Chapter XVII. The Woman with the Basket
 

Deep in thought respecting the inexplicable nature of this latest mystery, I turned in the direction of the bridge, and leaving behind me an ever-swelling throng at the gate of Wyatt's Buildings, proceeded westward.

The death of the dwarf had lifted the case into the realms of the marvellous, and I noted nothing of the bustle about me, for mentally I was still surveying that hunched-up body which had fallen out of empty space.

Then in upon my preoccupation burst a woman's scream!

I aroused myself from reverie, looking about to right and left. Evidently I had been walking slowly, for I was less than a hundred yards from Wyatt's Buildings, and hard by the entrance to an uninviting alley from which I thought the scream had proceeded.

And as I hesitated, for I had no desire to become involved in a drunken brawl, again came the shrill scream: "Help! help!"

I cannot say if I was the only passer-by who heard the cry; certainly I was the only one who responded to it. I ran down the narrow street, which was practically deserted, and heard windows thrown up as I passed for the cries for help continued.

Just beyond a patch of light cast by a street lamp a scene was being enacted strange enough at any time and in any place, but doubly singular at that hour of the night, or early morning, in a lane off the Waterloo Road.

An old woman, from whose hand a basket of provisions had fallen, was struggling in the grasp of a tall Oriental! He was evidently trying to stifle her screams and at the same time to pinion her arms behind her!

I perceived that there was more in this scene than met the eye. Oriental footpads are rarities in the purlieus of Waterloo Road. So much was evident; and since I carried a short, sharp argument in my pocket, I hastened to advance it.

At the sight of the gleaming revolver barrel the man, who was dressed in dark clothes and wore a turban, turned and ran swiftly off. I had scarce a glimpse of his pallid brown face ere he was gone, nor did the thought of pursuit enter my mind. I turned to the old woman, who was dressed in shabby black and who was rearranging her thick veil in an oddly composed manner, considering the nature of the adventure that had befallen her.

She picked up her basket, and turned away. Needless to say I was rather shocked at her callous ingratitude, for she offered no word of thanks, did not even glance in my direction, but made off hurriedly toward Waterloo Road.

I had been on the point of inquiring if she had sustained any injury, but I checked the words and stood looking after her in blank wonderment. Then my ideas were diverted into a new channel. I perceived, as she passed under an adjacent lamp, that her basket contained provisions such as a woman of her appearance would scarcely be expected to purchase. I noted a bottle of wine, a chicken, and a large melon.

The nationality of the assailant from the first had marked the affair for no ordinary one, and now a hazy notion of what lay behind all this began to come to me.

Keeping well in the shadows on the opposite side of the way, I followed the woman with the basket. The lane was quite deserted; for, the disturbance over, those few residents who had raised their windows had promptly lowered them again. She came out into Waterloo Road, crossed over, and stood waiting by a stopping-place for electric cars. I saw her arranging a cloth over her basket in such a way as effectually to conceal the contents. A strong mental excitement possessed me. The detective fever claims us all at one time or another, I think, and I had good reason for pursuing any inquiry that promised to lead to the elucidation of the slipper mystery. A theory, covering all the facts of the assault incident, now presented itself, and I stood back in the shadow, watchful; in a degree, exultant.

A Greenwich-bound car was hailed by the woman with the basket. I could not be mistaken, I felt sure, in my belief that she cast furtive glances about her as she mounted the steps. But, having seen her actually aboard, my attention became elsewhere engaged.

All now depended upon securing a cab before the tram car had passed from view!

I counted it an act of Providence that a disengaged taxi appeared at that moment, evidently bound for Waterloo Station. I ran out into the road with cane upraised.

As the man drew up -

"Quick!" I cried. "You see that Greenwich car-nearly at the Ophthalmic Hospital? Follow it. Don't get too near. I will give you further instructions through the tube." I leapt in. We were off!

The rocking car ahead was rounding the bend now toward St. George's Circus. As it passed the clock and entered South London Road it stopped. I raised the tube.

"Pass it slowly!"

We skirted the clock tower, and bore around to the right. Then I drew well back in the corner of the cab.

The woman with the basket was descending! "Pull up a few yards beyond!" I directed. As the car re-started, and passed us, the taxi became stationary. I peered out of the little window at the back.

The woman was returning in the direction of Waterloo Road!

"Drive slowly back along Waterloo Road," was my next order. "Pretend you are looking for a fare; I will keep out of sight."

The man nodded. It was unlikely that any one would notice the fact that the cab was engaged.

I was borne back again upon my course. The woman kept to the right, and, once we were entered into the straight road which leads to the bridge, I again raised the speakingtube.

