The Quest of the Sacred Slipper by Sax Rohmer
Chapter XVI. The Dwarf
The manner in which we next heard of the whereabouts of the Prophet's slipper was utterly unforeseen, wildly dramatic. That the Hashishin were aware that I, though its legal trustee, no longer had charge of the relic nor knowledge of its resting-place, was sufficiently evident from the immunity which I enjoyed at this time from that ceaseless haunting by members of the uncanny organization ruled by Hassan. I had begun to feel more secure in my chambers, and no longer worked with a loaded revolver upon the table beside me. But the slightest unusual noise in the night still sufficed to arouse me and set me listening intently, to chill me with dread of what it might portend. In short, my nerves were by no means recovered from the ceaseless strain of the events connected with and arising out of the death of my poor friend, Professor Deeping.
One evening as I sat at work in my chambers, with the throb of busy Fleet Street and its thousand familiar sounds floating in to me through the open windows, my phone bell rang.
Even as I turned to take up the receiver a foreboding possessed me that my trusteeship was no longer to be a sinecure. It was Bristol who had rung me up, and upon very strange business.
"A development at last!" he said; "but at present I don't know what to make of it. Can you come down now?"
"Where are you speaking from?"
"From the Waterloo Road - a delightful neighbourhood. I shall be glad if you can meet me at the entrance to Wyatt's Buildings in half an hour."
"What is it? Have you found Dexter?"
"No, unfortunately. But it's murder!"
I knew as I hung up the receiver that my brief period of peace was ended; that the lists of assassination were reopened. I hurried out through the court into Fleet Street, thinking of the key of the now empty case at the Museum which reposed at my bankers, thinking of the devils who pursued the slipper, thinking of the hundred and one things, strange and terrible, which went to make up the history of that gruesome relic.
Wyatt's Buildings, Waterloo Road, are a gloomy and forbidding block of dwellings which seem to frown sullenly upon the high road, from which they are divided by a dark and dirty courtyard. Passing an iron gateway, you enter, by way of an arch, into this sinister place of uncleanness. Male residents in their shirt sleeves lounge against the several entrances. Bedraggled women nurse dirty infants and sit in groups upon the stone steps, rendering them almost impassable. But to-night a thing had happened in Wyatt's Buildings which had awakened in the inhabitants, hardened to sordid crime, a sort of torpid interest.
Faces peered from most of the windows which commanded a view of the courtyard, looking like pallid blotches against the darkness; but a number of police confined the loungers within their several doorways, so that the yard itself was comparatively clear.
I had had some difficulty in forcing a way through the crowd which thronged the entrance, but finally I found myself standing beside Inspector Bristol and looking down upon that which had brought us both to Wyatt's Buildings.
There was no moon that night, and only the light of the lamp in the archway, with some faint glimmers from the stairways surrounding the court, reached the dirty paving. Bristol directed the light of a pocket-lamp upon the hunched-up figure which lay in the dust, and I saw it to be that of a dwarfish creature, yellow skinned and wearing only a dark loin cloth. He had a malformed and disproportionate head, a head that had been too large even for a big man. I knew after first glance that this was one of the horrible dwarfs employed by the Hashishin in their murderous business. It might even be the one who had killed Deeping; but this was impossible to determine by reason of the fact that the hideous, swollen head, together with the features, was completely crushed. I shall not describe the creature's appearance in further detail.
Having given me an opportunity of examine the dead dwarf, Bristol returned the electric lamp to his pocket and stood looking at me in the semi-gloom. A constable stood on duty quite near to us, and others guarded the archway and the doors to the dwellings. The murmur of subdued voices echoed hollowly in the wells of the staircases, and a constant excited murmur proceeded from the crowd at the entrance. No pressmen had yet been admitted, though numbers of them were at the gates.
"It happened less than an hour ago," said Bristol. "The place was much as you see it now, and from what I can gather there came the sound of a shot and several people saw the dwarf fall through the air and drop where he lies!"
