Chapter X. 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 wellknown 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.

Where had I met him before? To the best of my recollection I had never set eyes upon the man prior to that moment; and since he was so palpably an American I had no reason for assuming him to be associated with the Hashishin. But I remembered - indeed, I could never forget - how, in the recent past, I had met with an apparent associate of the Moslems as evidently European as this curiously alert visitor was American. Moreover . . . there was something tauntingly familiar, yet elusive, about that gaunt face.

Was it not upon the eve of the death of Professor Deeping that the girl with the violet eyes had first intruded her fascinating personality into my tangled affairs? Patently, she had then been seeking the holy slipper, and by craft had endeavoured to bend me to her will. Then had I not encountered her again, meeting the glance of her unforgettable violet eyes outside a Strand, hotel? The encounter had presaged a, further attempt upon the slipper! Certainly she acted on behalf of someone interested in it; and since neither Bristol nor I could conceive of any one seeking to possess the bloodstained thing except the mysterious leader of the Hashishin - Hassan of Aleppo - as a creature of that awful fanatic being I had written her down.

Why, then, if the mysterious Eastern employed a European girl, should he not also employ an American man? It might well be that the relic, in entering the doors of the impregnable Antiquarian Museum, had passed where the diabolical arts of the Hashishin had no power to reach it - where the beauty of Western women and the craft of Eastern man were equally useless weapons. Perhaps Hassan's campaign was entering upon a new phase.

Was it a shirking of plain duty on my part that wish - that ever-present hope - that the murderous company of fanatics who had pursued the stolen slipper from its ancient resting-place to London, should succeed in recovering it? I leave you to judge.

The crescent of Islam fades to-day and grows pale, but there are yet fierce Believers, alust for the blood of the infidel. In such as these a faith dies the death of an adder, and is more venomous in its death-throes than in the full pulse of life. The ghastly indiscretion of Professor Deeping, in rifling a Moslem Sacristy, had led to the mutilation of many who, unwittingly, had touched the looted relic, had brought about his own end, had established a league of fantastic assassins in the heart of the metropolis.

Only once had I seen the venerable Hassan of Aleppo - a stately, gentle old man; but I knew that the velvet eyes could blaze into a passionate fury that seemed to scorch whom it fell upon. I knew that the saintly Hassan was Sheikh of the Hashishin. And familiarity with that dreadful organization had by no means bred contempt. I was the holder of the key, and my fear of the fanatics grew like a magic mango, darkened the sunlight of each day, and filled the night with indefinable dread.

You, who have not read poor Deeping's "Assyrian Mythology", cannot picture a creature with a huge, distorted head, and a tiny, dwarfed body - a thing inhuman, yet human - a man stunted and malformed by the cruel arts of brother men - a thing obnoxious to life, with but one passion, the passion to kill. You cannot conceive of the years of agony spent by that creature strapped to a wooden frame - in order to prevent his growth! You cannot conceive of his fierce hatred of all humanity, inflamed to madness by the Eastern drug, hashish, and directed against the enemies of Islam - the holders of the slipper - by the wonderful power of Hassan of Aleppo.

But I had not only read of such beings, I had encountered one!

And he was but one of the many instruments of the Hashishin. Perhaps the girl with the violet eyes was another. What else to be dreaded Hassan might hold in store for us I could not conjecture.

Do you wonder that I feared? Do you wonder that I hoped (I confess it), hoped that the slipper might be recovered without further bloodshed?