Chapter XIII. The White Beam
 

That night the deviltry began. Mr. Mostyn found himself wholly unable to sleep. Many relics have curious histories, and the experienced archaeologist becomes callous to that uncanniness which seems to attach to some gruesome curios. But the slipper of the Prophet was different. No mere ghostly menace threatened its holders; an avenging scimitar followed those who came in contact with it; gruesome tragedies, mutilations, murders, had marked its progress throughout.

The night was still - as still as a London night can be; for there is always a vague murmuring in the metropolis as though the sleeping city breathed gently and sometimes stirred in its sleep.

Then, distinct amid these usual nocturnal noises, rose another, unaccountable sound, a muffled crash followed by a musical tinkling.

Mostyn sprang up in bed, drew on a dressing-gown, and took from the small safe at his bed-head the Museum keys and a loaded revolver. A somewhat dishevelled figure, pale and wild-eyed, he made his way through the private door and into the ghostly precincts of the Museum. He did not hesitate, but ascended the stairs and unlocked the door of the Assyrian gallery.

Along its ghostly aisles he passed, and before the door which gave admittance to the Burton Room paused, fumbling a moment for the key.

Inside the room something was moving!

Mostyn was keenly alarmed; he knew that he must enter at once or never. He inserted the key in the lock, swung open the heavy door, stepped through and closed it behind him. He was a man of tremendous moral courage, for now, - alone in the apartment which harboured the uncanny relic, alone in the discharge of his duty, he stood with his back to the door trembling slightly, but with the idea of retreat finding no place in his mind.

One side of the room lay in blackest darkness; through the furthermost window of the other a faint yellowed luminance (the moonlight through the blind) spread upon the polished parquet flooring. But that which held the curator spell-bound - that which momentarily quickened into life the latent superstition, common to all mankind, was a beam of cold light which poured its effulgence fully upon the case containing the Prophet's slipper! Where the other exhibits lay either in utter darkness or semi-darkness this one it seemed was supernaturally picked out by this lunar searchlight!

It was ghostly-unnerving; but, the first dread of it passed, Mostyn recalled how during the day a hole inexplicably had been cut in that blind; he recalled that it had not been mended, but that the damaged blind had merely been rolled up again.

And as a dawning perception of the truth came to him, as falteringly he advanced a step toward the mystic beam, he saw that one side of the case had been shattered - he saw the broken glass upon the floor; and in the dense shadow behind and under the beam of light, vaguely he saw a dull red object.

It moved - it seemed to live! It moved away from the case and in the direction of the eastern windows.

"My God!" whispered Mostyn; "it's the Prophet's slipper!"

And wildly, blindly, he fired down the room. Later he knew that he had fired in panic, for nothing human was or could be in the place; yet his shot was not without effect. In the instant of its flash, something struck sharply against the dimly seen blind of one of the east windows; he heard the crash of broken glass.

He leapt to the switch and flooded the room with light. A fear of what it might hold possessed him, and he turned instantly.

Hard by the fragments of broken glass upon the floor and midway between the case and the first easterly window lay the slipper. A bell was ringing somewhere. His shot probably had aroused the attention of the policeman. Someone was clamouring upon the door of the Museum, too. Mostyn raced forward and raised the blind - that toward which the slipper had seemed to move.

The lower pane of the window was smashed. Blood was trickling down upon the floor from the jagged edges of the glass.

"Hullo there! Open the door! Open the door!"

Bells were going all over the place now; sounds of running footsteps came from below; but Mostyn stood staring at the broken window and at the solid iron bars which protected it without, which were intact, substantial - which showed him that nothing human could possibly have entered.

Yet the case was shattered, the holy slipper lay close beside him upon the floor, and from the broken window-pane blood was falling - drip-drip-drip . . .

That was the story as I heard it half an hour later. For Inspector Bristol, apprised of the happening, was promptly on the scene; and knowing how keen was my interest in the matter, he rang me up immediately. I arrived soon after Bristol and found a perplexed group surrounding the uncanny slipper of the Prophet. No one had dared to touch it; the dread vengeance of Hassan of Aleppo would visit any unbeliever who ventured to lay hand upon the holy, bloody thing. Well we knew it, and as though it had been a venomous scorpion we, a company of up-to-date, prosaic men of affairs, stood around that dilapidated markoob, and kept a respectful distance.

Mostyn, an odd figure in pyjamas and dressing-gown, turned his pale, intellectual face to me as I entered.

"It will have to be put back . . . secretly," he said.

His voice was very unsteady. Bristol nodded grimly and glanced at the two constables, who, with a plain-clothes man unknown to me, made up that midnight company.

"I'll do it, sir," said one of the constables suddenly.

"One moment" - Mostyn raised his hand!

In the ensuing silence I could hear the heavy breathing of those around me. We were all looking at the slipper, I think.

"Do you understand, fully," the curator continued, "the risk you run?"

"I think so, sir," answered the constable; "but I'm prepared to chance it.

"The hands," resumed Mostyn slowly, "of those who hitherto have ventured to touch it have been" - he hesitated - "cut off."

"Your career in the Force would be finished if it happened to you, my lad," said Bristol shortly.

"I suppose they'd look after me," said the man, with grim humour.

"They would if you met with - an accident, in the discharge of your duty," replied the inspector; "but I haven't ordered you to do it, and I'm not going to."

"All right, sir," said the man, with a sort of studied truculence, "I'll take my chance."

I tried to stop him; Mostyn, too, stepped forward, and Bristol swore frankly. But it was all of no avail.

A sort of chill seemed to claim my very soul when I saw the constable stoop, unconcernedly pick up the slipper, and replace it in the broken case.

It was out of a silence cathedral-like, awesome, that he spoke.

"All you want is a new pane of glass, sir," he said - "and the thing's done."

I anticipate in mentioning it here; but since Constable Hughes has no further place in these records I may perhaps be excused for dismissing him at this point.

He was picked up outside the section house on the following evening with his right hand severed just above the wrist.