Chapter XIX. A Rapping at Midnight
 

Inspector Bristol finished his whisky at a gulp and stood up, a tall, massive figure, stretching himself and yawning.

"The detective of fiction would be hard at work on this case, now," he said, smiling, "but I don't even pretend to be. I am at a standstill and I don't care who knows it."

"You have absolutely no clue to the whereabouts of Earl Dexter?"

"Not the slightest, Mr. Cavanagh. You hear a lot about the machinery of the law, but as a matter of fact, looking for a clever man hidden in London is a good deal like looking for a needle in a haystack. Then, he may have been bluffing when he told you he had the Prophet's slipper. He's already had his hand cut off through interfering with the beastly thing, and I really can't believe he would take further chances by keeping it in his possession. Nevertheless, I should like to find him."

He leaned back against the mantelpiece, scratching his head perplexedly. In this perplexity he had my sympathy. No such pursuit, I venture to say, had ever before been required of Scotland Yard as this of the slipper of the Prophet. An organization founded in 1090, which has made a science of assassination, which through the centuries has perfected the malign arts, which, lingering on in a dark spot in Syria, has suddenly migrated and established itself in London, is a proposition almost unthinkable.

It was hard to believe that even the daring American cracksman should have ventured to touch that blood-stained relic of the Prophet, that he should have snatched it away from beneath the very eyes of the fanatics who fiercely guarded it. What he hoped to gain by his possession of the slipper was not evident, but the fact remained that if he could be believed, he had it, and provided Scotland Yard's information was accurate, he still lurked in hiding somewhere in London.

Meanwhile, no clue offered to his hiding-place, and despite the ceaseless vigilance of the men acting under Bristol's orders, no trace could be found of Hassan of Aleppo nor of his fiendish associates.

"My theory is," said Bristol, lighting a cigarette, "that even Dexter's cleverness has failed to save him. He's probably a dead man by now, which accounts for our failing to find him; and Hassan of Aleppo has recovered the slipper and returned to the East, taking his gruesome company with him - God knows how! But that accounts for our failing to find him."

I stood up rather wearily. Although poor Deeping had appointed me legal guardian of the relic, and although I could render but a poor account of my stewardship, let me confess that I was anxious to take that comforting theory to my bosom. I would have given much to have known beyond any possibility of doubt that the accursed slipper and its blood-lustful guardian were far away from England. Had I known so much, life would again have had something to offer me besides ceaseless fear, endless watchings. I could have slept again, perhaps; without awaking, clammy, peering into every shadow, listening, nerves atwitch to each slightest sound disturbing the night; without groping beneath the pillow for my revolver.

"Then you think," I said, "that the English phase of the slipper's history is closed? You think that Dexter, minus his right hand, has eluded British law - that Hassan and Company have evaded retribution?"

"I do!" said Bristol grimly, "and although that means the biggest failure in my professional career, I am glad - damned glad!"

Shortly afterward he took his departure; and I leaned from the window, watching him pass along the court below and out under the arch into Fleet Street. He was a man whose opinions I valued, and in all sincerity I prayed now that he might be right; that the surcease of horror which we had recently experienced after the ghastly tragedies which had clustered thick about the haunted slipper, might mean what he surmised it to mean.

The heat to-night was very oppressive. A sort of steaming mist seemed to rise from the court, and no cooling breeze entered my opened windows. The clamour of the traffic in Fleet Street came to me but remotely. Big Ben began to strike midnight. So far as I could see, residents on the other stairs were all abed and a velvet shadow carpet lay unbroken across three parts of the court. The sky was tropically perfect, cloudless, and jewelled lavishly. Indeed, we were in the midst of an Indian summer; it seemed that the uncanny visitants had brought, together with an atmosphere of black Eastern deviltry, something, too, of the Eastern climate.

The last stroke of the Cathedral bell died away. Other more distant bells still were sounding dimly, but save for the ceaseless hum of the traffic, no unusual sound now disturbed the archaic peace of the court.

I returned to my table, for during the time that had passed I had badly neglected my work and now must often labour far into the night. I was just reseated when there came a very soft rapping at the outer door!

No doubt my mood was in part responsible, but I found myself thinking of Poe's weird poem, "The Raven"; and like the character therein I found myself hesitating.

I stole quietly into the passage. It was in darkness. How odd it is that in moments of doubt instinctively one shuns the dark and seeks the light. I pressed the switch lighting the hall lamp, and stood looking at the closed door.

Why should this late visitor have rapped in so uncanny a fashion in preference to ringing the bell?

I stepped back to my table and slipped a revolver into my pocket.

The muffled rapping was repeated. As I stood in the study doorway I saw the flap of the letter-box slowly raised!

Instantly I extinguished both lights. You may brand me as childishly timid, but incidents were fresh in my memory which justified all my fears.

A faintly luminous slit in the door showed me that the flap was now fully raised. It was the dim light on the stairway shining through. Then quite silently the flap was lowered. Came the soft rapping again.

"Who's there?" I cried.

No one answered.

Wondering if I were unduly alarming myself, yet, I confess, strung up tensely in anticipation that this was some device of the phantom enemy, I stood in doubt.

The silence remained unbroken for thirty seconds or more. Then yet again it was disturbed by that ghostly, muffled rapping.

I advanced a step nearer to the door.

"Who's there?' I cried loudly. "What do you want?"

The flap of the letter box began to move, and I formed a sudden determination. Making no sound in my heelless Turkish slippers I crept close up to the door and dropped upon my knees.

Thereupon the flap became fully lifted, but from where I crouched beneath it I was unable to see who or what was looking in; yet I hesitated no longer. I suddenly raised myself and thrust the revolver barrel through the opening!

"Who are you?" I cried. "Answer or I fire!" - and along the barrel I peered out on to the landing.

Still no one answered. But something impalpable - a powder - a vapour - to this hour I do not know what - enveloped me with its nauseating fumes; was puffed fully into my face! My eyes, my mouth, my nostrils became choked up, it seemed, with a deadly stifling perfume.

Wildly, feeling that everything about me was slipping away, that I was sinking into a void, for ought I knew that of dissolution, I pulled the trigger once, twice, thrice ...

"My God!" - the words choked in my throat and I reeled back into the passage - "it's not loaded!"

I threw up my arms to save myself, lurched, and fell forward into what seemed a bottomless pit.