—was malignantly attentive to the conversation.
The curator spoke lower than ever now; no one beyond the circle could possibly hear him as he proceeded—
"We discovered an Alexandrian Greek who, for personal reasons, not unconnected with matrimony, had turned Moslem! He carried the slipper here, strongly escorted, and placed it where you now see it. No other hand has touched it." (The speaker's voice was raised ever so slightly.) "You will note that there is a rail around the case, to prevent visitors from touching even the glass."
"Ah," said Dr. Nicholson quizzically, "And has anything untoward happened to our Graeco-Moslem friend?"
"Perhaps Inspector Bristol can tell," replied the curator.
The straight, military figure of the well-known Scotland Yard man was conspicuous among the group of distinguished—and mostly round-shouldered—scholars.
"Sorry, gentlemen," he said, smiling, "but Mr. Acepulos has vanished from his tobacco shop in Soho. I am not apprehensive that he had been kidnapped or anything of that kind. I think rather that the date of his disappearance tallies with that on which he cashed his cheque for service rendered! His present wife is getting most unbeautifully fat, too."
"What precautions," someone asked, "are being taken to guard the slipper?"
"Well," Mostyn answered, "though we have only the bare word of the late Professor Deeping that the slipper was actually worn by Mohammed, it has certainly an enormous value according to Moslem ideas. There can be no doubt that a group of fanatics known as Hashishin are in London engaged in an extraordinary endeavour to recover it."
Mostyn's voice sank to an impressive whisper. My gaze sought again the tall Eastern visitor and was held fascinated by the baffled straining in those velvet eyes. But the lids fell as I looked; and the effect was that of a fire suddenly extinguished. I determined to draw Bristol's attention to the man.
"Accordingly," Mostyn continued, "we have placed it in this room, from which I fancy it would puzzle the most accomplished thief to remove it."
The party, myself included, stared about the place, as he went on to explain—
"We have four large windows here; as you see. The Burton Room occupies the end of a wing; there is only one door; it communicates with the next room, which in turn opens into the main building by another door on the landing. We are on the first floor; these two east windows afford a view of the lawn before the main entrance; those two west ones face Orpington Square; all are heavily barred as you see. During the day there is a man always on duty in these two rooms. At night that communicating door is locked. Short of erecting a ladder in full view either of the Square or of Great Orchard Street, filing through four iron bars and breaking the window and the case, I fail to see how anybody can get at the slipper here."
"If a duplicate key to the safe—" another voice struck in; I knew it afterward for that of Professor Rhys-Jenkyns.
"Impossible to procure one, Professor," cried Mostyn, his eyes sparkling with an almost boyish interest. "Mr. Cavanagh here holds the keys of the case, under the will of the late Professor Deeping. They are of foreign workmanship and more than a little complicated."
The eyes of the savants were turned now in my direction.
"I suppose you have them in a place of safety?" said Dr. Nicholson.
"They are at my bankers," I replied.
"Then I venture to predict," said the celebrated Orientalist, "that the slipper of the Prophet will rest here undisturbed."
He linked his arm into that of a brother scholar and the little group straggled away, Mostyn accompanying them to the main entrance.
But I saw Inspector Bristol scratching his chin; he looked very much as if he doubted the accuracy of the doctor's prediction. He had already had some experience of the implacable devotion of the Moslem group to this treasure of the Faithful.
"The real danger begins," I suggested to him, "when the general public is admitted—after to-day, is it not?"
"Yes. All to-day's people are specially invited, or are using special invitation cards," he replied. "The people who received them often give their tickets away to those who will be likely really to appreciate the opportunity."
I looked around for the tall Oriental. He seemed to have vanished, and for some reason I hesitated to speak of him to Bristol; for my gaze fell upon an excessively thin, keen-faced man whose curiously wide-open eyes met mine smilingly, whose gray suit spoke Stein-Bloch, whose felt was a Boss raw-edge unmistakably of a kind that only Philadelphia can produce. At the height of the season such visitors are not rare, but this one had an odd personality, and moreover his keen gaze was raking the place from ceiling to floor.