"Pull up," I said. "On the right-hand side is an old woman carrying a basket, fifty yards ahead. Do you see her? Keep well behind, but don't lose sight of her."

The man drew up again and sat watching the figure with the basket until it was almost lost from sight. Then slowly we resumed our way. I would have continued the pursuit afoot now, but I feared that my quarry might again enter a vehicle. She did not do so, however, but coming abreast of the turning in which the mysterious assault had taken place, she crossed the road and disappeared from view.

I leapt out of the cab, thrust half a crown into the man's hand, and ran on to the corner. The night was now far advanced, and I knew that the chances of detection were thereby increased. But the woman seemed to have abandoned her fears, and I saw her just ahead of me walking resolutely past the lamp beyond which a short time earlier she had met with a dangerous adventure.

Since the opposite side of the street was comparatively in darkness, I slipped across, and in a state of high nervous tension pursued this strange work of espionage. I was convinced that I had forestalled Bristol and that I was hot upon the track of those who could explain the mystery of the dead dwarf.

The woman entered the gate of the block of dwellings even more forbidding in appearance than those which that night had staged a dreadful drama.

As the figure with the basket was lost from view I crept on, and in turn entered the evil-smelling hallway. I stepped cautiously, and standing beneath a gaslight protected by a wire frame, I congratulated myself upon having reached that point of vantage as silently as any Sioux stalker.

Footsteps were receding up the stone stairs. Craning my neck, I peered up the well of the staircase. I could not see the woman, but from the sound of her tread it was possible to count the landings which she passed. When she had reached the fourth, and I heard her step upon yet another flight, I knew that she must be bound for the topmost floor; and observing every precaution, almost holding my breath in a nervous endeavour to make not the slightest sound, rapidly I mounted the stairs.

I was come to the third landing in this secret fashion when quite distinctly I heard the grating of a key in a lock!

Since four doors opened upon each of the landings, at all costs, I thought, I must learn by which door she entered.

Throwing caution to the winds I raced up the remaining flights . . . and there at the top the woman confronted me, with blazing eyes! - with eyes that thrilled every nerve; for they were violet eyes, the only truly violet eyes I have ever seen! They were the eyes of the woman who like a charming, mocking will-o'-the-wisp had danced through this tragic scene from the time that poor Professor Deeping had brought the Prophet's slipper to London up to this present hour!

There at the head of those stone steps in that common dwelling-house I knew her - and in the violet eyes it was written that she knew, and feared, me!

"What do you want? Why are you following me?"

She made no endeavour to disguise her voice. Almost, I think, she spoke the words involuntarily.

I stood beside her. Quickly as she had turned from the door at my ascent, I had noted that it was that numbered forty-eight which she had been about to open.

"You waste words," I said grimly. "Who lives there?"

I nodded in the direction of the doorway. The violet eyes watched me with an expression in their depths which I find myself wholly unable to describe. Fear predominated, but there was anger, too, and with it a sort of entreaty which almost made me regret that I had taken this task upon myself. From beneath the shabby black hat escaped an errant lock of wavy hair wholly inconsistent with the assumed appearance of the woman. The flickering gaslight on the landing sought out in that wonderful hair shades which seemed to glow with the soft light seen in the heart of a rose. The thick veil was raised now and all attempts at deception abandoned. At bay she faced me, this secret woman whom I knew to hold the key to some of the darkest places which we sought to explore.

"I live there," she said slowly. "What do you want with me?"

"I want to know," I replied, "for whom are those provisions in your basket?"

She watched me fixedly.

"And I want to know," I continued, "something that only you can tell me. We have met before, madam, but you have always eluded me. This time you shall not do so. There's much I have to ask of you, but particularly I want to know who killed the Hashishin who lies dead at no great distance from here!"

"How can I tell you that? Of what are you speaking?"

Her voice was low and musical; that of a cultured woman. She evidently recognized the futility of further subterfuge in this respect.

"You know quite well of what I am speaking! You know that you can tell me if any one can! The fact that you go disguised alone condemns you! Why should I remind you of our previous meetings - of the links which bind you to the history of the Prophet's slipper?" She shuddered and closed her eyes. "Your present attitude is a sufficient admission!"

She stood silent before me, with something pitiful in her pose - a wonderfully pretty woman, whose disarranged hair and dilapidated hat could not mar her beauty; whose clumsy, ill-fitting garments could not conceal her lithe grace.

Our altercation had not thus far served to arouse any of the inhabitants and on that stuffy landing, beneath the flickering gaslight, we stood alone, a group of two which epitomized strange things.

