Chapter XV. A Shrivelled Hand
 

Around a large square table in a room at New Scotland Yard stood a group of men, all of whom looked more or less continuously at something that lay upon the polished deal. One of the party, none other than the Commissioner himself, had just finished speaking, and in silence now we stood about the gruesome object which had furnished him with the text of his very terse address.

I knew myself privileged in being admitted to such a conference at the C.I.D. headquarters and owed my admission partly to Inspector Bristol, and partly to the fact that under the will of the late Professor Deeping I was concerned in the uncanny business we were met to discuss.

Novelty has a charm for every one; and to find oneself immersed in a maelstrom of Eastern devilry, with a group of scientific murderers in pursuit of a holy Moslem relic, and unexpectedly to be made a trustee of that dangerous curiosity, makes a certain appeal to the adventurous. But to read of such things and to participate in them are widely different matters. The slipper of the Prophet and the dreadful crimes connected with it, the mutilations, murders, the uncanny mysteries which made up its history, were filling my world with horror.

Now, in silence we stood around that table at New Scotland Yard and watched, as though we expected it to move, the ghastly "clue" which lay there. It was a shrivelled human hand, and about the thumb and forefinger there still dryly hung a fragment of lint which had bandaged a jagged wound. On one of the shrunken fingers was a ring set with a large opal.

Inspector Bristol broke the oppressive silence.

"You see, sir," he said, addressing the Commissioner, "this marks a new complication in the case. Up to this week although, unfortunately, we had made next to no progress, the thing was straightforward enough. A band of Eastern murderers, working along lines quite novel to Europe, were concea1ed somewhere in London. We knew that much. They murdered Professor Deeping, but failed to recover the slipper. They mutilated everyone who touched it mysteriously. The best men in the department, working night and day, failed to effect a single arrest. In spite of the mysterious activity of Hassan of Aleppo the slipper was safely lodged in the British Antiquarian Museum."

The Commissioner nodded thoughtfully.

"There is no doubt," continued Bristol, "that the Hashishin were watching the Museum. Mr. Cavanagh, here" - he nodded in my direction - " saw Hassan himself lurking in the neighbourhood. We took every precaution, observed the greatest secrecy; but in spite of it all a constable who touched the accursed thing lost his right hand. Then the slipper was taken."

He stopped, and all eyes again were turned to the table.

"The Yard," resumed Bristol slowly, "had information that Earl Dexter, the cleverest crook in America, was in England. He was seen in the Museum, and the night following the slipper was stolen. Then outside the place I found - that!"

He pointed to the severed hand. No one spoke for a moment. Then -

"The new problem," said the Commissioner, "is this: who took the slipper, Dexter or Hassan of Aleppo?"

"That's it, sir," agreed Bristol. "Dexter had two passages booked in the Oceanic: but he didn't sail with her, and - that's his hand!"

"You say he has not been traced?" asked the Commissioner.

"No doctor known to the Medical Association," replied Bristol, "is attending him! He's not in any of the hospitals. He has completely vanished. The conclusion is obvious!"

"The evident deduction," I said, "is that Dexter stole the slipper from the Museum - God knows with what purpose - and that Hassan of Aleppo recovered it from him."

"You think we shall next hear of Earl Dexter from the river police?" suggested Bristol.

"Personally," replied the Commissioner, "I agree with Mr. Cavanagh. I think Dexter is dead, and it is very probable that Hassan and Company are already homeward bound with the slipper of the Prophet."

With all my heart I hoped that he might be right, but an intuition was with me crying that he was wrong, that many bloody deeds would be, ere the sacred slipper should return to the East.