The light was insufficient to show the expression upon the speaker's face, but his voice told of a great wonder.
"It is a bit like an Indian conjuring trick," I said, looking up to the sky above us; "who fired the shot?"
"So far," replied Bristol, "I have failed to find out; but there's a bullet in the thing's head. He was dead before he reached the pavement."
"Did no one see the flash of the pistol?"
"No one that I have got hold of yet. Of course this kind of evidence is very unreliable; these people regularly go out of their way to mislead the police."
"You think the body may have been carried here from somewhere else?"
"Oh, no; this is where it fell, right enough. You can see where his head struck the stones."
"He has not been moved at all?"
"No; I shall not move him until I've worked out where in heaven's name he can have fallen from! You and I have seen some mysterious things happen, Mr. Cavanagh, since the slipper of the Prophet came to England and brought these people" - he nodded toward the thing at our feet - "in its train; but this is the most inexplicable incident to date. I don't know what to make of it at all. Quite apart from the question of where the dwarf fell from, who shot at him and why?"
"Have you no theory?" I asked. "The incident to my mind points directly to one thing. We know that this uncanny creature belonged to the organization of Hassan of Aleppo. We know that Hassan implacably pursues one object - the slipper. In pursuit of the slipper, then, the dwarf came here. Bristol!" - I laid my hand upon his arm, glancing about me with a very real apprehension - "the slipper must be somewhere near!"
Bristol turned to the constable standing hard by.
"Remain here," he ordered. Then to me: "I should like you to come up on to the roof. From there we can survey the ground and perhaps arrive at some explanation of how the dwarf came to fall upon that spot."
Passing the constable on duty at one of the doorways and making our way through the group of loiterers there, we ascended amid conflicting odours to the topmost floor. A ladder was fixed against the wall communicating with a trap in the ceiling. Several individuals in their shirt sleeves and all smoking clay pipes had followed us up. Bristol turned upon them.
"Get downstairs," he said - "all the lot of you, and stop there!"
With muttered imprecations our audience dispersed, slowly returning by the way they had come. Bristol mounted the ladder and opened the trap. Through the square opening showed a velvet patch spangled with starry points. As he passed up on to the roof and I followed him, the comparative cleanness of the air was most refreshing after the varied fumes of the staircase.
Side by side we leaned upon the parapet looking down into the dirty courtyard which was the theatre of this weird mystery; looking down upon the stage, sordidly Western, where a mystic Eastern tragedy had been enacted.
I could see the constable standing beside the crushed thing upon the stones.
"Now," said Bristol, with a sort of awe in his voice, "where did he fall from?"
And at his words, looking down at the spot where the dwarf lay, and noting that he could not possibly have fallen there from any of the buildings surrounding the courtyard, an eerie sensation crept over me; for I was convinced that the happening was susceptible of no natural explanation.
I had heard - who has not heard? - of the Indian rope trick, where a fakir throws a rope into the air which remains magically suspended whilst a boy climbs upward and upward until he disappears into space. I had never credited accounts of the performance; but now I began seriously to wonder if the arts of Hassan of Aleppo were not as great or greater than the arts of fakir. But the crowning mystery to my mind was that of the Hashishin's death. It would seem that as he had hung suspended in space he had been shot!
"You say that someone heard the sound of the shot?" I asked suddenly.
"Several people," replied Bristol; "but no one knows, or no one will say, from what direction it came. I shall go on with the inquiry, of course, and cross-examine every soul in Wyatt's Buildings. Meanwhile, I'm open to confess that I am beaten."
In the velvet sky countless points blazed tropically. The hum of the traffic in Waterloo Road reached us only in a muffled way. Sordidness lay beneath us, but up there under the heavens we seemed removed from it as any Babylonian astronomer communing with the stars.
When, some ten minutes later, I passed out into the noise of Waterloo Road, I left behind me an unsolved mystery and took with me a great dread; for I knew that the quest of the sacred slipper was not ended, I knew that another tragedy was added to its history - and I feared to surmise what the future might hold for all of us.