Then, with that quietly dramatic note which marks real life entrances and differentiates them from the loudly acclaimed episodes of the stage, a third actor took up his cue.

"Both hands, Mr. Cavanagh!" directed an American voice.

Nerves atwitch, I started around in its direction.

>From behind the slightly opened door of No. 48 protruded a steel barrel, pointed accurately at my head!

I hesitated, glancing from the woman toward the open door.

"Do it quick!" continued the voice incisively. "You are up against a desperate man, Mr. Cavanagh. Raise your hands. Carneta, relieve Mr. Cavanagh of his gun!"

Instantly the girl, with deft fingers, had obtained possession of my revolver.

"Step inside," said the crisp, strident voice. Knowing myself helpless and quite convinced that I was indeed in the clutches of desperate people, I entered the doorway, the door being held open from within. She whom I had heard called Carneta followed. The door was reclosed; and I found myself in a perfectly bare and dim passageway. From behind me came the order -

"Go right ahead!"

Into a practically unfurnished room, lighted by one gas jet, I walked. Some coarse matting hung before the two windows and a fairly large grip stood on the floor against one wall. A gas-ring was in the hearth, together with a few cheap cooking utensils.

I turned and faced the door. First entered Carneta, carrying the basket; then came a man with a revolver in his left hand and his right arm strapped across his chest and swathed in bandages. One glance revealed the fact that his right hand had been severed - revealed the fact, though I knew it already, that my captor was Earl Dexter.

He looked even leaner than when I had last seen him. I had no doubt that his ghastly wound had occasioned a tremendous loss of blood. His gaunt face was positively emaciated, but the steely gray eyes had lost nothing of their brightness. There was a good deal about Mr. Earl Dexter, the cracksman, that any man must have admired.

"Shut the door, Carneta," he said quietly. His companion closed the door and Dexter sat down on the grip, regarding me with his oddly humorous smile.

"You're a visitor I did not expect, Mr. Cavanagh," he said. "I expected someone worse. You've interfered a bit with my plans but I don't know that I can't rearrange things satisfactorily. I don't think I'll stop for supper, though - " He glanced at the girl, who stood silent by the door.

"Just pack up the provisions," he directed, nodding toward the basket - "in the next room."

She departed without a word.

"That's a noticeable dust coat you're wearing, Mr. Cavanagh," said the American; "it gives me a great notion. I'm afraid I'll have to borrow it."

He glanced, smiling, at the revolver in his left hand and back again to me. There was nothing of the bully about him, nothing melodramatic; but I took off the coat without demur and threw it across to him.

"It will hide this stump," he said grimly; "and any of the Hashishin gentlemen who may be on the look-out - though I rather fancy the road is clear at the moment - will mistake me for you. See the idea? Carneta will be in a cab and I'll be in after her and away before they've got time to so much as whistle."

Very awkwardly he got into the coat.

"She's a clever girl, Carneta," he said. "She's doctored me all along since those devils cut my hand off."

As he finished speaking Carneta returned.

She had discarded her rags and wore a large travelling coat and a fashionable hat.

"Ready?" asked Dexter. "We'll make a rush for it. We meant to go to-night anyway. It's getting too hot here!" He turned to me.

"Sorry to say," he drawled, "I'll have to tie you up and gag you. Apologize; but it can't be helped."

Carneta nodded and went out of the room again, to return almost immediately with a line that looked as though it might have been employed for drying washing.

"Hands behind you," rapped Dexter, toying with the revolver - "and think yourself lucky you've got two!"

There was no mistaking the manner of man with whom I had to deal, and I obeyed; but my mind was busy with a hundred projects. Very neatly the girl bound my wrists, and in respose to a slight nod from Dexter threw the end of the line up over a beam in the sloping ceiling, for the room was right under the roof, and drew it up in such a way that, my wrists being raised behind me, I became utterly helpless. It was an ingenious device indicating considerable experience.

"Just tie his handkerchief around his mouth," directed Dexter: "that will keep him quiet long enough for our purpose. I hope you will be released soon, Mr. Cavanagh," he added. "Greatly regret the necessity."

Carneta bound the handkerchief over my mouth.

Dexter extinguished the gas.

"Mr. Cavanagh," he said, "I've gone through hell and I've lost the most useful four fingers and a thumb in the United States to get hold of the Prophet's slipper. Any one can have it that's open to pay for it - but I've got to retire on the deal, so I'll drive a hard bargain! Good-night!"

There was a sound of retreating footsteps, and I heard the entrance door close quietly.